On Christmas Eve, two emails arrived from paddypower.com. The timing was pretty awful — it would be true to say that the emails were a profound source of irritation, writes Paul Rouse
In fairness, in the greater scheme of things, they might be considered to be standard fare, primarily advertising the fact that there were gambles to be made on the Christmas horse race meetings and on soccer matches.
There was also an invitation to join ‘Paddy’s Rewards Club’, where a certain number of bets, worth a certain value, would entitle me to a free bet.
And enough gambling would entitle me to enter a draw to win tickets to the Super Bowl.
There was, finally, a reminder that there was money sitting in my account – and that it might as well be used.
I had opened an account with paddypower.com back sometime in 2002 or thereabouts. If I have made 50 bets since then I’d be amazed. And the amounts gambled would almost never have been much more than €5 – months and even years have passed between bets.
The balance on the account on Christmas Eve was about €240.05 — I reckon that is more or less the amount that was put in originally, combined with possibly two other deposits.
As best I can remember, if I was down at all, it was no more than €40 or €50.
And I may well have been slightly up.
So, basically, gambling is a very small thing in my life. And I’m sure I’ve received hundreds of emails from Paddy Power and never been irritated by them. Before now, they were essentially irrelevant to me and went unopened into the email bin.
Not this time, though.
This time the arrival of two emails provoked a definite course of action: I decided straight away to find a way to withdraw all the funds in my account and to shut it down.
And — again to be fair to paddypower.com — withdrawing the cash and shutting down the account was easily achieved and was assisted by helpful staff over the phone.
That being said, the cause of the irritation and of the desire to shut down my Paddy Power account was a really simple one – I had just read Declan Lynch and Tony O’Reilly’s brilliant book Tony 10: The Astonishing Story of the Postman who Gambled €10,000,000 … and Lost it All.
I cannot think of a more important book ever written on any aspect of Irish sport.
It tells the story of Tony O’Reilly, a postman from Carlow who moved from being an occasional gambler to one who became grotesquely addicted. His gambling career stretched from the days of the old-style bookies office to the modern internet-based account. Those early days in bookies’ offices connected O’Reilly to a world that stretched back into the 19th century and beyond. It can be found, for example, in Charles Dickens’ brilliant book, Night Walks.
This book, published in the Penguin Books ‘Great Ideas’ collection, pulled together miscellaneous writings from the time in the life of Dickens when he was struggling with insomnia and spent night after night walking the streets of London.
He documented what he saw on those walks and these words — together with other miscellaneous bits of journalism written between 1850 and 1870 — include a chilling short piece, entitled simply ‘Betting Shops’.
This piece sets out the inside of betting shops in Victorian Britain and the essentials of the story — rich men and poor men in thrall to gambling, sometimes winning but more usually losing, their lives given to the next wager — remain at the core of the story of betting. Indeed, the fundamental place of that wager in the very existence of so many men is easily observed. It is true — then and now — that there are many who can flit in and out of that world as they wish, who can control the gamble and use it to add another dimension to their enjoyment of sports. Nobody can argue against that.
But, equally, nobody can deny that the story told in Tony 10 illustrates with devastating clarity — detail piled upon detail until full ruination looms in view, its inevitability rendering the story all the more compelling — the way gambling has changed.
And in its changing it has cultivated a phenomenon so insidious, so all-pervasive that its mental scourge is beyond cruel.
That you can now gamble on so many things from the phone in your hand and that you can continue to ruin yourself at any hour of the day or night is a simple fact. And it is a fact that changes everything about gambling. You no longer have to walk into a betting shop to impale yourself on your addiction — you can do it anywhere and anytime, simply by reaching into your pocket and taking out your phone.
Writing this book must have been an incredibly painful experience for Tony O’Reilly. He seeks no vindication in the text and blames nobody else. The book does not preach, nor does it seek to court your sympathy.
Instead, it centres on telling the story of a man who built for himself two worlds.
In one of those worlds, he was Tony O’Reilly, husband, father, well-known man about Carlow, and post office manager. In the other, he was ‘Tony 10’, the name he used to gamble under when online.
And the story of the book is the story of how ‘Tony 10’ colonised the life of Tony O’Reilly, until he was left with mere fragments of what he once was and once had. In the process, he caused immense hurt to those he loved.
The collaboration with Declan Lynch has produced a book of outstanding merit.
Reading it has been a transformative experience.
But where can this transformation go? How do you act on a truth revealed?
This state has not begun to grapple in any meaningful way with the meaning of what it is to gamble in the age of the internet. Back in the 19th century, Charles Dickens believed that the answer was not to be found in legislative intervention. That is not now a sustainable position.
But impactful legislative action will require imagination and courage — is there a policymaker out there fit to take up the fight and win?
And even with legislation there is a dire need for a broad information campaign on gambling — without this education, the stories of lives ruined by bets will only grow and grow. The centrality of gambling to sporting culture is obvious and undeniable. And as sporting culture is ubiquitous in our modern life, this has a profound relevance to our society.
So, to conclude, let’s return to those two emails from paddypower.com. They’re entitled to send them, of course; they are in the business of making as much money as they can. Although for them to make money, I must lose. And you must lose. As much as possible. So what they did was legal and in keeping with their goals around profit.
And they can rightly point out, too, that you can close your account and you can unsubscribe.
Although, that is not how addiction ordinarily works.
And even if it was, there is the fact of two emails in the space of an hour on Christmas Eve. You’d wonder how much damage receiving them could do to an addicted person and what that could mean to the lives of those around them.
Here, at least — viewed through the prism of Tony 10 — nothing ever brought home so clearly the reach of modern bookmakers into the minds and lives of their customers; and nothing demonstrated so brutally their relentless pursuit of profit.
Paul Rouse is associate professor of History at UCD and author of The Hurlers