As a person working for an NGO, which advocates for safeguarding measures to be put in place to protect vulnerable adults and children from gambling related harm, I sometimes get the occasional snarky comment directed my way. It's often something along the lines of, 'Won't somebody please think of the children?!' - a much-used quote from the Simpsons. I respect everyone's opinions on these matters and I'm more than happy to debate my side of the street with anyone who is so inclined. I'm very comfortable with my pearl-clutching, bleeding-heartedness - as I witness, first-hand, on a daily basis, the devastation which a lack of gambling regulation and harm-prevention services has on individuals, families and the wider community. The vast majority of people who attend our gambling addiction treatment service, started gambling as children.
Of all the massive gaps in problem gambling service provision, which I find utterly infuriating, the one that boils my blood the most, is the absence of any statutory intervention to "take appropriate measures to protect young people from gambling-related risks". The reason that last section is in quotes, is that it comes from the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People, 2014-2020 (Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures). The policy is in its final year and, to date, the only change which has the potential to have any positive impact on children and young people is the legislation enacted this year, which places an over-18s age restriction on Tote betting and on 'gaming' machines. Previously there had been no age limit at the Tote and 'gaming' machines (such as slot machines - the most addictive form of gambling) had an age limit of 16.
Government has completely ignored its duty of care to young people, when it comes to gambling-related harm. We know, from the recent European School Survey (ESPAD) of 15-16 year old's in Ireland, that betting on sports or animals (horse and dog racing) is the most common gambling activity. This can only happen if gambling operators are failing to verify the age of their customers. We also know that when the Regulator of the Irish National Lottery performed a 'Mystery Shopper' test in July 2018, they found that over one-third of retail staff (37%) did not attempt to verify the young person's age. A recent PQ reply from Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, showed that the State has never funded any harm-prevention interventions for gambling addiction.
In the recently released ESPAD survey, they looked at problem gambling among 15-16 year old's for the first time. While they did publish rates of problem gambling among those who gambled, they did not provide the prevalence rate, across all respondents. As I am terrible at maths and get nose-bleeds when it comes to statistics, I reached out for help. Doctoral Student, Conor Keogh (UCD) came to the rescue.
Here are the headline figures from Conor's analysis of the ESPAD Survey (2019) and a comparison with the National Advisory Council on Drugs and Alcohol (NACDA) problem gambling prevalence rates from 2014/15:
It is firstly important to consider that the above figures are not a statistical aberration and are generally in line with trends that are being seen all over Europe. Indeed, the ESPAD results found that of all those respondents across the full European sample who had gambled in the last twelve months, around 5% of respondents met the criteria for problem gambling. This
equates to a rate of around 1.4% across the total sample in Europe. As has been in the case in various previous research
findings, the ESPAD report also points to a very prominent gender discrepancy that exists in respect to problem gambling.
In every country surveyed in the ESPAD report, boys were more likely to be problem gamblers than girls (boys had an
average of 29%, compared to 15% amongst girls).
Going back to the Irish context, the 2014 / 2015 Drug Prevalence Survey carried out by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol (NACDA) was amongst the first prevalence surveys carried out in the country to gauge gambling
behaviours across the population. The report estimated that 0.8% of the male population aged between 15 and 17 fit
the criteria for being problem gamblers (based on the DSM-IV classification framework). For females of the same age bracket, the figure was slightly lower, estimated to be around 0.7%. Overall, male adolescents were more likely to have gambled at least once over the past 12 months (29.9%) compared to adolescent females (20.6%).
The recently released ESPAD statistics surrounding underage gambling in Ireland paint a highly dangerous picture. The
ESPAD survey report (which covers a wide range of adolescent behaviours including alcohol, drug, and technology use)
suggests that the problem gambling rate amongst Irish adolescent males has in fact risen to 1.7%, compared to the 0.8%
found in the NACDA report. This represents nearly a doubling of problem gamblers amongst this demographic. 15 – 16-year-old females were estimated to have a lower rate, estimated to be at around 0.2%. This is in line with the average across all age-groups in the female population (0.2%), based on the NACDA 2014/15 study. In line with
the other European states, boys who gambled had a higher problem gambling rate (7.6%) than the girls who gambled
(2.8%). Of the students who gambled in the last 12 months, 26.3% (around 1 in 4) felt they needed to bet and spend more,
and 12.2% (around 1 in 10) had lied to those close to them about their gambling behaviours.
