'I was betting online every hour of the day'
Smartphones and tablets allow gamblers to make a punt without ever entering a bookies. Chrissie Russell reports on the growing problem of online gambling addiction
No one would have known Thomas had a gambling problem. Every day he took the train to work, held down a respectable job and at night he would return to his wife and young children, where he'd sit at the kitchen table, chatting to them about their day, only every so often pausing to glance at his mobile phone.
He could have been checking the weather forecast, emails or texts. But he wasn't. Instead he was quietly betting away the family's mortgage money, their crèche fees, money lent to him by his mother. Without ever setting foot in a bookmakers, Thomas was racking up €100,000 in debt, thanks to an online gambling addiction.
"I could have walked past a bookies like it was a café, it wouldn't have entered my head to go in," he says. "But I was betting on something every hour of the day."
Whether it was a big Irish rugby match or a table tennis game in Asia, it didn't matter, he was addicted to the rush of gambling on live sport, and the fact that he could do it with such ease.
"I gambled on the train, in the toilets at work, anywhere," he says. "I even considered giving up my job to become a professional gambler."
In 36 hours he won €15,000. "That's what you cling to," he says. "You forget about the fact that you lost it all a week later, the memory of the win keeps you coming back."
Also, he adds, it didn't seem real. Online it felt like 'Monopoly money' and it was so easy to conceal his addiction thanks to schemes enabling to transfer money online without sending up red flags with his bank.
Except, one day, the 'Monopoly money' needed to pay the couple's mortgage, ran out. He confessed his addiction to his wife, but hid the extent of the problem, and continued to gamble. One night she found him asleep with the phone in his hand, a bookmaking site on the screen. She told him to pack his bags and leave the family home.
It's the invisibility of an online gambling problem that makes it so destructive and frightening. No one is going to see you falling down or smell it on your breath like an alcohol or drug addiction.
Spend three days in a casino and hopefully someone might miss you - but online, nobody's watching. A barman will tell a drunk when he's had enough to drink, no one's telling the online gambler it's time to stop. You don't get thrown out of the internet.
"Of all gambling forms, the online environment is perceived as a gateway to secret, hidden gambling activities," says Dr Crystal Fulton from UCD, author of the report Playing Social Roulette: The Impact of Gambling on Individuals and Society, released in July. Her research found that advanced technologies have played a huge part in facilitating problematic gambling behaviour.
The Aiseiri Group (aiseiri.ie) are one of the top organisations tackling problem gambling, with treatment centres in Tipperary, Kilkenny, Wexford and Waterford. They've seen a 250pc hike in the number of people seeking help since the advent of online gambling. One-in-four gambler admissions are associated with online gaming.
But the secrecy associated with the issue means that it's difficult to quantify how big the problem is. Only 1pc of those needing help with a gambling addiction are believed to actually seek it out.
What is clear is that online gambling is dominated by technology savvy, young customers. According to Gerry Murphy, an addiction counsellor with Bushy Park Addiction Treatment Centre, this is grave concern because it sets up a pattern of behaviour, associating risk with reward, early in life.
Almost half of those who develop a gambling problem started betting when they were between 11 and 18.
College educated and in his early 30s, Thomas didn't fit with the stereotypical image of "the old man in the bookies" that he associated with being a problem gambler. Further enabling him to rationalise his behaviour was that he was being rewarded for it. The companies he held accounts with sent him corporate tickets to rugby matches with free food and drink and offered free bets.
"I was losing huge sums of money but in the morning there'd be a free bet waiting for me when I logged on. I didn't feel like I was doing anything wrong, I felt like a valued customer," he says.
Paul Mullins, an addiction counsellor with Aiseiri says this is a major problem. "I've been working with problem gamblers recently who told me that they recognised they might be developing a problem but after a few weeks of abstinence, they were contacted by the industry who attempted to lure them back, offering free bets and free credit to the tune of €200. This is quite reprehensible."
Ireland's biggest bookmaker, Paddy Power, has described online gambling as the 'sexy part' of the business, with online gaming responsible for some 77pc of their profits. The reasons they might be so enamoured with the industry are clear to see.
At a time when Ireland's high-street betting shops are on the demise (The Irish Bookmakers Association reports that from 1,365 betting shops in Ireland in 2008 there have been 481 closures) the online trade is flourishing. According to the Gaming and Leisure Association of Ireland, Ireland's share in the online market stands at around €2bn, a figure that's predicted to rise to €7.5bn in the next five years. Globally, online betting is worth a very sexy €44bn.
Paddy Power say they promote responsible gambling and offer online customers the option to set deposit limits, take a break or self exclude for periods ranging between six months and lifetime.
"We understand that some individuals do have problems with gambling and we recognise that those customers need education, treatment and support," says a spokesman for the company.
But those working first hand with gambling addicts say more needs done that doesn't place the onus on the addict. Dr Fulton's study concluded that a regulatory framework and social policy for gambling is "urgently needed". Education about the dangers of gambling needs to begin in school.
Nor is there enough understood about the reasons why people continue to gamble beyond their means. What is known is the devastating impact problematic gambling has on lives. Gamblers can be well practiced in deception and manipulation which means the sense of betrayal and breakdown of trust felt by those close to them can be overwhelming.
Having convinced themselves they're 'only borrowing' the money until their next win, some gamblers resort to theft and embezzlement. Once a problem has reached crisis point the gambler is often agitated, erratic, moody and detached from daily life. And they're always at crisis point by the time they look for help.
"Someone has been sacked, or there's been a complaint made to gardai or the mortgage hasn't been paid," says Gerry. "They're always in a lot of trouble."
It's been three years since Thomas placed his last bet. He received addiction counselling and attends Gamblers Anonymous meetings twice a week. His wife controls his finances.
"She says she's taking the biggest gamble now, giving me another chance," he says dryly, but he's relieved to have it. He avoids time alone on the internet and no longer has a smartphone. "I have an addiction, I know that," he says. "I'm no different to the alcoholics or heroin addicts I met in the treatment centre.
"But I don't think people take gambling addiction as seriously. Offering free bets to someone who has a problem is like offering free drugs to a teenager. When I stopped, I phoned up all the companies I had accounts with to tell them I'm an addict, but before I put down the phone, one of them was already telling me when I could come back."
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Are you addicted to online gambling?
Do you lose time from work due to gambling?
Is gambling making your home life unhappy?
Is gambling affecting your reputation?
Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?
Do you ever gamble to get money with which to pay debts or otherwise solve financial difficulties?
Does gambling cause a decrease in your ambition or efficiency?
After losing, do you feel you must return as soon as possible and win back your losses?
After a win do you have a strong urge to return and win more?
Do you often gamble until your last euro is gone?
Do you ever borrow to finance your gambling?
Have you ever sold anything to finance gambling?
Are you reluctant to use gambling money for normal expenditure?
Does gambling make you careless of the welfare of your family?
Do you gamble longer than you planned?
Do you ever gamble to escape worry or trouble?
Have you ever committed, or considered committing, an illegal act to finance gambling?
Does gambling cause you difficulty in sleeping?
Do arguments, disappointments or frustrations create an urge within you to gamble?
Do you have an urge to celebrate any good fortune with a few hours gambling?
Have you ever considered self-destruction as a result of your gambling?
Most compulsive gamblers will answer 'yes' to seven or more of these questions.
For more information and help, see gamblersanonymous.ie