Responsible playing and distorting mirrors

  • 2020-08-04
  • Dainis Niedra, Optibet Managing Director

The concept of responsible gambling has presented a big challenge to the Latvian and international gaming industry, that will be felt for years to come.

To characterize responsible gambling, we can use the following comparison: A responsible player perceives the game as entertainment and never takes it too seriously. In other words, the responsible player, treats gambling as they would a cup of coffee, without paying too much attention to it.

This raises the question: How can this be achieved?

Could it be by limiting the maximum stakes in gambling to a sum that is roughly equal to the price of a cup of coffee? No. Gambling cannot be compared to a cup of coffee as the very definition of gambling implies risk-taking and purchasing a cup of coffee is inherently low risk.

Gambling, means that the player is given a chance to win big, but is risking something of their own in return and a game with a stake of a few euros does not trigger a feeling of risk for the vast majority of people.

It’s important to mention that for most players, gambling is not a main aspect of their lives. Regardless of whether they win or lose, it doesn’t change anything about it. To them, the important factor is the thrill they experience while playing. One can compare it to hunting, you don’t always get the trophy, but the ritual of tracking and waiting brings joy in itself.

So how can we maintain the thrill of the game but, at the same time, gamble responsibly?

When talking about the gambling industry, the first thought in everyone’s mind is “Las Vegas”. I had the pleasure to work there for several years, and witnessed just how the gaming industry changed in a very short period of time.

As an example, when I started working in the mid-2000s, the biggest players from Australia, Asia and Russia were sent a private jet if they deposited a million dollars into their gambling account. When I came back ten years later, these players didn’t get anything in most cases, because there are too many of them now. The million-dollar rollers have become the norm.

This shows that the gambling industry continues to grow and develop at a rapid pace. That the desire to gamble has not gone anywhere, in fact has only grown stronger while the stakes keep rising higher. This is why Las Vegas introduced its responsible gambling policy, which is radically different to the policy introduced in Latvia.

What’s the difference? I think, is in the general attitude toward gambling. In Latvia, perception has been formed over decades of association with criminal enterprise and the first gambling halls controlled by them, where underage kids were allowed to enter, slot machines only returned a fraction of what was put in them and the smell of alcohol and cigarettes lingered.

For the sake of comparison, these days, online gambling machines return around 97% of the money paid in, while the casino generally keeps 3%.

The USA has been learning how to live with gambling for hundreds of years from wild west poker halls to modern casinos and perceives it as entertainment and part of its culture. And that is exactly what the vast majority of players do – keep themselves entertained.

This is exactly the type of attitude we ought to learn from to make our path to responsible gambling much smoother.

In the United States, the state hardly has to interfere, the system regulates itself. The general public has a more relaxed and healthier attitude towards gambling, no one is afraid to disclose that they play. Nobody perceives them as ill or addicted. If anything, the positive attitude serves as a reminder that the gambling industry is directly connected to society and economy. We share the same interests as other Businesses. Economic prosperity and growth, as well as societal growth and the people’s income.

What have we achieved on behalf of online gambling in Latvia?

Well, it has to be stated that the law was drafted in the early 1990’s which proves to be part of the problem. It bans any advertising on gambling games.

Obviously, the idea was such, that if gambling is not advertised, less people will play. However, the ban proves to be a significant obstacle in efforts to inform and educate society. Countries in which advertisement of games is not banned are far ahead of others in Responsible Gaming Policy.

To solve this problem, the Latvian Interactive Gambling Association alongside the Lotteries and Gambling Supervisory Inspection created a comprehensive register of abstinence on January 1 st 2020. This mechanism, allows players to register themselves voluntarily, should they themselves feel at risk. Once registered, online and traditional casinos will no longer allow them to play thus limiting the number of addicts playing.

Today, almost 8500 people have registered. Is that a lot? According to the data collected during research done by the Ministry of Health, the number of people who may potentially (I emphasize MAY BE, not IS) have gambling issues is estimated to be around 12000 people in Latvia.

Therefore, in practice, during the first 3 months of the year (because in the period between April and the middle of June many gambling platforms were not allowed to work due to government restrictions), the number of people voluntarily abstaining has managed to cover more than a half of the estimated count, which is a positive achievement.

On the same token, the opportunity to place limits on games has been made available, players are able to set limits to their bets, and have the possibility to freeze their gambling activity entirely should limits be reached. It must be added that employees of online casinos also monitor changes in players'; behaviours to ensure excessive playing is flagged and addressed with the player themselves.

The gambling industry has yet much to achieve as far as implementing responsible gaming is concerned. But the first thing which that needs to be fought against is the negative image of the industry in the eyes of society.

It’s come a long way from the 1990’s casinos, with vastly different motivations and business models. It used to be about addicting and extracting as much as possible from the general public. It’s developed into a company, customer relationship with full-fledged entertainment companies that focus on good product and great relationships.

The average player, aged 30, has never experienced the plight of casinos past, but their parents have, which means all of their preconceived notions come from tell tales of generations past. Political preconception is based on the same narrative, but memory is no better than a distorting mirror, one can twist and turn but all we see is a grotesque reflection. We need to look to the future, not the past.