In the UK, we see a similar situation. The Gambling Commission’s 2019 report that investigated gambling behaviour
amongst 11–16-year olds found that 1.7% of this demographic fit the criteria for being problem gamblers.
In terms of total figures, this means that approximately 55,000 children are classified as problem gamblers in England,
Scotland, and Wales. In addition to this, another 2.7% presented as being ‘at-risk’ gamblers, presenting
with signs that they could be at risk of developing a more serious problem. Overall, 39% of the full cohort of respondents
aged 11 – 16 have admitted gambling with their own money recently, with the most popular form of gambling being
fruit machines at arcades and pubs (incidentally, slot machines were the least favoured form of gambling amongst Irish
adolescent gamblers, according to the ESPAD data).
Gambling amongst adolescents: new forms of gambling
Decades of technological advance have meant that gambling has spread into various diverse forms of media, which has
meant that the lines which demarcate what exactly constitutes “gambling” have become blurry in recent years. Such
recent technological advancements have meant that gambling can be seen in increasingly common places, exposing
children to it on a very regular basis, via television, mobile phones, and increasingly, in video games. One of the most
notable places we can see this is through the increasingly popular “loot boxes” in video games. Indeed, recent research
published by Central Queensland University found that of the 82 best-selling video games available, 62% (51 of them)
had loot box mechanisms in them.
For example, “FIFA packs” (as one example of many more) have been a notable demonstration of the muddied definitional
lines between what is a harmless, fun feature of a game, and what is considered gambling. In many ways, the process of
opening a pack (or any other similar loot box) is very much psychologically akin to a gamble and involves stimulating the
brain in the same way that any other gamble does. As Macdonald (2018) says; “the dopamine hit is enjoyable, but
potentially addictive, and hard to resist”. Whilst technically the reward being received by the player is not physically
tangible (one might ‘pack’ a Lionel Messi in FIFA, yet this Messi has little to no value outside the game world), the
overarching mechanism remains the same – it is a game of chance, of risk and reward, and is ultimately psychologically
akin to real-life gambling that provides a “‘ripe breeding ground’ for the development of problem gambling among
children”(Drummond and Sauer, 2018). In a recent Oireachtas report, Hurley (2020) mentions that at the time of writing,
Ireland does not have a “gambling regulator, a digital safety commission or any other independent expert body responsible for determining whether loot boxes ought to be regulated as a form of gambling” and argues that there is a “growing
consensus” that such regulation is required in Ireland to regulate for such practices.
For many adult problem gamblers, their first exposure to gambling was in childhood. Testimonies from gamblers tell us
that this first exposure can range from anything like buying a scratchcard, betting on the Grand National, sneaking into a
casino, or perhaps playing cards with friends. Now, the number of opportunities available to would-be adolescent
gamblers is enormous. This, combined with a very-liberal approach to gambling advertisement (noticeably during
live sports), a prominent “gambling culture”, and the emergence and popularisation of gambling-simulator type practices
in more common forms of media (such as video games), has led to a situation where children and adolescents have become at great risk to the harms associated with gambling, and the recent ESPAD statistics are a distinct testament to this.
Problem gambling comes with a devastating personal, economic, psychological, and social cost. The figures that we see
here from ESPAD are a result of an industry that has been continually under-legislated for in Ireland, and are a stark
indictment of the Government’s failure to implement any meaningful legislation or solutions in order to counterbalance
the devastating personal, financial and social cost of a gambling addiction. They also act as a timely reminder (and warning) that not enough has been done to protect children and adolescents from the harm associated with gambling, and that
there is an urgent need for the development and implementation of proper channels of gambling prevention education,
support, and treatment in Ireland, along with re-emphasising the urgent need for across-the-board legislation.
NACDA Problem Gambling Prevalence Survey 2014/15
7 years ago, today, on the 15th of July 2013, the Heads of the Gambling Control Bill were published by the Fine Gael-lead government. The Heads of Bill outline a progressive piece of legislation, which has the potential to put in place fit-for-purpose legislation and regulation of gambling in Ireland, as well as creating a 'Social Fund', which would provide financial supports for problem gambling treatment, prevention, education and research. It saddens me greatly that we are here, 7 years later, with no enactment of the Bill and no Gambling Regulatory Authority in place.
