Friday, May 14, 2010

All bets are on

As one man is jailed for spending over e200,000 of other people’s money on his gambling addiction, SUSAN DALY finds the stakes are high for compulsive betters.

THERE is a competition currently running on a national radio station that challenges listeners to spend e10,000 in one day. If that sounds like a spree, try spending twenty times that amount in a year. It’s an easy task if you happen to be a compulsive gambler.

The jailing this week of 33-year-old events manager Patrick Brown threw the issue of gambling into sharp relief. Brown got a five-year sentence for the theft of over e200,000 in deposits paid to him by secondary school students for their debs balls. Cork Circuit Criminal Court heard that Brown had used all the money to feed his gambling habit over a 13-month period.

The question on most people’s lips would be: How could you lose that much in that relatively short space of time? It is facilitated by a betting landscape that has changed beyond all recognition from even a decade ago. Colin O’Driscoll, principal psychologist at the Forest addiction counselling centre in Co Wicklow, describes the surge in online gambling as something that brings ‘push-button’ ease to frittering your cash. A spokesperson from Gamblers’ Anonymous says that their growing number of online-gambling addicts tell them that “online poker in particular is absolutely rampant. All you need is a computer and a credit card.”

The recession has not done much to dent the habitual gambler’s passion for a punt. Bookmaker giant Paddy Power have reported that the total amount staked by their customers in the UK and Ireland in 2009 – e2.75 BILLION - rose by 31 per cent from 2008, when punters staked e2.1 billion.

“Recession aside, if someone has a credit card they can continue to dig themselves deeper into the hole of debt with gambling,” says Colin O’Driscoll. “In the past when they ran out of money, they would have had to physically leave the bookies’ shop to go down to the ATM or go beg a friend to give them a sub. When betting online and not handling cold, hard cash, the perception of the consequences are not as clear to people.”

Journalist Declan Lynch spent nine months investigating the online gambling scene for his book Free Money. He describes gambling as “a major world religion” and fears that the culture of gambling in Ireland has spread so deeply that we don’t even see it anymore.

“I think that people in the financial climate at the moment are saying, ‘To hell with it, I’d be better off gambling with it’,” he says. “An alcoholic will always be able to get a drink, and a gambler will always find a way to get a bet on.

“I have not the slightest doubt that there are hundreds of cases bubbling under the surface like that one in the courts this week,” he adds. Colin O’Driscoll cites the example of a man who approached Forest clinic last week. The man has spent e250,000 on gambling in the past 18 months. He has just come into an inheritance and knows that, without intervention, that lump sum will swiftly go the way of his previous cash flow.

The financial consequences of such gambling habits are dire but the personal toll is similarly devastating. A chief organiser for the Irish Gamblers Anonymous network says that the impact of gambling is not a new phenomenon here. He is now a middle-aged man and has never gambled online but from the ages of 12 to 43, his life was entirely consumed by gambling of every other type imaginable.

“It started with cards when I was a young fella, pitch and toss, things like that,” says Martin* (he has asked that his real name not be used). “The difference between me and the others was that when I could afford to gamble for a penny, I gambled for three pennies. I gambled for excitement.”

He says that even though most compulsive gamblers won’t appear on the news for carrying out an illegal act to sustain their habit, they are nonetheless capable of ruining their lives and the lives of those around them.

“You won’t hear amounts mentioned in a GA meeting – some will have lost pocket money and some will have lost a farm – but they will all have lost everything they could not afford to. And what’s an illegal act? Is it illegal to give your wife half your wages when she needs more than that, just because you want it for gambling? Is it illegal to open your child’s piggy bank and take their Communion money?

“I didn’t know the colour of my children’s eyes because I was so distracted by gambling. My children were all born from different addresses because we were ducking and diving and moving house to stay ahead of the bailiffs. I had a respectable job, I had a pioneer pin on my coat, but every day I woke up with a sickness in my soul.”

He insists that gambling addiction is an illness, not a character flaw. His assertion appears to be backed up by medical studies that conclude pathological gamblers can have lower levels of chemicals like norepinephrine and serotonin in their bodies. The thrill of gambling makes up for the deficiencies of chemicals normally secreted in times of excitement or stress.

“Gambling has a very strong association with depression,” says Colin O’Driscoll, “There is a higher tendency towards suicidal thoughts among those suffering from depression related to gambling than those with clinical depression alone.”

Martin knows seven people alone in his area in the south of Ireland who took their own lives because of their gambling habits. “They couldn’t live with the effects of their gambling, but they couldn’t live without it either.”

Yet it remains hard for the rest of us to entirely grasp the depth of the problem on our doorstep. The cases of celebrity high-rollers like golfer John Daly, who reckons he gambled away a e40m fortune, or snooker player Jimmy White, who blew his 1994 World Cup e150,000 runner-up prize at the bookies, seem a world away. Even the tale of Gladys Knight losing all her money playing Baccarat in Vegas has a hint of hedonistic glamour about it.

“It’s a bit like that here though - socially, gambling is acceptable,” says psychologist Colin O’Driscoll. “I find that the aggressive marketing campaigns that certain online companies run are very cynical.”

He has had patients terminate online accounts only to get an email a week later saying they’ll be given a e50 free bet if they rejoin.

“I don’t want to spoil the party but advertising cigarettes has gone, I can see a ban on alcohol ads coming and I think we should be looking at gambling too.”

Declan Lynch says the normalisation of gambling – which makes it easier for the addict to cover their own extreme behaviour – is frightening. “At the end of the reporting of every national issue big or small now, we have some bookmaker offering odds. With huge success they have made it respectable, family entertainment and removed it from the image of broken men betting their dole in backstreet offices.”

• Gamblers Anonymous have volunteer-run helplines on 087-2859552 (Cork); 086-3494450 (Galway); 01-8721133 (Dublin) and see for more information.


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