By Anthony Lejuene
The other day I asked an American friend of mine, who is a banker and an exceptionally solid citizen, what impression he had of the British character.
"You're a nation of gamblers," he replied gloomily.
This surprised me. I'd always thought of the British as a nation of cautious shopkeepers, where the merest suggestion of a gamble, the tiniest hint of a premium bond was sure to bring down an indignant horde of bishops and schoolmasters. When someone suggested not so long ago that it would be nice to have a casino on the Isle of Man, the idea wasn't simply rejected; it was laughed at.
But, of course, that's only one side of the picture. With all the statistics in hand, my friend pointed out that an extremely high percentage of our national resources is consumed in gambling. Football pools are our most popular sport. Street betting may be forbidden, but bookmakers can operate legally here - they can't in America - and no racecourse is complete without its tote. Whether we really gamble more than other nations may be doubtful, but there can be very little doubt that we are more than usually hypocritical about it. Let's take an example which has nothing to do with racehorses or greyhounds or football players.
Situated in the Charing Cross Road, with comfortable offices and a highly respectable staff, is the headquarters of a great organisation. It controls a thousand members, most of whom break the law every day, and its name is the Amusement Caterers Association. This is the trade organisation representing the showmen who operate "rides, games, and automatic machines" on piers or in amusement arcades and parks. Such amusements are not illegal in themselves, but if prizes are given, no matter how small, they are liable to be condemned as unlawful gambling. Every time you throw a ball at a coconut or try to win a couple of cigarettes at a pin-table you are aiding and abetting this sort of "crime." The awful majesty of the Gaming Acts, the Lottery Acts, the Vagrancy Acts, the Betting Acts, the Gaming Machines (Scotland) Act, and the Betting and Lottery Act can be invoked to punish you. No wonder those who operate these dens of vice need a good legal department to help them.
As a matter of fact, the Amusement Caterer's lot isn't really quite as hard as it sounds. Mr. Singleton, the Secretary of the A.C.A., is in no danger of being hauled off to prison, and his members usually achieve an uneasy coexistence with the police. Most Chief Constables turn a bling eye towards their activities, and some actually connive at them by laying down the conditions under which these illegal game will be tolerated. The present Chief Constable of Blackpool has specified exactly which machines he will allow and how they must be operated. No new machine or game can be introduced into the town until he has approved it. Far from being angry at his interference, the A.C.A. has welcomed such clear-cut rules. It has nothing but praise for a policeman who has "converted himself into an engineer and a showman at the same time."
In mast other towns, police tolerance goes in cycles, getting laxer and laxer until somebody abuses it, and then the police become very strict again. The trouble is that the amusement caterers never know what they are going to be allowed to do. It would be no good taking counsel's opinion and the police will rarely tell them in advance. They depend on the whim of individual officers. For a long time, the A.C.A. has been struggling to get the law altered. It has given evidence before two Royal Commissions and sent frequent delegations to the Home Office. Its proposals are quite modest. It doesn't ask for casinos or poker schools, simply that the law should be brought into accord with what actually happens.
Not all amusements are illegal, of course. You can ride on a roundabout or see what the butler saw with impunity; but a good 80% of the A.C.A.'s members do operate some illegal games, ranging from "bingo" (alias housey-housey) to the "spinners," which are a combination of roulette and lottery; from small devices where the customer plays by himself to complicated electrical games where the customers play against each other.
There are a number of popular fallacies which the A.C.A. is anxious to combat. One of the most widely held is that "manual" games are more respectable than mechanical ones. This seems to be based on the belief that all mechanical games can be easily rigged - by smoothing off the grab of a crane, for instance, or distorting the tilt of a pin-table. The A.C.A. has three answers to this: first that its members are honest; second, that the workings of a modern machine are so much exposed that any trickery could be easily seen; third - and quite the most convincing - that it simply wouldn't pay. The prizes are of so little value that it's worth the showman's while to give a lot of them away and keep his customers happy.
The customers may not play for profit, but they do like prizes. One paradoxical result of the official horror of gambling is that most Chief Constables impose a condition which actually compels the operator to keep at least 50% of his takings because he isn't allowed to give larger prizes. The public doesn't entirely share the official attitude on this matter. When prizes were suddenly forbidden altogether in one seaside town, angry holiday-makers besieged the police station, complaining that the amusement arcade had cheated them. The police thought better of it, and next day prizes were allowed again.
One of the main charges against the fruit machine was that it returned up to twenty times the player's stake and offered an alluring jackpot as well. Why this should be so much worse than football pools or greyhound racing is not entirely clear, but to this day no one has a good word for the unfortunate fruit machine, and even the A.C.A. vigorously declines to be associated with it. Manufacturers go to great lengths to ensure that whatever their new machines may do, they shall look as unlike fruit machines as possible.
Another deep-rooted belief, which the Royal Commission agreed was a fallacy, is the theory that games of skill are fairer than games of chance. The distinction is largely an accidental one, anyway, deriving from the Gaming Act of 1845, which was designed to prevent gambling but to free form obsolete controls such harmless pastimes as bowls and tennis. As far as it can be applied to fairground games at all, games of chance are likely in practice to be fairer than games of skill. Most of the customers play these games during a few days each year, while they are on holiday. This puts them at no advantage in game of chance, but wherever skill comes into it, the local wide-boys have only to put in a bit of practice and they can be sure of winning every time.
Most of the A.C.A.'s members work in holiday towns and their amusements are designed for visitors. Out of approximately 350 sites in Britain, only fifty are inland. These fifty include a few big parks, such as the Festival Gardens or Manchester's Belle Vue, but most of them are small arcades. The A.C.A. keeps a particularly close watch on these urban arcades, which have sometimes given their members a bad reputation. Many of them sprang up during and just after the war to collect easy money from Serviceman; but those days are gone. The seventy-odd arcades which were operating in London a few years ago have dwindled to a mere handful.
Money is scarcer now: it is hard to get planning permission for new sites: machines are difficult to import and subject to a heavy purchase-tax. Contractors who used to make a good living by operating one game now have to operate several, and they may have to take other jobs during winter.
Times are hard in the cities, but there is no danger of the amusement trade dying out. Millions of people who spend their holidays at the seaside expect to find an amusement arcade and machines on the pier.
There, at the seaside, in their proper place, the amusement caterers find as many customers as ever. On the big sites, the old games are still the most popular - coconut shies, shooting galleries and roundabouts: on the piers there may be dozens of new machines, but most of them are only variations on that old favourite, Corinthian bagatelle. For all its novelties and gadgets and flashing lights, the trade hasn't changed very much. In one respect at least, it present a magnificent example to many more pretentious industries. In spite of two world wars, crushing taxation, high rates, galloping inflation, the price of a game on an automatic machine has not gone up in fifty years. It remains what it always was: one penny.
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Sign behind a bar: "Putting Your Cigarette Out in Your Cocktail Glass Gets You Your Next Drink in an Ashtray."