To put this 7 year duration into context, the Public Health Alcohol Bill holds the current record for the longest interval between the publication of a Bill and its enactment - at 3 years. It was one of the most lobbied against Bills in the history of Irish legislation, by one of the strongest lobby groups in the country - the alcohol industry.
In the absence of fit-for-purpose legislation and regulation, we see what the outgoing Minister of State, with responsibility for gambling legislation, David Stanton, called a 'Wild West' environment. In any unregulated sector, with unenforced and, often, unenforceable legislation, you will inevitably see a 'race to the bottom'. Just as in other jurisdictions, unscrupulous gambling operators, in Ireland, prey on vulnerable people for profit.
In March of this year, Betway received a fine of £11.6 million from the UK Gambling Commission for failings linked to so-called 'VIP' customers.
In February of this year, Mr Green received a fine of £3 million for 'regulatory failures', including Anti-Money Laundering and Social Responsibility breaches.
In July 2019, Ladbrokes/Coral received a fine of £5.9 million for 'past failings in anti-money laundering and social responsibility'.
In October 2018, Paddy Power/Betfair paid a 'penalty package' of £2.2 million for 'social responsibility and money laundering failures on its gambling exchange'.
All of these companies provide gambling services, either online or land-based, in Ireland. It would be naive in the extreme to assume that they are better behaved in the unregulated Irish market, than they are in the regulated UK one.
Just over 9 years ago, it came to light that my colleague, Tony O'Reilly, had stolen €1.75 million from his employer, An Post, and gambled every cent of it. The vast majority was put through his Paddy Power account. At no point did Paddy Power staff make any effort to intervene on the basis that Tony clearly had a severe gambling problem - which they were uniquely placed to identify. Nor did anyone from Paddy Power ever inquire as to the source of the astronomical funds which a post office manager was gambling. Instead, Tony was given the 'VIP' treatment and given tickets to race meetings and football matches. This is what an unregulated gambling market looks like. There were no sanctions brought against Paddy Power for Tony's case.
Over the last 7 years of inactivity by the Irish Government, we have seen:
In March 2019, then Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, stated that a Gambling Regulatory Authority could take up to 18 months to establish. This would give a timeline of September 2020. While Covid-19 has, no doubt, impacted on that timeline, it is reasonable, after a 7 year wait, for the people of Ireland to expect urgent action.
If you are reading this and are sick and tired of the gambling industry in Ireland being unregulated, or if you wish to see funding directed towards treatment and prevention services, please contact your local TD. A list of contact details is available here: https://www.whoismytd.com/
The silent addiction cannot become the forgotten addiction. The time for action is now - not in another 7 years time.
Barry Grant, Addiction Counsellor & Founder, Problem Gambling Ireland
[We discuss this issue in more detail, in this week's episode of The Problem Gambling Podcast.]
Today, I wrote to the members of the Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Green Party negotiating teams, to ask that they ensure that Gambling Regulation is part of the new Programme for Government.
"I am writing to you, as a member of [your party's] negotiating team, to ask that you and your colleagues please ensure that the establishment of a Gambling Regulatory Authority is part of the new Programme for Government.
Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have committed to this in their manifestos. A Gambling Regulatory Authority would be self-financing, through licence fees, fines and levies. As such it would place no additional burden on the Exchequer, during these challenging financial times for our country. Any set-up costs could be recouped, over time, through (for example) any fines levied on gambling operators.
There are between 30,000 and 40,000 people with gambling problems in Ireland. It is estimated that, for every person with a gambling problem, an additional 8-10 people are adversely affected. The HSE stated that they only worked with 230 people with gambling problems in 2019. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Our free counselling service, in Waterford and Dublin, which launched in July 2019, worked with 98 people in its first 6 months of operation (with just two counsellors). At the start of lockdown we had over 50 people on the waiting list for Dublin.
A Social Fund - a mandatory levy on industry turnover – as outlined in the Heads of Fine Gael’s Gambling Control Bill, would fund urgently needed treatment, prevention and research in the area of problem gambling. Research from other parts of the world has shown a massive increase in online casino gambling, during the Covid 19 lockdown. This is a far more addictive form of gambling and, as such, we expect to see an increased need for supports in the coming months and years."
