Rebecca Cassidy

Rebecca Cassidy

Professor of Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK.

How should we regulate gambling at a time when it is possible to bet on any sporting event in the world using just a handheld device and an internet connection? How should we monitor gambling, a business worth an estimated 89 billion euros, now that customers, operators and regulators think and act globally, rather than nationally? Anthropologist Rebecca Cassidy, with an impressive list of publications on gambling and horse-racing, leads GAMSOC, an ambitious project financed by the European Research Council aimed at proposing a new perspective to the European legislator on gambling. With the ultimate goal of assisting governments, operators and regulators in limiting the harms associated with gambling, multi-sited anthropology, ethnography and technology are the frame of the research on this globally diffused practice, still characterized by strong cultural and historical specificities, particularly in European countries. At Falling Walls, Cassidy shows us the challenges of and potential solutions to a gambling regulation across national, economic and conceptual boundaries.  

Breaking the Wall of Gambling. How Multi-Sited Anthropology Can Transform Gambling Regulation


The way we gamble is changing, bringing down walls of all kinds: between states, between sports and games, between gambling, and other kinds of financial risks. The way we measure and regulate gambling has fallen behind. I want to tell you how I am going to bring the walls of gambling research down, by using methods as agile and imaginative as the processes that they seek to capture. I am going to start, I hope with David’s help, by showing you how many people gamble today, when access to a huge variety of products is virtually instant. Up to 30% of people who are betting online at the moment do so using their phones or other hand-held devices. So, here I have our iPad. I should say that I made a profit during the rehearsal; so, I am very optimistic about this.

Here we have the classic Betfair screen. Really you can see that the traditional sports are all here: horseracing, football and so on – also more obscure sports, including bandy, which I think someone may have been pulling my leg; I have been told is a kind of football played on ice skates, which sounds very dangerous. We also have political bets, such as this one – it caught my eye since we are in Berlin – I am not going to bet on this, because it looks it is a one-horse race, and that is never great fun. So, lets go back to something where we might have a hope and lay a financial bet. I want to go to the FTSE Index and ask you to decide whether in the next 20 minutes the index is going to rise or fall. Lets have a show of support for rising and then a show of support for falling. Who thinks it is going to rise in the next 20 minutes and who thinks it is going to fall? Ok, there we are; lets lay our bet. I haven’t staked very much. I have invested your money, I promise you.

Ok, let me just run through the process of this bet now that we have laid it. There it is going on; you have the proof there. My bet is placed through an account with a UK registered company, Betfair, via mobile clients in Berlin on events that are obviouslytaking place in London. My bet request goes through to a server in Ireland, where it is rerouted to a server in Malta, where Betfair International is licensed. The bet request is sent from Malta to Ireland; a response is sent from Ireland to Malta; this response is sent back to Ireland, and then to me in Berlin – all within a second. Every day Betfair will process at least three million of these transactions, more than all of the European stock markets combined, 99.9% of them in less than a second.

So, what kind of research can we use to capture such a phenomenon? Well, I have two answers. First of all, we need to move across boundaries of different kinds; national surveys are obviously not sufficient. Secondly, we need to resocialize the gambler. If we look up here, traditionally psychologists have tried to understand gambling, the physiology of gambling, as a particular kind of decision-making. My approach is rather different: I say, lets put back in all of the variables that we are trying to remove by placing people into the laboratories.

Now, this makes things very complicated. So why would you want to do it? Why not keep things neat and tidy? Well, because it is unclear how the results of experiments like these relate to behaviour outside the lab. Why? Because gambling, including online gambling, takes place between people. It is a techno-emotional process, like dancing or playing music. Our engagement with it is mediated by our membership of various groups with distinctive social, culture attitudes and preferences. The gambling industry knows this. They produce culturally sensitive products. Mah jong, being played here, doesn’t sell in Greece; backgammon doesn’t sell in China. If you go to an online company where they provide a live dealer, you will find now that they greet you with name, because it has been suggested that that makes you more trustworthy. If you go to an online Asian casino, the dealers will be Asian, because, again, customers prefer them. In Britain, online bingo sites are pink, because they are intended to appeal to women – who can resist?

