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Match.com: A brief look at gambling and spot-fixing

Match-fixing is nothing new. There’s always been big money to make on the outcome of sporting events. However, spot-fixing (i.e., the action or practice of dishonestly determining the outcome of a specific part of a match or game before it is played) is a more recent phenomenon. The situation escalated in December 2013 when six men (including Blackburn Rovers’ DJ Campbell) were arrested after an investigation into spot-fixing in football by the National Crime Agency. According to the British newspaper The Sun On Sunday, one of their undercover investigators reported that ex-Portsmouth footballer Sam Sodje could arrange for professional football league players to get themselves yellow cards in return for large amounts of money (i.e., tens of thousands of pounds). Consequently, the UK Government is believed to be considering whether match-fixing should be a criminal offence.

Over the past few years, allegations and convictions relating to spot-fixing have been made in many different sports including football, cricket, snooker and horse-racing. In all honesty, this doesn’t surprise me in the least – particularly because sport and gambling have always been inextricably linked. Matt Scott made a number of interesting observations on the issue in a December 2013 article for Inside World Football:

“Betting has a tradition of accompanying football in England in the same way custard goes with English puddings. It just adds a bit of flavour to the proceedings. It is a guilty pleasure, nothing more. No harm done…[However] now is the time to reappraise the complicated English relationship with the ‘harmless’ flutter. 
The ubiquity of the betting companies whose advertisements fill the half-time breaks of every match covered on television has been very lucrative for football. Figures from the website sportingintelligence.com suggest that in title sponsorships alone, Premier League clubs earn £13m a year from betting companies…Investigations by the ‘Sun on Sunday’ and the ‘Daily Telegraph’ have shown how professional footballers appear to be fixing events in matches…Whether they know it or not, players who fix matches or events within them are the foot soldiers of international match-fixing rings who, according to sports anticorruption experts, have links with serious organised crime. The fixers do not place the bulk of their bets with onshore UK bookmakers but in Asian markets where the liquidity is deeper and where the regulatory scrutiny is much lighter…As the National Crime Agency’s arrests have shown, it is high time for law makers and enforcers to act. For if not, it will be easier to deliver yellow cards to order on the football pitch than for miscreant bookmakers to be issued with cautions about their activities”.

Personally, I think the rise of match-fixing and spot-fixing has mirrored the rise in the use of betting exchanges like Betfair, and the rise of in-play betting. Back in 2005, I published an article on betting exchanges and argued that they had radically altered the shape of gambling particularly because – for the first time – gamblers could bet on individuals and/or teams losing (in contrast to traditional bookmakers that would only take bets on who was going to win). Betting shop operators got worried because their clientele could use betting exchanges to become bookmakers themselves. As a consequence, I argued that betting exchanges had potentially opened the door to fraud, corruption, and crime. As Matt Scott reported:

“In 2006 a whistleblower who had previously worked for the bookmaker Victor Chandler claimed to have data from accounts belonging to Premier League players and managers. The account holders had allegedly bet on matches in their own competitions, in breach of football’s regulations. But Victor Chandler International [VCI] obtained a high-court injunction preventing the release of information about the accounts…There is no way of knowing if the alleged breaches of regulations relating to the VCI accountholders amounted to anything more sinister. (And it is fair to say that Chandler would be unlikely to have exposed himself repeatedly to bets on matches involving account holders’ teams, given the substantial risk of manipulation)”.

More recently, in-play betting has become very popular among sports bettors and plays into the hands of the spot-fixers. As the CEO of OpenBet commented:

“The periodic ritual of predicting a daily or weekly series of events is no longer the mainstay. Today’s punter wants to be able to turn on their gadget of choice and instantly be offered an array of real-time betting opportunities with immediate results…Sports betting is growing in what is offered, how it is offered, when it is offered, where it is offered, and to whom it is offered…Like the financial markets, volatile events produce increased liquidity and increased liquidity produces greater revenue to the operator”.

We can now bet on dozens of ‘in-play’ markets while watching almost any sporting event. Should I wish to, during any football match I can bet on everything from who is going to score the first goal, what the score will be after 30 minutes of play, how many yellow cards will be given during them game, who will get a red card, and/or in what minute of the second half will the first free kick be awarded. Money talks – and there is big money to be made. Paying sports men and women relatively large amounts of money to lose a point (in tennis), get a yellow card (in football), go down in the ninth round (in boxing), or lose a frame (in snooker) can result in even more money for those paying the sports players in the first place.

But maybe technological advance will be the solution to the problem. Technology makes it easier to spot betting cheats and criminal activity. Betting exchange and in-play betting technology means that every bet made through their systems can be tracked and leave an audit trail. Unusual betting patterns can be identified and shared with the relevant sporting and criminal authorities. While prevention is better than detection, betting audit trails do at least give us the chance to crack down on the cheats – even if it’s after the fact. The more sports cheats that are caught, the bigger the deterrent. While we would never want to stop people having an enjoyable punt on their favourite team, we do need to make sure that gambling is as fraud-free as possible. In Matt Scott’s article, the English football Premier League’s general secretary, Nic Coward, summarized what is required of the UK government.

