Why puggie players don't stand a chance

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GARRY Baird stands in front of the fruit machine in a smoke-filled corner of the Glasgow pub, debating which button to press in his bid to win the £25 jackpot.

Nursing his third Budweiser, the 28-year-old salesman knows he will net the cash if he guesses correctly whether the machine’s spinning dial will give him a number lower or higher than the 11 he is currently on.

Hitting the ‘lower’ button, he stands transfixed, feeling the buzz of chance which keeps gamblers coming back for more. With only the numbers one to 12 available, he wins if anything other than 12 comes up.

Twelve. Lose. Bad luck. Except that what Baird doesn’t know is that there was no luck involved, good or bad.

The software inside this machine had determined long before he even entered the pub that a higher number would come up if he pressed ‘lower’ at that moment, denying him his win.

It would be little consolation to him to learn that if he had gone against the odds and pressed ‘higher’ the same software would have ensured a lower number came up.

While most fruit machine users believe they are playing a game of chance, with at least some results determined at random, a group called Fairplay Campaign claim they have finally found evidence that everything could be predetermined at the factory where ‘puggies’ are built.

The activists, a group of video and arcade game players, got together last year to highlight what they claim are examples of consumers being ripped off, and have already campaigned for cheaper video games. Now they have turned their attention to what they call "fruit machine fraud".

Fairplay Campaign obtained microchips from fruit machines and analysed them by running the software contained within them using a specialised computer programme.

This allowed them to observe patterns and - crucially - to run backwards through sequences and test outcomes if gamblers had made different choices.

They say the results prove the machines they tested followed set patterns.

Fairplay Campaign spokesman Stuart Campbell, originally from Bathgate but now living in Bath, in the West Country, said punters would be surprised by the limited regulations which govern fruit machines under the 1968 Gaming Act.

Although many machines display signs advertising a minimum payout, such as 70% of takings, these are covered by a voluntary code of conduct and are unenforceable.

Campbell said: "Manufacturers could use this to their advantage, so machines would pay nothing or very little for long periods of time while they ‘save’ to pay out a succession of large wins - usually to a professional player who knows the machines inside out - leaving the casual punter with little chance of recouping his stake, much less making a profit.

"I think nearly everyone believes that if you lose a higher-or-lower gamble, then gambling the other way would have brought you a win. But in fact that’s very frequently not the case."

The Gaming Board for Great Britain, the regulatory body for casinos, bingo clubs and gaming machines admitted that there was no obligation to offer random wins.

Secretary Tom Kavanagh, said: "There is no legal requirement that says the machines have to be random. I don’t know if what the machines do could be classed as fraud, but I can understand that it could be looked on as misleading."

And the line of people waiting to be misled is growing. Charity GamCare, which helps gambling addicts, said nearly 50% of the calls it took last year were from people addicted to fruit machines.

There are now an estimated 25,000 machines in Scotland, and the number is increasing. The standard jackpot on machines is 25, although it is possible to get a repeat win up to 75. The stakes in private clubs, bookmakers and casinos can be even higher, with a top prize of 2,000.

GamCare spokeswoman Teresa Turnstall said: "Gambling can be very addictive and many of the calls we take are from people playing fruit machines. They are very easily accessible and also very addictive."

The government is currently preparing a new Gaming Bill to replace the 1968 act, and Fairplay is lobbying for this to include a detailed set of laws and safeguards about fruit machines and the way they operate.

An official complaint to one MP last week led to the matter being passed to Patricia Hewitt, the secretary of state for trade and industry.

A spokesman for the department of culture, media and sport, which governs all legislation regarding fruit machines and other forms of gambling, said that fruit machines did not have to make random payouts.

He added: "As far as we are aware this is legal. We are aware that some machines pay out less money, but the new bill which is being brought in later this year should mean better regulation."

While the proposals in the bill do include some greater restrictions, such as banning children from playing machines with a greater than 10p stake, the overall theme is one of liberalisation.

In particular, the bill would remove the limit on prizes available on machines played in casinos, which themselves would become ‘walk in’ facilities with no 24-hour membership notice period. As yet, there are no proposals to enforce randomness in the ‘amusements with prizes’ market.

The Gaming Bill stands some way down the line of proposed government legislation, but in the meantime an addition to the existing laws will soon allow punters to use notes and smartcards on slot games, potentially increasing the machines’ takings even further.

BACTA, the organisation representing Britain’s gaming and amusement machine industry, says the legislation change will move fruit machine gaming into the 21st century.

Its president, Keith Smith, said: "Until now it has only been possible to use coins to play machines and to reinsert winnings.

"This reform will bring the machines industry into the 21st century and offers players freedom of choice and improved facilities. I am sure it will prove popular."

But back in his Glasgow pub, Baird is stunned by the Fairplay Campaign’s findings and vows never to play another fruit machine.

He said: "I can put up to 30 in the machine in one night. You get to know the workings of it, but I believed that there was always a gamble.

"I’m stunned to find out that it doesn’t matter what button I press because the machine has already decided if I will win or not. There is supposed to be an element of chance but if the manufacturers have taken that away they are robbing us blind.

"When you believe you have a chance at winning then it makes it fun. The lights and sounds draw you in and you put a few pounds in and try your luck. Now that I know there is no chance involved I won’t be playing ever again. There’s just no point."

Shop manager Stephen Malone, 30, from Glasgow, knows all too well about the problems caused by playing fruit machines.

He said: "I’ve spent thousands in the arcades playing them. It’s quite easy to get addicted. The idea of being able to walk in with 10 and walk out with 100 is very appealing and it does happen, but other times you can easily spend 150 and walk away with nothing. The machines all say that there is a minimum payout of around 70% but who regulates it?"

Tellingly, Malone admitted that he would not stop playing the machines, even though he now knew the chances of winning were pre-ordained

He said: "I’ll probably keep playing them even with the knowledge that they are cheating. As long as you can read the signs then you can still make money out of them."

• www.fairplaycampaign.co.uk