Barry Grant, Founder - Problem Gambling Ireland
In this episode of the podcast, we look at the starting point for anyone wishing to stop gambling. We cover the key areas of Access (self-exclusion), Time (what to do with your free time and to distract yourself from thoughts about gambling) and Money management. We discuss the challenges that come up for our counselling clients, as well as the advantages to having this control measures in place. The podcast is also available on Spotify and Google Podcasts.
Episode 1 of a new podcast, aiming to explore a wide variety of topics, surrounding problem gambling and gambling related harm. Presented by Tony O'Reilly and Barry Grant, this is an awareness raising project of registered charities, Problem Gambling Ireland and Extern. Barry Grant is an addiction counsellor and the founder of Problem Gambling Ireland. Tony O'Reilly is an addiction counsellor, author and expert by experience. In this first episode we discuss Tony's lived experience of addiction and recovery.
If you would like to send us any questions or ideas for discussion topics in future episodes, just email firstname.lastname@example.org, in complete confidence.
Also available on Spotify.
Over the last number of weeks, I like many of the clients that I work with, have been reflecting on gambling behavior and addiction. A few weeks ago. I was working on a couple of projects in regard to education and awareness and as part of this work I was examining my betting history. My betting history is a 1106-page document detailing my online bets and activity. It is with one Gambling Company and comprises of 6934 bets that were transacted through one account.
Tony10… customer ID 169967
I was looking for patterns and behaviours that highlight various aspects that can potentially lead to a gambling addiction. These include game design, betting in running, gambling with credit and the concepts of the chase/losses disguised as wins. I was bamboozled by the numbers and the sheer scale of the gambling. I was shocked by the events that I ended up gambling on. I reflected on how I let it get that bad. But mostly, I was very taken aback by my emotional reaction to it all. I found that I was reliving the trauma and emotional experience that I lived through for months while hiding and trying to gamble my way out of trouble. Similar to when working with trauma, I was trying to reach out to the side of me that got gripped by this madness and ‘put a compassionate arm’ around that side of me that still hurts, still feels extreme shame and guilt.
All the responsible gambling messages and ads tell you to ‘stop when the fun stops’, ‘know and set limits’, ‘only gamble what you can afford to lose’, ‘take a break’, ‘think about what you are doing’ and never chase your loses. The only thought that I had while in the grips of a gambling addiction was ‘How Do I Fix This’ and ‘How Do I Stop This Pressure and Madness in My Head’. I was out of control and couldn’t think rationally and ‘Be Responsible’.
Looking back now I accept full responsibility and have lost a lot because of gambling but staring at my history that Saturday afternoon I started to get more and more angry at the lack of controls and protection that I wasn’t afforded as a customer. I wondered what would have happened if there was regulation in Ireland back when I was gambling, and if it may have made a difference to me if I had been educated about the dangers of gambling while in school (in the same way that I was about Drugs and Alcohol).
I can’t go back and change what I did and undo the pain that I caused so many by my actions but I have tried to become a better person and try on a daily basis to help people who are struggling with gambling addiction. The one thing that frustrates me most is that 9 years on from when my story broke, little has changed. We badly need regulation and education in Ireland regarding gambling addiction. Hopefully, when the next Government is formed and after we work through these uncertain times, we will finally get the 2013 Gambling Control Bill enacted and the regulation in place which is so badly needed in Ireland. Gambling addiction like so many other behavioural addictions is a ticking time bomb, and in my opinion, growing and growing even in these dark days when everything else has come to a standstill.
Tony O'Reilly is an Addiction Counsellor with Problem Gambling Ireland and the co-author of 'Tony10'.
We have been working with the great people at CyberSafeIreland to get the message out there to parents about the potential risks of kids learning to gamble through gaming. Check out our recent guest blog on loot boxes in games and what parents need to know. Author: Olwyn Beresford.
My kids are mad about gaming so, as the games industry increases its focus on in-game purchases as a revenue source, I’ve had to agree some new rules with them around spending. My focus was initially a budgetary one, but it’s hard to ignore the negative news stories about the manipulative monetisation of gaming that targets children and the convergence between the worlds of gaming and gambling. The most controversial in-game purchase today, with links to both compulsive spending and gambling, is a loot box. I took a closer look at this particular purchase and discovered that there are valid reasons to be concerned.
What is a loot box?
