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THE SECRET LIFE OF A FRUIT MACHINE.

Byline: By NICK WEBSTER

SOON Chris Tarrant won't be the only one asking who wants to be a millionaire.

A pounds 1million slot-machine jackpot is likely to be on offer at the controversial new supercasino which the government has planned for Manchester.

And big-money fruit machines are expected to follow up and down the country.

So just who are the government gambling on frequenting the new venues?

We visited a South London arcade and spent a day meeting the people already playing machines with names like Lucky Strike, Maxa-million, 777 Heaven, and Jackpot Gems.

Our machine for the day was the Bullion Bars, a lo-tech, old-fashioned AWP - amusement with prizes, to use industry parlance - with a 10p stake. Elsewhere in the adult gaming centre - arcade - more hi-tech fruities with higher stakes yield higher jackpots.

An industry source told us: "The machines in high street gaming centres are very different to those planned for the new casinos. They'll have unlimited stakes and unlimited jackpots, whereas on most of our machines you can only win pounds 35 or, on a few, pounds 500.

"They're low stakes and people play for entertainment rather than the chance to win a life-changing amount of money.

"It's not in our interest to take money from our customers quickly. We want them to be regulars. We're trying to sell people some time."

10am The first player is Sandra, 57, who works for the local council.

"Don't use my second name, please, because my husband doesn't know I come here - and I've been coming here since my boy was a baby. He's 22 this year.

"I've come in here with pounds 20 today and it lasts a couple of hours in this type of machine. I don't drink so to me this is my leisure.

"I work split shifts, so I come in now and again to fill up a couple of hours. You get a cup of coffee, conversation and make friends with people."

10.53am Sandra leaves, pounds 12 better off than when she came in.

10.55am Sipping a free cup of coffee, Ernest Laurent, 45, a scaffolder, puts pounds 5 into the machine.

"I don't play that much. It's something to do when I get bored. The most I spend is pounds 5 or pounds 10 a time. And sometimes I'll win about pounds 20. I think this idea of a supercasino is bad really. I've heard similar places in America add to poverty because of gambling addiction. So I don't think they should put it in an already poor area of Manchester."

11.10am Ernest also leaves a winner, pounds 2 richer.

11.20am Housewife Susan Rimmer, 54, smoking throughout and tapping her ash into the little ashtray on the machine, begins a marathon session.

"I get a real buzz out of playing. I come in about once a week and spend about pounds 20. I've just dropped my son off at school, come down for some shopping and popped in here for an hour.

"I've been coming here for about a year after I just came in one day to get out of the rain. To be honest my husband doesn't know I come. He would have a fit.

"I can't work but I do get a pension from where I used to work at Shell so hopefully this pounds 20 will last about an hour. I come out up sometimes, but not very often.

"Unlimited prizes at these new places aren't good. People will be going mad if there are pounds 1million prizes. They'll get hocked up to the eyebrows to win."

12.25pm Engineer Brian, 62, puts pounds 4 into one of the three Bullion Bars machines alongside Susan.

"It's just my lunch break and so I come in here and play a fiver. I've known guys when I used to work for British Rail who would spend their every wage packet in fruit machines and go home with nothing.

"This woman landed on my doorstep one day, saying, 'Why aren't you paying my husband?' I told her we did, so she said, 'Well, what does he do with his wage packet?'

"The next day I sat down and spoke to him and he admitted he put it all in the machines. He was hooked and had to have therapy."

1.12pm Suddenly nearby there's a shriek of joy from beside the Hot X machine. Penny, 34, a full-time mum who has been in the arcade for just over 10 minutes, is delighted. "I was just doing my nan's shopping and I thought I would nip in here for about 15 minutes.

"I only come in once in a blue moon. I'd put about pounds 15 in a 30p machine and I've won pounds 39. I can't believe it. I'm going to go and buy my little girl some shoes now."

1.40pm Meanwhile Susan changes another pounds 5 and heads back to her machine.

2.30pm Peter Chan, 26, who works in his family's takeaway, is on the neighbouring machine. He's another one whose family don't know he's a regular. "The most I'd spend in here is two hours at a time, and spend up to pounds 60 or maybe a bit more. The trouble is when you're winning you get greedy and want to win more. When you lose you try and chase it - and that's a way to never win.

"Some of my friends lose pounds 100 or pounds 200 a day. When you put a lot in you think it will pay at least some of it back and that doesn't always happen."

2.34pm Peter leaves having put pounds 4 in and won pounds 11.

2.36pm Ernest pops back in and plays another pounds 2 with no success.

2.46pm The clunk, clunk, clunk of winnings dropping out of the Rainbow Riches machine at the other end of the arcade seems to go on for ever. A bearded Asian man, already with a big wad of pounds 20 notes in his hand, has scooped pounds 400 - not far off the the arcade's biggest jackpot of pounds 500.

2.58pm Peter's mate Bau, 27, pours pounds 6 into the neighbouring machine. "I do it to waste time. I don't come in very often - only two or three times a week."

3.18pm Susan finally leaves to pick up her son, having spent pounds 25.

3.25pm Retired regular Mary Leonard, 73, replaces her.

"I've been coming in here for seven years. It gets me out of the house. When you're on your own it's terrible being at home all the time.

"Here, I'm friendly with the staff. And it's somewhere to come when you're cold, you always get a nice cup of tea and something nice to eat - fruit, biscuits or a sandwich."

3.32pm Putting in pounds 2, Mary walks away with pounds 6 - to another machine.

4pm Lugging her shopping from Argos, Christine Braybrook, 51, arrives with her retired husband Harry.

"When we're in town shopping me, my husband and my daughter always come in and have a go. We spend about pounds 20 or pounds 30 each here once a week. Sometimes we win pounds 50 or pounds 60, other times nothing. You have to come in knowing you might go out losing.

"We do it because it's relaxing. You can just chill out in front of a machine. We save up to come here. And if we win, we put it away to play again next time."

4.05pm Christine spends pounds 6 without any success, but moves on to another slot where after putting in pounds 16 she wins pounds 40.

4.30pm Electrician Gary James, 30, pops in for 10 minutes and leaves, his pocket pounds 8 lighter.

4.33pm Christine gives it another go, putting in pounds 2 of her winnings, and hitting the pounds 5 jackpot. She plays another couple of pounds, and then she's off - again to another part of the arcade.

4.57pm A lad who didn't want to talk puts pounds 3 in and loses it very quickly.

5.15pm The machine's quiet for the first time today, but Noel Lumley-Saville, 36, is giving it a once-over.

He claims for the last 14 years he's been a professional fruit machine player, earning up to pounds 2,000 a week, tax-free.

"There are two kinds of players - pumpers, like everybody else in the arcade, who hope to win and end up losing, and people like me who manipulate the percentages in our favour.

"What I do isn't illegal, and I don't tamper with the machines. Most of the money is made in the pubs on the hi-tech machines.

"But take your machine here. If I watch someone playing I can tell if someone's been winning on it or not, and if it's more likely to pay out."

5.45pm Mary pops back, puts pounds 8 in and gets pounds 11 out.

6pm After eight hours of watching others slotting away I take the plunge myself with the spinning reels of stars and bars.

Feeding in a fiver, I end up with pounds 5.40 in the bank. Next time round I lose the lot. For me, it was anything but fruitful.

MACHINE TOTALS: pounds 102 in; pounds 72 out.

nick.webster@mirror.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

LONELY: Mary's a regular; CHILLING OUT: Christine; ODD FLUTTER: Ernest; Pictures: ROWAN GRIFFITHS
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 23, 2007
Words:1574
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