The ancient romans, including several emperors, were keen gamblers. if you lose, you cry; if you gain, you exult, was one saying engraved on a pavement in the former basilica julia in the forum. when soldiers marched around the empire, they carried with them heavy tables to play dice at camp.

Mobile gambling is easier now. the owner of caesars palace casino in las vegas, where every guest is treated as a caesar, this week agreed a 2.9bn takeover of william hill, the uk chain. caesars entertainment is not a secret admirer of british bookmaking it wants william hills valuable us online sports betting operation and may sell its uk shops.

It is a good bet. for decades, us casinos were rare outside las vegas, atlantic city and indian tribal lands, and sports betting was illegal. this changed in 2018 when the supreme court struck down a law barring the latter. gambling on sporting events particularly online is growing rapidly.

But the william hill deal and a bump in profits at the online gambling group 888 thanks to lockdown poker playing, reveal something more significant than the end of us exceptionalism. the mobile internet makes placing a bet easy and liberates it from the barriers of location and time: no need to fly to vegas when vegas will come to you.

That is illustrated by the habits of mark griffiths, professor of behavioural addiction at nottingham trent university. he used to bet on football once a week at a bookmaker. i can now bet on who scores the next goal, on the first corner, the next throw-in. on sunday, i can, and i do, watch four games on sky and follow 60 or 70 betting markets for several hours, he says.

It is tempting to dismiss betting, like some other forms of entertainment, as at best pointless the bookie consistently wins more than the punter. but a classic study of wagering on horseracing in a working class bar in a new england city in 1963, by the sociologist irving zola, showed it can mean a lot.

Gambling and its group rituals talking about which horse to back and joint celebrations of wins creates a bond between the men, a bond which defines insiders and outsiders, he wrote. for the italian- and polish-american regulars of hoffs place, he found, betting was rewarding in itself. at hoffs, they can achieve, and can gain recognition for their accomplishments.

Todays punters, betting on their teams and predicting which player will score from constant study, are in many ways like the group at hoffs. online sports betting companies exploit this in advertising, implicitly portraying betting as a demonstration of loyalty to the team, being a real man, and being brave enough to prove sporting knowledge, writes prof griffiths.

They are not the middle-aged delivery and taxi drivers of hoffs, though. many are young, educated and well-off a lot of traders and professionals dabble in sports betting. the shift is not only a uk phenomenon: core sports bettors in the us skew to the young, male, educated and higher income, says the american gambling association.

Gambling has lost its stigma, encouraged by state lotteries such as the uk national lottery. the bookmakers shop still has a whiff of the gambling den, but mobile apps and advertising convey betting (and social games such as candy crush) into many lives. a 2019 survey found that 47 per cent of uk adults had gambled recently.

It is not surprising, since technology blurs the line between home and casino. anyone can trade anything from clothes to concert tickets (before the pandemic) and sports betting has followed sports in becoming continuous. both the activities on which we can bet and the mechanisms have multiplied.

Most people the vast majority can handle the financial and psychological risks. problems such as chasing losses and needing to bet more to get the same thrill are in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, but only 0.5 per cent of adults in england are classified as problem gamblers.

Still, even 0.5 per cent is a lot when betting has spread through most of the population. it is about the same proportion of people with covid-19 who currently die, and we worry about that. the phone makes it more likely that gambling becomes, as one study titled blackjack in the kitchen put it, a pernicious, insidiously integrated component of a consumers life.

European countries were early to liberalise online sports and casino gambling and they are now pulling back as the us expands. gvc holdings, owner of ladbrokes coral and bwin, warned on thursday that new german regulations, including restrictions on advertising and deposit limits on online poker, will hit its profits next year. that is a small price to pay for keeping online betting under control.

It still leaves room for innocent pleasure. so intense was the love of the roman for games of hazard that, wherever i have excavated the pavement of a portico...i have always found gaming tables engraved or scratched on the marble, wrote an archaeologist in 1892. oh, for a mobile phone.