A loot box is a consumable item offered for purchase in a video game or app that contains mystery or randomised content. It could contain any in-game merchandise from cosmetic items, like “skins” which change the appearance of a character or weapon, to functional items that impact gameplay and may allow for faster progress through the game. They are known by different names in different games(ref1) but whether they are called crates, packs, keys, chests, card bundles, etc. the concept remains the same. Figures from the UK Gambling Commission for 2018 show that 31% of young people, aged 11-16, have accessed loot boxes in a video game or app. Loot boxes usually have a small price attached (unless purchased in bulk), but you can buy them any number of times so it is possible to spend hundreds of euros, even in a small game.
Why should parents be concerned about this particular in-game purchase?
Loot boxes are considered to be a “game of chance” within video games because when you make a purchase you do not know the value or rarity of the items contained. It requires no player skill to access a loot box and the outcome is random so they function similarly to other games of chance, like scratch cards or slot machines, in many ways. Since the end of 2017, Apple has required that mobile apps publish the “odds” of receiving certain types of items in loot boxes before they can be purchased. Google recently announced a similar policy that will take effect from September 1st 2019.
When children purchase these mystery items they can experience the same emotions that real world gamblers do: reward anticipation, highs and lows depending on the contents received, spending more and more in the hope that they will get a better outcome next time, and so on. Children are likely to believe common gambling myths, e.g. that their luck will have to change if they keep purchasing, and they can end up spending more in an effort to recoup money already spent. In gambling terms they are “chasing their losses” looking for that valuable skin or in-game item that will make their previous spending worthwhile.
There is an additional concern with some games, e.g. CS:GO, Dota 2, PUBG, that allow for items received from loot boxes to be transferred outside the game via Valve's Steam platform. These items then become a virtual currency themselves because it is possible to gamble using skins in place of real money or to sell skins for cash on unregulated gambling and trading sites. Gambling with skins is one way for underage gamblers to bet on esports (professional gaming) events and it is easy for tech-savvy children to navigate the steps required to do so. In a 2018 survey(ref 2) 27% of UK children, aged 13-18, said that they had heard of skin gambling and 10% of children had gambled with skins. Children surveyed commented that their parents were unaware of their gambling activity.
Are loot boxes really gambling?
Opinions vary and there is still much to learn in this area but research studies(ref 3) have shown a significant link exists between loot box spending and problem gambling. One recent study(ref 4) also found that gamers who are drawn to loot boxes bear a closer resemblance to problem gamblers than they do to problem gamers. This is very worrying at a time when gambling rates among children are rising at an alarming rate(ref 5).
A number of countries, including China, Japan, Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands have included loot boxes under their gambling legislation. Some of these countries have set rules around their design or availability, while others banned them altogether. This has forced games manufacturers to modify their games for these markets. The US is also considering a complete ban on the sale of loot boxes in games and all games with pay to win purchases(ref 6). Games manufacturers will lobby hard to avoid this, given how lucrative these purchases are. To date Ireland has chosen not to restrict the sale of loot boxes in games but did sign an international declaration last year, alongside 15 other countries, expressing concern about gambling in video games.
Advice for parents
Loot boxes are just one way in which children are exposed to gambling concepts through gaming today. With problem gambling on the rise it is vital that parents talk to their gamers about gambling risks so that they can develop a healthy relationship with gambling in later life. Our Gambling Guide for Gamers provides more information to help parents navigate this area.
It has been estimated that the cost of problem gambling to the UK taxpayer is £1.2 billion per year (£18.17 per head of population). If similar figures were reflected in the Irish population, the cost to the Irish taxpayer, from problem gambling, would be in the region of €98 million (£87 million). Up until this year, the tax revenue from Betting Duty in Ireland was only in the region of €50 million. A doubling of the Betting Duty rate (to 2%) in Budget 2019, means that revenue should increase to roughly €100 million. You may be thinking that this balances the books. Unfortunately, in true Irish fashion, this is not the case. According to the Horse Racing and Greyhound Act, the Minister shall pay into the Horse Racing & Greyhound Fund, out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas, "an amount, determined by the Revenue Commissioners, equivalent to the revenue paid into the Exchequer in the year . . . from excise duty on off-course betting". This means, in practice, that the entire tax-take from Betting Duty is ring-fenced in favour of Horse Racing Ireland (80%) and The Greyhound Racing Board (20%). Horse Racing Ireland and The Greyhound Racing Board are, themselves, gambling operators, through Tote betting. (Just in case you're thinking that these entities 'only' receive a paltry €50 million every year, you'll be happy to know that in 2018 the Fund was topped up with an additional €30 million from general exchequer funding in 2018.) As the Horse Racing & Greyhound Act has not been amended, this means that the entire increase in revenue, obtained from the doubling of Betting Duty, is due to end up in the Horse Racing & Greyhound Fund.
