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12 September 2002 Edition

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Does your granny play bingo?


Gambling, in all its shape and forms, is one of the most unrecognised addictions in Ireland today. Thousands of betting shops, like Paddy Powers, Stanley Racing, Ladbrokes and Boyles, not to mention casinos, racetracks, online betting organisations and lottery games operate daily in Ireland with full approval from the government. And why not? The industry provides a very healthy source of revenue for both the 26 and Six-County governments.

Beside almost every pub stands a betting shop, which is probably turning over anything up to ยค20,000 a day, of which the government is receiving three percent in taxes from the punters, not to mention the tax from the owners and employees.

Most of us walk past these shops every day and pay them not the slightest heed. Occasionally, on Grand National day, or when a major match is on, we might wander in and have a flutter.

Once inside a betting shop, the first thing most people notice is the darkness. Artificial lighting is the order of the day, as a result of the windows being covered up. The reason for this? So if anyone punters know happens to be walking past, they won't be able to see them inside. The second thing you'll notice is the amount of men (and they are usually men) slouching around with yellow dockets in their hands, staring up at screens or reading the racing section of the papers.

Many people feel intimidated going into a betting shop for the first time. It seems to be a world of its own, where only those `in the know' dare to venture. And people are right to feel intimidated, because despite its attempts to appeal to the broader public, the gambling industry makes most of its money out of other people's misery.

Gambling, however, does not only take place in the murky world of betting shops. Ever had a bet on the Lotto, or a night out at the dogs? Does your granny play bingo? Gambling is so widespread that some people don't even realise how ingrained it is in our culture. Since the founding of the National Lotto, calls to Gamblers Anonymous have increased by almost 15%.

But while the rest of us can safely say that we only indulge in the odd couple of euros week on the Lotto, some people are losing thousands every year to the betting monster.

Gambling is an international industry. There are world renowned gambling paradises, of which Las Vegas is the most famous.

In 1931, the State of Nevada legalised casino gambling. The Las Vegas Boulevard was born and it became a focal point for entrepreneurs, gamblers and criminals. The murder of flamboyant character and founder of the Flamingo Hotel, Benjamin `Bugsy' Siegel, by fellow Mafiosi for running up huge debts, sensationalised the Strip and cemented Las Vegas's reputation as a place of glamour and danger.

It wasn't long before the rest of the world followed suit and legalised the gambling industry. Governments quickly realised that they too could profit from an industry where consumers were willing to continuously hand over money for little or no return.

In some countries the revenue taken in from gambling is essential to the government's budget. This is the case in Australia, where gambling tax is one of the government's largest sources of income.

In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association first recognised pathological gambling as an impulse control disorder. Since then, the search for a `cure' has started in earnest. Previous to 1980, there had been few treatments available to the small number of gamblers who actually recognised and sought help for their addiction.

Gamblers Anonymous, which was founded in 1957, created a 12-step programme like its sister project, Alcoholics Anonymous, to help those who wanted to beat the habit. The programme was spiritual-based, and involved individual abstinence reinforced by group discussion and support. A non-physical aid, GA provides mental and emotional encouragement and support for those who are willing to admit they have a problem, and want to deal with it. Like their AA counterparts, Gamblers Anonymous insists that the addiction can never be cured, only arrested.

Modern medicine is currently looking into controlling the urge to gamble with medication. There are several drugs on trial at the moment and initial indicators look promising. In the past though, there have been a number of controversial treatments for gamblers, one of the most questionable being aversion therapy. These shock treatments were rarely of any help to gamblers, however.

Gamblers Anonymous is having an awareness week from 9-15 September. The aim of this is to alert the public to the problem of gambling. According to the organisation, compulsive gamblers often consider themselves morally weak, or just `no-good'. GA recognises that gambling is a sickness and tries to get to this message across to those suffering and to the general public.

GA is clear in the symptoms that can identify a gambler. They usually have an urge to be a `big-shot'. They generally have emotional insecurity and an inability to accept reality. One gambler says : "The only place I ever really felt like I belonged was sitting at the poker table. There I felt secure and comfortable." There is a certain level of immaturity - the desire to have all the good things in life without any of the effort. Most of them live in a dream world, where they see themselves being benevolent after their big win by helping out family and friends.

Compulsive gambling is an emotional problem, not a financial one. People would see this if they spent any time in a betting shop. A gambler never worries what his stakes are, as long as he has something to put on. Some gamblers will bet their last five cent on a race, just to feel the adrenaline rush.

In truth, with the exception of the high rollers, who always seem to land on their feet, and who all gamblers aspire to be, the picture of the ordinary punter is a sad affair.

