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Man lured into addiction and tycoon behind it: GUY ADAMS exposes truth about gambling fat cat

Like any successful chief executive, Mor Weizer enjoys what some might call a jet‑set existence.

During the week, the silver-haired boss of multinational gambling firm Playtech commutes from a luxurious pile in Tel Aviv to offices in Israel, London, Estonia, Gibraltar, Bulgaria, Ukraine and the tax haven of the Isle of Man, where the company is based.

At weekends, he and socialite wife Dovrat mix in glamorous circles, rubbing shoulders with an Israeli elite that includes such power-brokers as Prime Minister-designate Benny Gantz, with whom the fragrant Mrs Weizer was recently photographed chatting at an event in the upscale city of Ramat Hasharon.

Mor Weizer (pictured) enjoys what some might call a jet‑set existence but his firm Playtech's AGM saw an extraordinary revolt by shareholders last week

Holidays have, in the past couple of years, taken their family — the couple have three children — to New York, Los Angeles, Mykonos, Milan and Thailand, staying in upmarket hotels and visiting Disneyland and a host of other once-in-a-lifetime attractions, including Royal Ascot, for which he invested in a top hat and tails and she wore a black feathered fascinator and pearls.

Such are the perks of a job which sees Mr Weizer run a FTSE-250 firm which turns over £1.2 billion a year. Last year, he was paid a cool £2.9 million, including £1.1 million in salary and a bonus of £1.5 million.

Yet not everyone thinks that, as the old saying goes, he’s worth it. Last week, Playtech’s AGM saw an extraordinary revolt by shareholders, who have come to regard Mr Weizer as the fattest of fat cats. 

No fewer than 64 per cent of them voted against the gambling firm’s remuneration report, apparently due to concerns over his bulging pay packet.

Many investors take the view that, behind his smooth veneer, the chief executive of this swaggering corporation has done nothing to justify his multi-million-pound rewards, pointing out that he’s managed to drop its share price from £3.75, when he took the top job in 2007, to just £2.70 today.

Those investors unfortunate enough to have bought stock in Playtech a decade ago have lost about 20 per cent of their cash (during a period when the FTSE 250 is up by 70 per cent). 

Anyone who came on board two years back has, meanwhile, seen about 60 per cent of their investment go up in smoke.

It must be galling to watch the man at the company’s helm profiting so handsomely from this shaky performance. But a cynic might say that Mr Weizer’s investors are actually the lucky ones.

A report by the Gambling Commission found ‘serious, systemic failings’ in how Mr Weizer’s firm managed its social responsibilities. Chris Bruney, 25, from Sheffield, (pictured) took his own life in 2017 after losing a total of £119,000 on Playtech's website Winner.co.uk

For the bucketloads of cash they’ve blown on Playtech is nothing compared to the life-changing — and, in at least one case, life-ending — losses experienced by some of the company’s most vulnerable customers.

Take Chris Bruney, a 25-year-old electrical engineer from Sheffield who — as the Mail revealed this week — took his own life in 2017 having lost almost £35,000 playing on the firm’s casino websites.

In a suicide note, he told his distraught family ‘it was the gambling’ that had driven him to suicide. 

A coroner’s inquest found that his actions had been caused in part by ‘the shame of gambling’.

This week, the events leading up Mr Bruney’s death were the subject of a devastating report by the Gambling Commission, which found a catalogue of ‘serious, systemic failings’ in the way Mr Weizer’s firm managed its social responsibilities and anti-money-laundering arrangements.

The report told how Mr Bruney, who had been lured into online gambling via a cascade of advertisements during the 2014 World Cup, was allowed to deposit and then lose tens of thousands of pounds with Playtech’s misleadingly-named casino website Winner.co.uk over a period of several months.

Shamefully, no one from the firm ever bothered to ask whether he was happy with his gambling or could afford his losses, as required under industry rules. Instead, Mr Bruney was plied with cash ‘bonuses’ by predatory Playtech staff at Winner, who gave him ‘VIP’ status and sought to encourage his gambling with free gifts, including an Apple watch.