“It [is] true of any regulated sector that there need to be clear regulations in place so that the sector and stakeholders with an interest in the sector understand what they are…That they are monitored; that there is an effective compliance regime; and that there are real enforcement provisions behind it”.

Note: This blog is a much extended version of an article that first appeared in Nottingham Trent University’s Expert Opinion column

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Griffiths, M.D. (2006). All in the game. Inside Edge: The Gambling Magazine, July (Issue 28), p. 67.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gambling addiction among footballers: causes and consequences. World Sports Law Report, 8(3), 14-16.

Scott, M. (2013). Time to overhaul football’s betting relationship. Inside World Football. December 12. Located at: http://www.insideworldfootball.com/matt-scott/13779-matt-scott-time-to-overhaul-football-s-betting-relationship

The ‘In’ Crowd: Is there a relationship between ‘in-play’ betting and problem gambling?

For those of us who watch football on the television in the UK, it is almost impossible to watch a game without seeing the many gambling adverts alerting us to the fact we can now bet on over 60 ‘in-play’ markets while watching the game. Should I wish to, I can bet on everything from who is going to score the first goal, what the score will be after 30 minutes of play, how many yellow cards will be given during them game and/or in what minute of the second half the first free kick will be awarded.

‘In-play’ betting is arguably the fastest growing form of gambling in the UK and the UK’s leading ‘in-play’ bookmaker Bet 365 made over £500 million last year. One of the issues I have been asked by the press is to what extent ‘in-play’ betting can be problematic. One of the interviews I did recently was with the Mail on Sunday who published some of my comments yesterday in an article entitled Risky business: With the advent of online gambling, are we creating an epidemic of addiction? ’I was quoted as saying:

‘What the in-play markets have done is take what was traditionally a discontinuous form of gambling – where you make one bet every Saturday on the result of the game – to one where you can gamble again and again and again. You cannot become addicted to something unless you are constantly being rewarded. If the reward only happens once or twice a week, it’s impossible to become addicted. In-play has changed that”

This indeed was a good summary of the interview I did. In-play betting is something that many of us in the problem gambling field are keeping an eye on because it’s taken something that has traditionally been a non-problem form of gambling to something that is more akin to betting on horse racing. At a typical Gamblers Anonymous group, you will get horse racing addicts, slot machine addicts, casino addicts, but it was rare that you got anyone ever having problems with things like football betting, mainly because football betting opportunities were once a week on the pools or betting before the match on a Saturday afternoon.

As I noted in my published quote above, if the reward for gambling only happens once or twice a week, it is completely impossible to become addicted. In-play has changed that because we now have football matches on almost every day of the week making a daily 2-hour plus period of betting seven days a week. As a psychologist who has researched problem gambling for over 25 years, I would assess the structural characteristics of this type of activity and associate it with the type that causes problem gambling for those that are vulnerable and susceptible. So why do I think this?

When considering speed and frequency of gambling in relation to problem gambling, concepts such as event duration, event frequency and payout interval can often be misunderstood and applied in the wrong context. Often, these are mistaken for having the same meaning. Furthermore, concepts such bet frequency and event duration are often ignored despite their importance of their role in the speed and frequency of betting. All of these terms refer to slightly different aspects of gambling although they are all implicated factors that affect speed and frequency.

Event duration essentially refers to how fast the “event” is (i.e., the speed of a gambling activity such as a reel spin on a slot machine that typically lasts for a few seconds). Professor Alex Blaszczynski and his colleagues at the University of Sydney (Australia) noted that gamblers prefer faster speeds and find fast speeds while playing more enjoyable. Therefore, they argued that gamblers’ motivation to play could encourage more persistent gambling activity. Another study by Professor Ladouceur and Dr. Serge Sevigny at the University of Laval (Quebec, Canada) investigated the effects of slot machine game speed on concentration, motivation to play, loss of control, and number of games played on people randomly assigned to either a high-speed (5 seconds) or a low-speed (15 seconds) gambling condition. Their results showed that high-speed gamblers played more games and underestimated the number of games played more than low-speed gamblers. However, speed didn’t influence concentration, motivation, or loss of control over time or money. Despite many methodological limitations they concluded that speed had limited impact on occasional slot machine gamblers.