Meanwhile, the accumulated government spend on reducing gambling-related harm in Ireland, since the inception of the State is zero.
In September 2018, Minister for Health, Simon Harris stated: “I don’t believe as a country we have made nearly enough progress in relation to how we tackle the issue of addiction in relation to gambling,” and that he would speak to Catherine Byrne, the junior health minster responsible for addiction services, about making more money available for gambling treatment.
In February of this year, after the release of prevalence data into gambling and problem gambling in Ireland, Minister of State, Catherine Byrne, stated: "For the small percentage of people for whom gambling is a problem, we need measures to reduce problem gambling and its impact on individuals and their families". Commenting on the same survey, Minister of State, David Stanton, stated: "This is especially important for the small percentage of people for whom gambling can negatively affect significant areas of their lives including their mental and physical health, employment, finances and relationships with others.”
In October 2018, Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe, stated that the social cost of problem gambling was one of the factors that caused him to raise betting tax. However, despite submissions by this organisation and the Rutland Centre, along with pressure from the Independent Alliance, no allocation of funding from Betting Duty or elsewhere has yet been made, for services which work to prevent and treat gambling addiction. In November 2018, Minister Donohoe also stated: "While problem gambling can result in the problem gambler, and their family, bearing the severest of economic and of course personal costs, the social costs of problem gambling can extend to their employers and to public institutions in the health, welfare and justice systems, such costs ultimately borne by taxpayers. This needs to be better reflected within the betting duty regime."
In July 2017, Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, stated that gambling "gives rise to people becoming addicted, impoverished and unwell as a consequence" and that "Legislation in this area is long overdue". I would put it to the Taoiseach, that funding for frontline services is also long, long overdue.
While it is gratifying to hear acknowledgements of the harm caused by problem gambling in Ireland and heartwarming to hear that government representatives would like to see funding being made available to help people affected by gambling related harm - no meaningful action has yet been taken by this government that would in any way help the tens of thousands of people currently suffering.
Enough talk. It's time for the Irish Government to put their money where their mouth is and begin funding prevention and treatment services.
CEO, Problem Gambling Ireland
A Guest Blog Post from Mark. We would like to thank Mark for making contacting and offering to share his story. The original post can be found on Mark's blog: https://marksrecovery.blogspot.com/
**Please note that GamStop, which Mark mentions in this post, is only available to UK residents. GamStop is a multi-operator self-exclusion scheme - the type of system which is badly needed in Ireland and which should be a priority of the proposed Gambling Regulatory Authority, when it is established**
"My name is Mark and i’m a compulsive gambler. My last bet was April 2nd 2019. The day of April 2nd was a massive turning point in my life, it was the day I finally admitted to my long term girlfriend, who is the mother of my two children, and to my parents that I was a compulsive gambler and needed help. The weekend prior was when I finally said to myself I’ve had enough, I had been betting for 14 years and it had beaten me so badly that I was a mess mentally and financially. Although no one knew that because I was an expert at hiding it.
I started gambling like almost anyone in the UK or Ireland, The Grand National. The one day of the year where it seems like every man, woman and child has a bet on. The biggest horse race in the world. That and those glorious holidays spent in Portrush playing the 2p machines. I don’t for one second blame those experiences for my gambling problem, they are just my first memories of gambling.
Once I turned 18 I opened an account with Blue Sq and that started my online sports gambling journey. Friday nights were spent betting on Wolverhampton all weather horse racing and the Dutch and French 2nd Divisions. All harmless fun, controlled gambling, small stakes. I was still working part time at this stage, left school that summer and gambling was not in the way. Once I got my full time job though that all changed.