Within three days of him opening an account, over Christmas 2016, an internal email flagged that he’d lost a staggering £22,000, was just 25 years old and that the firm didn’t even know his occupation. Rather than checking on his welfare, they sent an email inviting him to take part in a promotion, saying: ‘Grab this opportunity to earn millions!’

Between December 2016 and April 2017, Mr Bruney — who earned a salary of £60,000 — was then allowed to gamble on the site’s blackjack and roulette games, placing bets that eventually totalled an astonishing £4,458,782.

Between December 2016 and April 2017, the Gambling Commission report notes that Weizer’s firm ‘failed to carry out any responsible gambling interaction’ with Mr Bruney. Instead, he was tempted to keep playing with £4,500 'cash bonuses' and 120 free bets

Throughout this period, the Gambling Commission report notes that Weizer’s firm ‘failed to carry out any responsible gambling interaction’ with him.

Until this point, his compulsive gambling had earned a profit of around £7,000. But as everyone knows, the house always wins in the end. And in the first five days of April, Mr Bruney hit a losing streak, which saw him burn through £119,395.

Rather than check he could afford these gargantuan sums, Mr Weizer’s firm then attempted to keep him playing, providing him with £4,500 in ‘cash bonuses’ and 120 free bets.

A text sent by his ‘VIP’ account manager ‘Matt’ three days before his death told Mr Bruney to ‘have a go,’ adding ‘they want to let you bet’.

A few hours before he took his own life, he was given another £400 in bonuses. On Monday, Mr Bruney’s mother, who does not want to be named, said: ‘I believe Winner and the other companies that Chris gambled with killed my son.’

And as the Gambling Commission report shows, he wasn’t the only customer they appear to have let down. Only three of the 40 most active gamblers on the site were given any responsible gambling advice, investigators found (while 39 of them were accorded ‘VIP’ status). A mere 0.26 per cent of all customers were ever sent responsible gambling emails.

The Commission described that as ‘an exceptionally low figure’ indicating a ‘systemic failure of social responsibility’.

Equally ugly was the conduct of Mr Weizer’s company during the course of the Gambling Commission investigation, when it made what the regulator described as a number of ‘seriously deficient’ financial offers in a bid to settle the case, which the Commission believed merited a £3.5 million fine.

Exploiting a legal loophole, Playtech shut down the subsidiary that ran Winner.co.uk and suspended its gambling licence, effectively preventing the Commission from ordering it to pay the sum. The company instead made a £620,000 donation to safer gambling charities.

Such was the apparent culture of impunity at the firm that, to this day, not a single member of staff has been sacked over Mr Bruney’s suicide. 

Playtech shut down the subsidiary that ran Winner.co.uk and suspended its gambling licence, preventing the Commission from ordering it to pay a fine. The company instead made a £620,000 donation to safer gambling charities (file image)

It was not until the Mail published details of Mr Bruney’s death - sparking outrage from MPs, charities and even a Church of England bishop - that Mr Weizer agreed to pay the full £3.5 million.

In a statement, Playtech’s board offered ‘deepest sympathies’ to his family, while Mr Weizer said: ‘We take full responsibility for these regulatory breaches.’

This statement did not contain the word ‘sorry’. However, the company’s chairman Claire Milne — an Isle of Man-based lawyer who works for Appleby, the notorious firm at the centre of the Paradise Papers scandal which in 2017 revealed the scale of the tax-avoiding offshore investment industry — has agreed to make a personal apology to the family. It is, all told, a shameful affair.

Yet this is by no mean the first time that Playtech’s efforts to extract cash from gamblers has attracted formal sanctions.

In 2016, the Advertising Standards Authority slapped its wrists over an advertisement for a promotion on one of its casino sites offering ‘risk-free’ bets to customers. ‘We have strict gambling advertising rules in place to protect consumers,’ said the regulator. ‘We will take firm action where the rules are broken.’

Playtech is also responsible for the rise of fixed-odds betting terminals, the so-called ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling, which have come to infest Britain’s high streets in the years since the Blair government relaxed gambling regulations. The company provides software behind roughly half of the machines in Britain. Fixed-odds terminals are hugely controversial and have been blamed for a vast increase in problem gambling.