A paper by Dr Kevin Harrigan and Dr. Mike Dixon (University of Waterloo, Canada) estimated the speed of slot machine play on slot machines. On a machine with a reel spin of every six seconds, players can play 10 times per minute, (i.e., 600 spins per hour) whereas those on a machine with a reel spin of every three seconds, players can play 20 times a minute (i.e., 1200 spins per hour). I also found similar results in research I carried out on British slot machines in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

It is important to acknowledge that duration of the betting event is different from event frequency. However, they may be inextricably linked in so much as the length of a betting event will obviously limit the frequency with they can take place. For example, a betting event lasting two hours (e.g., wagering only on the final outcome of a football game) could not have an event frequency greater than one in any 2-hour period, but a roulette spin (lasting approximately 5-6 seconds) may have an event frequency of several hundred in the same two-hour period. Furthermore, as a result of the introduction of in-running or situational betting (i.e., ‘in-play betting’) this relationship is even less clear.

Event frequency refers to the number of events that are available for betting in any given time period. For example, a lottery draw may occur twice a week but an electronic keno lottery draw may occur 100 times per hour. In this example, a keno lottery draw has a higher event frequency. Bet frequency, on the other hand, refers to the number of bets or wagers placed in any given time period. Using the lottery again as an example, multiple tickets (e.g., 10 tickets) can usually be purchased as frequently as desired before any single lottery draw. So here bet frequency would be equal to 10 but event frequency would be equal to 1. Therefore, bet frequency can often be higher than event frequency and hence, it is possible to spend more than one can afford even with a low event frequency.

The relationship between bet frequency and event frequency needs further empirical investigation. As researchers and clinicians, we often make the assumption the two have a strong relationship; the higher number of betting events – the higher the frequency of betting. Until more research is forthcoming a definitive answer is currently not available. Although, players can place many bets on just one gambling event, the outcome of this event can influence future betting activity. By outcomes, we are essentially referring to winning or losing. Losing can often create financial and emotional motivation to continue betting (i.e. chasing). It could be speculated that the satisfaction from winning may reduce motivation for further betting in the short-term, or it may increase betting as a result of increased bankroll, illusions of control and/or cognitive biases. Therefore, a higher event frequency not only offers more opportunity and choice for betting, but also affects motivation for betting through revealing consequential wins and losses at the end of each event. However, it should also be noted that betting frequency is also impacted by other factors (e.g., peer pressure, time constraints to gamble, etc.).

So does the speed of a game influence the prevalence of problem and pathological gambling? Based on the relationship between event duration, event frequency, bet frequency, and payout interval, empirical research has consistently shown that games that offer a fast, arousing span of play, frequent wins, and the opportunity for rapid replay are those most frequently cited as being associated with problem gambling. The actual prevalence rate of problem and pathological gambling will of course depend on many other factors than speed of the game alone, but games with high and rapid event frequencies such as slot machines are most likely to impact on increased rates of problem and pathological gambling. In-play betting appears to be an activity that is starting to blur the lines between continuous and discontinuous forms of gambling.

Frequency of opportunities to gamble (i.e., event frequency) also appears to be a major contributory factor in the development of gambling problems. The general rule is that the higher the event frequency, the more likely it is that the activity will result in gambling problems. Addictive behaviours have been shown to be associated with the rewards and the speed of rewards and payout rates. Therefore, the more potential rewards there are, and the higher the amount of the rewards, the more problematic the activity is likely to be. Given the time, money and resources, a vast majority of gambling activities are “continuous” in that people have the potential to gamble again and again. Therefore, in relation to problem gambling, in-play betting is an activity that we really need to keep an eye on.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Additional input by Dr. Jonathan Parke (Salford University, UK)

Further reading

Blaszczynski, A, Sharpe, L., & Walker, M. (2001). The Assessment of the Impact of the Reconfiguration on Electronic Gaming Machines as Harm Minimization Strategies for Problem Gambling. Report for the Gaming Industry Operators Group, University of Sydney Gambling Research Group, Sydney

Griffiths, M.D. (1993). Fruit machine gambling: The importance of structural characteristics. Journal of Gambling Studies, 9, 101-120.

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). The role of cognitive bias and skill in fruit machine gambling. British Journal of Psychology, 85, 351-369.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999a). Gambling technologies: Prospects for problem gambling. Journal of Gambling Studies, 15, 265-283.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Impact of high stake, high prize gaming machines on problem gaming. Birmingham: Gambling Commission.

Harrigan, K. & Dixon, M. (2009). PAR Sheets, probabilities, and slot machine play: Implications for problem and non-problem gambling. Journal of Gambling Issues, 23, 81-110.

Ladouceur. R., & Sévigny, S. (2005a). The impact of video lottery game speed on gamblers. Journal of Gambling Issues, 17.

Loba, P., Stewart, S. H., Klein, R. M. & Blackburn, J. R. (2002). Manipulations of the features of standard Video Lottery Terminal (VLT) games: Effects in pathological and non-pathological gamblers. Journal of Gambling Studies, 17, 297-320.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics (revisited). International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 151-179.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). The role of structural characteristics in gambling.  In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies (pp.211-243). New York: Elsevier.