The first time I could put my finger on when my gambling changed was the first day of the 2008/2009 football season. I’d been working full time for about 3 years and my gambling was still under control. I gambled, but it wasn’t causing me any issues. That Friday I walked into a Paddy Power and decided instead of placing a load of stupid football bets for £1 or £2 I’d pick three teams for the season and do a £20 treble each week. Sheffield United, Leicester City and Leeds United were the picks. Of course, the first weekend it landed (the only time it landed all season I think) and my betting changed from that moment. I genuinely can’t remember the odds but I must have lifted over £100 from that £20 stake and after that staking £1 or £2 just wasn’t appealing. What was the point in that when I could stake £20 and win more. From that moment my gambling started to get out of control over time. Then came the loans, the credit cards, the payday loans.
I knew early on I had a problem. I self excluded from places over the years but never really wanted to quit. I was getting in debt but was able to continue with my lifestyle as I was living at home. I remember one day going to a cheque cashing place where I could write a cheque for £100, dated on my next payday, and they’d give me £90 there and then. I did two cheques for going out that weekend (and a couple of bets on the Aintree Festival) walked straight to the bookies and had the £180 on Denman to win the Aintree Bowl at even money. He suffered the first fall of his career. Back I went to the cheque cashing place for another £90.
I moved out and into my friends house for a year and the gambling continued, although I had less money to gamble with. My credit rating was taking a battering but I was young and didn’t really care. Then I met my current girlfriend in the February and we moved in together that September. The gambling continued and was getting worse. I made the smart move to get a second job to supplement my gambling…...at a greyhound track. I’d be earning about £20 a night but gambling £60 or £80. Insanity. We had our first child in April 2012 and not long after she found out I’d be gambling some of the money we’d saved. It wasn’t a lot of money, but she was pissed (rightfully so). I managed to talk my way out of it and that was when I became really good at hiding things. She took control of the rent money and any money for our son so that was never in danger, thankfully. We had our daughter in 2016 but the gambling still continued.
I would go through phases where I’d stop altogether for months on end, a year at one point, but I’d always go back to it thinking I was in control but I never was. When gambling I’d deposit £10, lose it, deposit another £10, lose it, rinse and repeat until all my money was gone. If I won it just meant I could gamble longer. It was never about the money. I thought it was, but really the money was the fuel that could keep me gambling longer. Most months I was skint a few days after payday and couldn’t gamble until the next payday.
At the end of 2016 I got an overdraft of £2k and gambled it all on soccer all around the world. Woke up and started gambling in Asia, moved across the globe into the Middle East, Africa, Europe and then fell asleep betting on South American football. It was out of control. Betting on Egyptian football on Xmas Day a particular lowlight.
Coming into 2018 I was in a “good place” with gambling, or so I thought. I was Matched Betting which was a way of making money via bookmakers offers. It worked well for a few months but it all went to shit in the Summer of 2018. Matched Betting introduced me to the casino side of things and I lost £3.5k on roulette. I’ll not go into the ins and outs of how I had that sort of money, lets just say I didn’t and I found a way to deposit via direct debit and of course those all bounced. Luckily Paddy Power rewarded me by making me a VIP customer after that. So I was chasing big style and getting free £50 bonuses each week from them but I could never get enough money to stop, because no amount was ever going to be enough. Their offers of Money Back if Horse X wins are normally £10 max refund, I was getting £100 max refund. Eventually I was running out of ways to get money and when I started to bet less with Paddy Power they removed my VIP status. I did win £1000 on an NFL bet and lost the lot on roulette the next week. Another lowlight.
2019 I could feel myself struggling. My life was consumed with gambling or working out how to get money to gamble and then how I was going to pay people back what I owed them. I was in a bad place, I was a bad person, lying, angry, grumpy but still no one knew the truth.
Then came the weekend prior to April 2nd. I had just been paid and deposited some money into my Bet365 account and managed to get my balance up to £910 on the Friday 29th March. I should say by this stage I was fully gambling on tennis. Not match winner, that took too long, generally set winner or next game winner as that was quicker. Now this £910 would have cleared some of my urgent debts to allow me to continue on gambling. All I had to do was withdraw, and I was going to…...once I got it up to a nice round £1000. As you can guess I lost the lot. £300-£400 on Benoit Paire was one of the worst hits but I was gambling like a mad man. That was how I bet when I had winnings, the stakes got out of control. By the time I was leaving work at 6pm on the Friday the whole £910 was gone. I was betting on ATP, Challenger, ITF, any tennis that was on I was betting on it. Back in the day I remember betting on a tennis match where they had one ball. Still a story that brings a smile to my face if I’m honest. That Friday night I deposited whatever I had left in and managed to win back a good chunk of the money, but it still wasn’t enough. It still wasn’t what I had before. So the whole weekend went like that, up and down, up and down. I went to a family dinner and sat betting on my phone the whole night. That’s how my life has been the last number of years, I’m present at gatherings, or nights out but my mind is deep in my phone gambling away not giving a shit about anyone.