Opponents argue that they are designed to have an almost hypnotic effect that leaves players like ‘zombies’, and blame them for exploiting some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.

In 2014, a Mail investigation revealed Playtech’s marketing literature claimed its software can help bookmakers ‘manage your players throughout the player’s life-cycle’, describing how a gambler can play on a machine in a betting shop, and then ‘when he is ready to move on, he can continue the game on his smartphone and tablet device in the comfort of his own home’.

It was not until the Mail published details of Mr Bruney’s death - sparking outrage from MPs and charities - that Mr Weizer agreed to pay the £3.5 million fine (file image)

Those who grew rich on the proceeds of such misery include the company’s founder Teddy Sagi, a portly entrepreneur now based in London who boasts a fortune estimated at £3.6 billion. 

Born to a prosperous Tel Aviv family in 1972, Sagi first made headlines in 1994, when he was arrested with seven other businessmen. They were charged with manipulating the value of stock in a widespread banking fraud.

Sagi, one of the youngest among those arrested, admitted grave deceit, bribery and insider trading. He was jailed for nine months.

At his sentencing hearing his lawyer asked if he could avoid being sent to Ma’asiahu Prison, where his estranged stepbrother Ronen Sagi was serving time for murder.

After his release, Teddy set about becoming seriously rich, realising that the internet provided a means for sharp entrepreneurs to make vast amounts of fast cash, provided they were in the possession of relaxed moral values. As he said in one of his earliest interviews, ‘sex and betting are the most profitable businesses on the internet’.

His fortune was to be built on gambling. Playtech, launched in 1999 and incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, primarily sells software to bookmakers looking to expand into the online realm. 

His firm sought out the brightest mathematicians and specialists who could develop games that would maximise profits. As the online betting market exploded, it would prove to be a highly lucrative niche.

Just seven years later, the company was valued at £550 million when it floated on the London Stock Exchange. Still in his early 30s, Sagi (who had a majority stake) had joined the ranks of the world’s super-rich.

With great wealth came the trappings. In 2009 he popped up in gossip columns when he was photographed arm-in-arm with Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli, who had recently separated from Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio.

Later he married Yael Nizri, a former beauty queen and one-time Miss Israel, and now has six children.

Investors believe Mr Weizer has done nothing to justify his multi-million-pound rewards, pointing out that he’s managed to drop Playtech's share price from £3.75, when he took the top job in 2007, to just £2.70 today (file image)

The couple are reported to have homes in London’s Knightsbridge and Cyprus, along with Israel’s most expensive house in Herzliya Pituah, plus two penthouses in a Ritz Carlton and an apartment in the Tzameret Towers in northern Tel Aviv, bought from former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

In recent years, Sagi has used his loot to buy vast amounts of real estate, including Camden Market in London, which he picked up for £400 million in 2014. He was at one point rumoured to be mulling the purchase of Reading Football Club, arriving at the stadium for talks in a helicopter.

He has simultaneously stepped back from Playtech, though he remains close to Mor Weizer, and was photographed at the bar mitzvah of his son Ron in 2019.

As a result, Sagi was no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the company at the time of Chris Bruney’s death (and had no role in the subsidiary responsible for Winner.co.uk). However, he did remain on its books under a consultancy agreement from 2012.

Though he was the company’s largest shareholder, with around 33 per cent of its stock in late 2016, his holding was steadily being reduced, and had shrunk to 20 percent by the date of Mr Bruney’s suicide. He had completely offloaded his stake by the end of 2018.

Be that as it may, Mr Sagi this week expressed his sorrow over the affair, with a representative telling me: ‘His thoughts are with the family of the man who died in these very tragic circumstances.’

As for the extraordinarily well-paid Mor Weizer, who presided over this sorry mess, he remains in fine fettle.

Although Playtech’s long-suffering shareholders voted overwhelmingly against his firm’s remuneration report at the aforementioned AGM, company law dictates that the vote was advisory, meaning he can keep on hoovering up a vast salary, not to mention lucrative bonus scheme.

In other words, the odds appear fixed so that, unlike many of Playtech’s bruised clients, this Master of the Universe will always end up winning.

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