My table is jammed with cocktail pitchers, pints of lager, trays of shots, Jägerbombs, bottles of Hooch, mince pies, pizzas, onion rings and chips. Nothing strange for a man of my epicurean calibre, you may think. (As a student, I was once caught drinking out of a puddle after putting way too much chilli sauce on my kebab.) But it’s all been paid for by people I’ve never met, out of the kindness of their hearts.
I’ve come to the John Jacques in Fratton, Portsmouth, to meet 42-year-old Chris Illman, who started Wetherspoons The Game!! on Facebook in 2018 with a handful of others. This month, membership rocketed from the low 1,000s to 400,000 after a change in the algorithm that Facebook uses to suggest groups to non-members. When the number of members reached 10,000, Illman held good on his promise to have a cloud and a spoon (weather, spoons – geddit?) tattooed on his arm. When it reaches 500,000 members, he’ll have his middle name legally changed to Spoons. Illman predicts this will happen within weeks.
The game works due to a loophole in the Wetherspoon’s app. Apps for outlets such as McDonald’s and Pizza Express use your phone’s location services to verify you physically at a location. The Spoons app, which was introduced by the pub chain in 2017, asks you to manually confirm which pub you are in, and which table you are sitting at. You can be sitting in, say, The Muckle Cross, the nearest Spoons to John O’Groats, and someone in Land’s End can order you a drink to your table through the app on their phone. Playing the game means that you would like others to pay for your food and drink. All you have to do is post your location and table number in the Facebook group, and the free booze and grub will come flying.
Why would random people pay for customers they’ve never met? “I’d say 90% of people buy something back,” says Illman, adding there’s no way he could actually police it. “When I started the group, I’d just recovered from cancer, got divorced and was sleeping in my car. I wanted something to put me in a positive mindset …” Now hundreds of people play the game every day. And unlike Fight Club, everyone is welcome to talk about it, so long as they play by the rules.
“Rule one is that you have to upload a clear picture of everyone in the group [who are hoping to be on the receiving end] so we can make sure there’s no under-18s,” says Illman. “If anyone looks under 25, we’ll ask them to privately upload ID. Rule two: No non-drinkers or allergies. We can’t be responsible for what is sent. Rule three: Everyone has to have manners and say: ‘Please’, ‘thank you’, ‘appreciated’. Any trolls get banned instantly. Rule four: No silly orders like fried eggs and bowls of peas. The kitchens will bar these anyway.” You can specify, such as “no food” or “only drinking Stella”, but generally you are at the mercy of what people would like to send you. “That’s part of the fun,” continues Illman. “Rule five: Don’t play too often. Once a week as a rule of thumb. And rule six: Responsible drinking! Post when you’ve had enough, else we’ll do it for you.”
Illman tells me that there have been marriages and babies through the group. But he’s most proud of what he’s done for charity. In 2020, the game provided £6,000 worth of food and soft drinks in Liverpool, collected by local charities and dished out to homeless people. A similar event is to be held next month, most likely in Portsmouth or Brighton. The group has featured in the Wetherspoon’s magazine. But it’s been up to Illman to sort out charity days with local managers.
The game is ultimate karma: a giant round where if someone gets yours in now, you owe someone else in the future. Karma has been in our favour this evening. Ilman had to stop the game after 17 minutes because our table was crammed, most likely due to his post that the Guardian were coming down to help celebrate the group reaching 400,000 members. (Another 1,000 members join during the couple of hours I’m sat at the table.) I help dish out what we can’t quaff and scoff to other slightly bemused customers, unsure why they are receiving free booze and grub. Do try Wetherspoons The Game!! for yourselves. But remember: if others have bought you free food and drink, then it’s your round next. And please give generously to the next charity event on 11 December.
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