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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 May 2006, 12:58 GMT 13:58 UK
The psychology of super-casinos
By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Cards painted by Kate Brinkworth, on show at Mark Jason Gallery from 1 June
Casino 'mind tricks' will be tested at artist Kate Brinkworth's exhibition
Nothing is left to chance with the decor and ambiance of a casino, where everything is designed to encourage gamblers to stay and spend. So what are the tricks? And with plans for a raft of new casinos in the UK, will they be allowed?

The shortlist of towns vying to build the UK's first "super-casino" - and 16 smaller venues - has been revealed, and competition is fierce.

Anyone who has been to Las Vegas will know that, once through the doors, casinos exude a curiously artificial aura. According to Kati St Clair, a business psychologist, the aim is to induce a trance-like state in gamblers.

"Casinos make you feel intimate, enclosed, euphoric; you're in a suggestible state in which you want to stay where you are, continuing to do what you are doing," she says.

But how can a casino be designed to encourage people to gamble more and for longer?

SENSE OF TIME

Playing the tables in Las Vegas can be a disorienting experience, thanks, in part, to a lack of clocks and natural daylight. Casinos can even simulate daylight during the dark hours to lull players into remaining at the tables and slot machines, all the time parting with their cash.

UK rules: British casino operators will not be allowed to get away with such tactics. The proposed Gambling Act says customers must be aware of how much time - and money - they have spent gambling, and make sure that breaks in play are encouraged.

MUSIC

The soundtrack of a casino will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in a supermarket or shopping mall, and it's used to similar effect.

"Casinos are rather womb-like," says Ms St Clair. "Almost always the colour is red and the music is mild and on a continuous loop, rather than individual songs. All of this contributes to the trance-like state of a gambler. Nightclubs use the same sort of tactics."

UK rules: There appear to be no rules to restrict the sort of music played in British casinos - a matter of regret, perhaps, to those who dislike piped music but are fond of a flutter.

FOOD AND DRINK

One tactic used in some American casinos is to offer free alcoholic drinks and easy grazing snacks to keep punters betting. Those on a winning streak may have drinks brought to them so as not to interrupt play.

UK rules: This type of inducement will be frowned on in Britain. The UK's Gambling Act will rule out using alcohol to encourage people to gamble. But energy drinks are likely to be on the bar menu, to help keep gamblers stimulated.

AIR

No ordinary air-con for US casinos, where extra oxygen may be pumped in to help players stay alert. The manufacturer of oxygen boxes used in Las Vegas casinos has recently launched the product here.

And pheromones have reportedly been released from US machines to encourage aggressive gambling.

UK rules: Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has said such psychological trickery would be banned in Britain. "We'll simply not allow any tricks which people are subjected to unawares and which increase the risk of problem gambling," she said.

A Gambling Commission spokeswoman says chemicals to falsely enhance confidence will not be allowed. "If we see it, we can levy unlimited fines upon them." But these are not banned per se - hence an exhibition in London's Mark Jason Gallery next week, which will be using "mood influencing" aromas, and other casino-style "mind tricks" to see if art viewers can be turned into art buyers.

NEAR MISSES

There's nothing like a near-miss to encourage a gambler to keep pumping coins into a slot machine or laying their chips on the table.

Not only can gaming machines be set to provide a certain number of near misses, these have become more sophisticated in the past decade so as to make a near-miss look even more tantalising.

"A near-miss causes a gambler to over-estimate their chances of winning," says Dr Luke Clark, a Cambridge University psychologist. "If their horse finishes second, or in a casino they watch two cherries come up on a slot machine and then see the third almost click into place, they'll keep playing. A problem gambler will keep playing for a third as long again."

And when a gambler feels their skill can influence the outcome - throwing the die, say, or choosing lottery numbers - a feeling of control develops that keeps them gambling longer.

"There are subtle ways that casinos and slot machines can introduce near misses and perceived skill that encourage people to gamble," Dr Clark says.

UK rules: Draft legislation says the rules of games, odds or house edge - a casino's in-built advantage - average return to the player, and dispute and complaints procedures must all be clearly displayed.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Casinos already have no clocks in them. No windows and all dealers are forbidden from wearing watches, so that if a customer asks the time you don't know. There is currently a table service for all non-alcoholic drinks which are free. The alcohol needs to be kept away from the tables, not only to protect gamblers from getting into debt but also the dealers. If you have just lost 500 in ten minutes and you have also managed to get drunk doing it, how long before you take it out on the dealers?
Ellen, London

Tosh! Of course casinos seek to make customers comfortable. What leisure venue doesn't? Casinos are not invariably red. The music isn't a loop in any casino I worked in - there were individual songs. No music, no atmosphere - ask a customer. Simulating daylight when its dark outside? Used in Vegas in shopping malls outside gaming areas.
Geoff, Brighton

What about the loyalty cards? From them they know all about regular gamblers, which slot machine they prefer, what they eat and drink etc. Then in the post they get lots of vouchers for free meals, free transport, free entertainment, free drinks, special prize competitions, free hotel rooms. It is those that turn regular gamblers in to problem gamblers.
Cllr Steven Bate, Blackpool, UK

Banks have recently adopted a more comfortable atmosphere too with background music, soft lighting, soothing colours and some are also removing clocks...
Cameron, Ayrshire

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