In Macau, which is the largest market for gambling in the world, baccarat, a game of chance or luck, accounts for more than 90% of their revenue from table games. That is revenue of 23.5 billion dollars in 2011. It is only 20% on the Las Vegas strip, where it is blackjack, a game with a greater element of skill that totally dominates. It is not just game preferences that reveal differences between gambling cultures. In Macau, more than 70% of revenue is generated by high-stakes players known as VIPs. In Las Vegas, high rollers account for just 5% of gaming. So, gambling companies entering new markets recruit local partners, not just in order to complete regulatory requirements, but also because they know that the industry is characterised by on the one hand, this globalising technology, and on the other, locally highly diverse markets.

If we want to understand gambling, we need to understand both of these scales; so how? In some ways the process of placing the bet that I described is very unpolluted by the kind of noise that I want to bring back to gambling. There is a technical process. But if you look more closely, it is embedded within a very distinctive social and historical framework.

Betfair International is licensed in Malta, because online gambling regulation is an island industry; for the same reasons as is offshore banking: why pay a tax of 15% by being based in the UK, when you can be based in Gibraltar and pay 1%? Betfair was created in London, because it is a hybrid, of financial service expertise, founded by former city traders, and the strong tradition of legal betting on horseracing that exists in the UK. Its head offices are in Hammersmith, up the Thames from the London Stock Exchange. These are not random locations in a uniform landscape. They reflect particular social histories, which are central to understanding the process of making a bet, despite the de-territorialising effect of the Internet.

So what about the 93% of gambling in Europe that still takes place in person? What kinds of walls are broken down or reinforced in this case? Part of the project is based in Cyprus, where the Greek press has just described the construction of a casino resort in the north of the island as a shameless plan that will “transform the pristine wilderness of the remote Carpasia peninsula, into [what they call] a vulgar Las Vegas-style paradise for gamblers and wealthy Arabs”. In Cyprus, backgammon, card games and cockfights are associated with an ideal, as we see here, of sociable masculinity. Gambling is one of the ways in which boys become men. Women play cards also: here expressing and enhancing ties of mutual aid and sympathy.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with gambling in Cyprus, according to our participants. These ideas about domestic gambling, however, contrast strongly with those about uncontained appetites and antisocial behaviour epitomised by what Cypriots refer to as “inappropriate development”. The highest concentration of casinos in Europe is in Slovenia – some of you may know – where the majority of customers travel from Italy to play. In this case, we have an emerging market in a post-socialist context at the crossroads of several linguistic and cultural influences. Here, we are working on both sides of the border and asking people who choose to gamble, people who choose not to gamble and their families: what is behind their different decisions? What is at stake in disagreements about gambling in border zones?

So why study gambling at all? Well, first of all, gambling in Europe is a rapidly growing, technically complex market, as you have seen, regulated by ad hoc legislation that is reactive to technical innovation. Gross gaming revenue was 78.5 billion Euros in 2008, and it is expected to be between 82 and 89 billion in 2012. Six of the top nations with the biggest annual gambling losses are in Europe. In order to shape the future of the industry, we have to understand different gambling cultures as well as go beyond national surveys to look at technology and regulation on an international scale.

Secondly, gambling is one of a number of exchanges that make use of the productive life of risk. It is distinguished for an investment and other financial services, according to particular histories and priorities. So, in 18th century Britain, for example, stock jobbing, as it was called, was roundly condemned, alongside betting on horses and playing cards. Stock jobbing encouraged deceit and bluffing – the opposite of the system of personal credit based on trust, which it replaced. Stock market speculation achieved respectability. Although, as we have found recently, these classifications are unstable, accusations that we have fostered a variety of casino capitalism originate in disquiet about the severance between work and reward. Day-trading and short- selling bring down the fragile walls that separate investment from gambling and force us to look at transactions as part of a single continuum – perhaps thinking about what the difference is between these two activities.

I want to better understand gambling. I believe that this will also help us to think about the politics of distribution more generally, including the role that we want risk, uncertainty, thrift, fairness, work and value to play in our lives. I can tell you that we have won our bet, but that is unusual, because one thing about gambling has not changed: the house always wins in the end. Thank you.