None of the slouched men you see standing in betting shops are ever going to experience the bright lights and dizzy heights of Las Vegas. The majority are just looking for their daily fix.

When a flutter becomes a fix


Peter is a 67-year-old man who says that he has lost everything because of his gambling habit. He has a limp from when he was knocked down by a car a few years ago. The huge compensation money he received for this accident, in which he shattered every bone in his right leg, was not put towards family holidays in the sun where he could recuperate and relax. Peter spent all his compensation on betting. Now he is gambling away his pension money.

"My whole life revolves around gambling," he says. "When I was 12, I would go with me Da to watch the dogs and he'd let me pick out a dog every other race.

"As soon as I started earning, I would be down the betting shops gambling on the dogs, horses, football, darts, anything that I could watch and hope for a winner. I started off with a limit of a few quid every day, but I couldn't control it."

Peter met his wife when she was working as a cashier in Kilmartins, the largest betting shop chain around at the time.

"At the start she was ok with me betting," he says. "She'd met me in a shop, so I wasn't one of those husbands who had to lie about where I was all day."

However, Peter's wife soon became pregnant, and had to leave her job, in accordance with the law in those days. It was then that she expected Peter to stop gambling and start putting money towards their family. This was when the true force of Peter's addiction became obvious.

"I wanted to help her and my little girl," he says. "When the baby was born I was over in the pub across the road listening to the racing in Ascot. But when I saw my little girl I wanted to provide for her."

Peter managed to stay away from betting shops for only two weeks before he found himself back.

"The wife was understanding at first, 'cos she knew it was something that I was used to doing, and I didn't drink or smoke, so I had just one habit. But the habit grew, and soon I was heading straight to the betting shop after collecting my wages on a Thursday.

"She was forced to ask her Ma and Da for money. There was nothing. I was spending it all. I left nothing for bills, food or anything. I felt bloody awful, but that didn't stop me. I even loved the smell of the betting shop."

Peter and his wife broke up after five years of marriage, and she was so upset that she refused him access to his two children.

"Anything I've ever had in my life has gone to the bookies," Peter says solemnly. "I'd rather have been an alcoholic. There's only so much money you can spend on drink, and at least then people would have seen that I had a problem, instead of telling me to 'cop on to meself'."

Feeding the addiction


"We in the gaming industry feel that we are offering a service and if people want to avail of it, it is up to them how much they do," is the response we received from a local betting shop insider on the problem of gambling.

"Gambling is like anything else. Some people will gamble in moderation and have a bit of fun. Others may gamble a bit more, but they might not drink, or have any other habits, so they allow themselves a flutter on the horses. And then there are those who find it hard to stop. These are the people who usually find it hard to say 'no' to anything. We can't be held responsible for people having addictive personalities, and if it wasn't gambling they were interested in, it would be something else."

When asked if perhaps the gambling industry makes it too easy to bet, by opening longer hours (night racing was introduced in the last couple of years, as well as Sunday racing), the bookie denies this.

"Pubs are opening for longer hours as well," he points out. "This is so people can enjoy a drink whenever they want. It is up to the individual to say when enough is enough. The pubs aren't creating alcoholics any more than we are creating gambling addicts. And people who suggest that betting shops should close are forgetting that this is an entertainment service, which many people enjoy."

A cashier in a major betting chain says she often feels sorry for the men who gamble in her shop all day, and does feel that her bosses are too focused on profit. "The customers aren't happy with the longer hours. They're the sort of people who feel like they have to stay in the shop and bet on everything until closing time. It's the nature of their addiction," she says. "Years ago, we'd close at about half four. Now we stay open from ten until ten during the summer. I've worked twelve hour shifts, and I'd be well paid for standing here for twelve hours, and there would be the same punters standing out on the shop floor for the twelve hours, just handing in their money."

"The worst show of pure neurotic addiction that I have ever seen was when one of the regulars had a stroke, and asked the ambulance man to take the bets out of his jacket pocket and put them on for him. He told me when he came back, a few months later, that he was sure that they'd be the horses that won if he didn't put the bets on. People are amazed when I tell them that, but it's a regular story in betting shops.

"Years ago, betting shops were forbidden from encouraging punters to stay in the shops. No home comforts, like seats, toilets or tea or coffee machines were allowed. Betting shop owners became clever and started building their shops next to pubs, which in turn would show the racing on television. This meant there was a shared pool for the pubs and shops of drinkers and gamblers. Despite their denials, betting shop owners want to keep people in their shops handing over their money. It is the same story in the casinos.

"It is not the passer-by who comes in to put on the odd bet, that makes the bookie money. It's the men who stay in the shop all day until they are down to their last penny. And anyone who actually works in a betting shop will tell you this."

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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