A reformed gambler explains why a flutter can lead to an addiction worse than alcoholism

Saturday’s Grand National saw people placing bets that won’t bet again this year. For others, that first win can spark an addiction more hidden than alcoholism, one reformed gambler tells Jonathan de Burca Butler

LAST Saturday, thousands of people in Ireland took their annual plunge into gambling.

For them, the English Grand National is the only occasion they set foot inside a bookies shop. Horse selection is often made on a whim; its name evokes a memory or the jockey is wearing your favourite colour.

Traditionally, punters stick a pin in the list of runners and riders and hope for the best. There are winners and losers and, for the majority of us, that will be that until next year.

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It all sounds like harmless fun, but according to gambling addict, Willie (surname withheld), that pin prick will be the start of an addiction for some people.

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“If you think about a young fella and the thrill he’ll get from that, if he wins,” says the 36-year-old. “On Saturday, you would have got somebody who’ll be hooked for life.”

I meet Willie and addiction counsellor, PJ Deane, in the Teach Mhuire Rehabilitation Centre, on Gardiner Street, in Dublin. It is lunchtime and as we speak in a quiet room overlooking a courtyard. Upstairs, there is a meeting of 20 gamblers.

There are 31 meetings per week for gambling addicts in centres around Dublin. In the Gardiner Street Centre alone, there are 10. That’s three more meetings than groups for narcotics and seven more than the regular alcohol-addiction meetings.

“My first thing was the slot machines,” says Willie.

“I was travelling over to Liverpool on the ferry, on a football trip. My mother got the loan of a tenner for me to use as spending money. But I saw these things and I loved them.

“I was down to my last pound. I put it in the machine and I won the jackpot. Twenty-five pounds it was. I brought the whole team, all my mates, into the cinema on the boat and looked after myself for the rest of the weekend in Liverpool. I loved it.”

Willie was 10. It would take a long time for that seemingly innocent stroke of luck to turn to full-blown addiction, but he cites the thrill of winning that day as the “thing he was probably chasing for years to come”.

At 17, Willie started visiting the bookies’ to bet on football with friends. He was too impatient to wait for the results, so in the meantime he had a flutter on greyhound racing.

“It was quick,” he says. “They were around that track in 28 seconds.”

A five-year stint in the army kept him away from bookies’, but when he returned to civilian life, he returned also to the betting shop.

This time, as well as football and dogs, there was virtual horse racing and when Willie went on his honeymoon, to Las Vegas, he discovered blackjack. He soon became a regular face at casinos across Dublin.

“I was in this casino once and I was walking out with four grand,” he says.

“I went over to the window to cash in my chips, but there was nobody at the window. She had gone out for a smoke. They told me: ‘she’ll be back in five minutes’. They knew exactly what they were doing. I couldn’t wait. I went back over to the table. I blew the lot.”

Willie kept his habit a secret, but holes began to appear. Online gambling gave Willie a bookie shop in his pocket. At work, 10-minute toilet breaks would take an hour.

When he started losing his wages, family members were called on to cover the shortfall. Nobody suspected a thing. Willie would win and pay back what he owed. Inevitably, he would lose again and have to ask for more funds.

He soon started tapping into the mortgage repayments.

“I had bought a taxi plate, with redundancy I had got from another job,” says Willie.

“I sold that for €6,300. In cash. I needed it to pay off people I owed money to. But once I got it, I went to the bookies’. I said: ‘Right, I’ll double this now and I’ll buy back the plate’. I lost the lot of it.”

Willie made several attempts to stop, but got dragged back. There was nothing left to lose.

“Then, one day, I transferred all the money from all the accounts onto my online [betting] account and I lost it all,” he says. “Twenty-eight minutes it took. I had to tell my wife.”

The result was the breakdown in their relationship and his ejection from home. He has yet to return.

“Typically, we get two types of gambler into Teach Mhuire,” says PJ.

“People who’ve been gambling 20 years and who will be depressed. The years of highs and lows gets to them. Then, you get the younger ones, who are using the internet, they’re on a high still. So, you have to calm some down and the others you have to pick up.

“First thing we actually do is see how suicidal they are and there are some who have attempted suicide, before they come into us. And then we decide if they need treatment, one-to-one counselling. Or, can they go down the Gamblers Anonymous 12-step route? We facilitate that here.

“But the major thing is taking them out of the environment and, in the case of a gambler, we take their money away.”

Willie goes to at least three meetings a week in different centres around Dublin. Without the meetings, he says he could not stay on the straight-and-narrow.

He sees more of his children now than he used to and his relationship with his partner is better than it was when he was gambling.

He has not had a bet for five years. He ignored the Grand National.

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