Eventually the money ran out that weekend. I was a mess. I could have actually made it work financially and gotten through the month but mentally I was gone. I could tell my brain had put me into a nosedive and the only way this was all ending was in disaster. Maybe not this month, or this year but I was been flown towards rock bottom.
I sat down on the Monday and wrote out everything that I owed, who I owed it to, a budget going forward. It was grim enough reading, £18k in the hole. The money wasn’t the issue, it was how it was making me feel, the time I've been wasting. I found out when and where the nearest GA Meeting was to me and wrote that down too. So I found a set of balls and on the Tuesday I told my girlfriend. My attitude was that life can’t be any worse for me than it currently is. I was a mess, I cried, I honestly expected her to tell me to get out and I wouldn’t have blamed her, but she was amazing. She was angry obviously, but she was so supportive. Then I called my parents round and told them. They were disappointed, confused but also really supportive. Then the next day I told my closest friends who were again all really supportive. I owe them some money too and they’ve been great about setting up a payment plan to pay that back.
I registered for GAMStop and self excluded online for 5 years which has taken the avenue of online gambling away from me. A vital step if online is your vice.
I then went to my first GA Meeting on Wednesday 3rd April. The time doesn’t suit me for that, Monday at 9pm is my meeting but I felt I needed to get to one ASAP. I don’t know what I expected GA to be but it’s one of the most amazing groups I’ve ever found. It’s a dumping ground for all my shit and it’s a place where I can listen to other people’s stories. Without sounding sexist, it’s something a lot of men could do with outside of addiction, a place to talk about life and how they are feeling. I take a 50 mile round trip every Monday to get there. When I was gambling if I had to travel 50 miles to get internet to gamble you can guarantee I’d have traveled every day. When I leave a meeting, I’m buzzing, for all the right reasons. I’m a lifer when it comes to GA now and i’m fine with that.
I’ve been clean for 10 weeks now, and I've had no urges to gamble. My life is amazing, it always was but I was too wrapped up in my addiction to notice. I have an amazing girlfriend and two amazing children along with my parents who are absolutely fantastic. My friends are another support network I couldn’t do without now.
I’m also a member of the problem gambling sub on Reddit and they run a weekly meeting via Skype every Wednesday which is becoming part of my weekly routine (they are also adding an additional one on a Tuesday).
Recovery is now my focus along with my family. The debt can be managed, stopping gambling is one day at a time, but the main focus of my recovery will be fixing my character defects, helping others, being open and honest to people and not being a selfish asshole.
I have no issues with the gambling industry or people who gamble, I just know that I am unable to gamble as it ends in disaster. I feel there should be more discussion around problem gambling and the industry should be putting more money into helping problem gamblers and to help identify problem gamblers. It’s a fine line though, as I know if a bookie told me they felt I had a problem and wouldn’t accept a bet I’d have been angry and just went somewhere else. You need to be ready for recovery to fully embrace it. I never was until April 2nd. For the people in recovery we need to be ready to help those that get to the stage where they are ready for recovery. We are the ones who these people will come to rely on as we’ve been through it, you can tell when talking to someone who hasn’t had a gambling addiction they just don’t understand. Over the coming years I think there will be a significant rise in people looking for help with problem gambling.
For now though, for me, my next bet won’t be about the money I lose, I’ll lose my girlfriend and children as well and that’s not a bet that’s worth making."
I am delighted to release our Annual Report for 2017 (opens in a new window).
Special thanks to the Community Foundation for Ireland for funding the development of this report.
Key Achievements in 2017 (summarised):
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our service-users, volunteers, funders, friends and supporters and wish all of you a happy and healthy 2019.
CEO, Problem Gambling Ireland
Barry Grant, Addiction Counsellor, Founder.