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Tuesday, 26 March, 2002, 13:16 GMT
Are casinos the new pubs?
Roulette wheel
Step aside Las Vegas
As plans are unveiled to liberalise gambling in the UK, could casinos one day be as popular as pubs and nightclubs?

Forget the punters, casino owners themselves have hit the jackpot this time.

Plans by the government to relax gambling laws will revolutionise the gambling industry in Britain.

Chips
Casino bosses are chipper
Gambling in casinos has never been a big pastime here, largely because it's not easy to do. There are currently 119 casinos in Britain and to spend an evening at one of them is a pretty sobering experience.

Casinos are open to members only and there is a 24-hour "cooling off" period before membership applications can be granted.

Live entertainment is also banned, as is music and alcohol at the tables, and casinos cannot advertise.

A rival to pubs?

But that sort of regulation is all set to change.

Gambling review
Casinos allowed to advertise
Members only rule scrapped
Bingo halls will offer rollover prizes
Online gambling allowed from UK bases
Children barred from slot machines with a stake over 10p
So in future, will casinos be just another option for a night out on the town? Instead of moving from pub to club, will revellers one day spend the small hours playing craps or seated at a blackjack table?

The British certainly enjoy a wager. Gambling, in all its various guises, is widespread. Bookmakers and bingo halls are commonplace, and, of course, there's the National Lottery.

Three quarters of adults place at least one bet on a sports event every year, according to Mori research.

John Kelly, chief executive of the Gala Group, thinks there is a big untapped market of casino-goers out there.

Jame's Bond, Casino Royale
While you can leave the white tux at home...
"Casinos will become more of an option in future. Because we can't advertise at the moment, people are put off coming in to a casino because they don't know what to expect," says Mr Kelly.

"They either think it's all white dinner jackets and Berettas, like James Bond, or smokey basements with guys wearing green eyeshades."

And gamblers don't just have their sights on winning money, he says. "It's a social thing as well. Most people who go to our casinos go with others."

But the idea that in future anyone will be able to walk off the streets and into a casino, like they do a nightclub, is perhaps fanciful.

Smart move

Regardless of the law, casino bosses will probably continue with a members-only rule.

Clubbers
...dresscode is somewhat smarter than many nightclubs
"Membership lists are valuable," says a spokesman for the British Casino Association. "[Owners] can keep track of who their customers and keep contact with them."

And many casinos will continue to operate a dress code, in an effort to maintain an air of sophistication.

A more relaxed attitude to casinos will draw wider attention to them, says Paul Bellringer, of GamCare, a charity which seeks to promote a "responsible gambling".

"[Gambling] is a natural activity - more than drinking alcohol. We are programmed to take risks. I don't doubt more people will go to casinos in future."

Specialised business

Last year's government review of gambling laws suggested a change in gaming laws could lead to more than 300 new casinos springing up around the country.

Bingo
Casinos are set to follow in the steps of bingo halls
But that's unrealistic says John Kelly. Setting up and running a gaming business is an expensive and specialised business.

"The probity checks you will have to go through will be just as tough under these new laws as they are now, if not more so. A local authority will still have the right to turn down an application," says Mr Kelly.

In addition to all the start-up costs of a new business, casino operators also have to keep a "gaming reserve" - a substantial pot of cash that is held exclusively to honour gambling debts should the business go bust.

Bingo is perhaps a good template for how casino culture might develop in the coming years.

A move in 1997 to allow bingo halls to advertise was a boon to the industry and today there are 90 million admissions annually.

But when it comes to crowd pulling, bingo is still a long way from the sort of numbers drawn to pubs and nightclubs.

"People come in to sample it. Some like it and take it up, some say no thanks," says Mr Kelly. "I don't think the market can sustain more than about 200 casinos in all."

See also:

26 Mar 02 | UK Politics
UK gambling laws relaxed
26 Mar 02 | England
Blackpool's casino dilemma
26 Feb 02 | England
Bishop dices with casino future
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