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A betting man since his youth, internet gambling should have been tailor-made for Declan Lynch. Instead, as he says in his new book, 'Free Money -- A Gambler's Quest', with his first-hand knowledge of addiction, the ability to bet all day and night on any obscure sport just scared him. And it should scare you, too. Photography by Sarah Doyle

Paul Newman in The Color Of Money

I was asked to give a reading in Waterford recently, at the annual Sean Dunne Writers' Festival. Which gave me the opportunity to test drive a few sections of my new book, Free Money, which is about gambling.

I got through the reading, somehow, but it was the post-match discussion, as it were, which brought enlightenment. Because there was a certain mood of wonderment in the room, about the ease and simplicity of online gambling.

In fact, as I described the process by which you can open an online-betting account, and start betting immediately on anything that can even vaguely be called sport, it seemed to me, and to most others in the room, that few things in this world are easier or simpler.

If you have a functioning credit card, you just need to google the name of any well-known betting corporation, you get on to their website, you supply them with your credit-card details as you would in any internet transaction, and you start betting.

You can bet on anything from football in South America to the winner of Celebrity Big Brother -- the range of markets is kaleidoscopic. And if you start winning, you can withdraw your winnings instantly to your credit card by pressing a button.

Result: free money. Result: happiness.

In the mind's eye, I could see half the room abandoning their literary journey for the time being, and adjourning immediately to their computers, to get hooked up to this new magic that they had found.

I learned that you can be talking all night about the dark sides of gambling, such as the bankruptcies and the suicides and the insidious ways in which betting corporations have been making themselves respectable, and that while some people will be adopting a mature position, taking it all in, others will just be thinking: "When can I start?"

I have no trouble understanding this impulse, because I have been betting in various ways since I was a boy, and still it fills me with wonder that something so enjoyable and so potentially catastrophic is now available to every man and woman in their own home at any time of the day or night.

But that reaction in Waterford to internet gambling wasn't the first shoeshine-boy moment I had in relation to the gambling boom in general. I described the first moment in this newspaper, a few years ago -- it was the occasion of the opening in the village of Rathfarnham of a branch of Paddy Power. Which was situated a few doors down from an established branch of Ladbrokes. Which suggested that there would be a fight to the finish between Power and Ladbrokes, to see which of them could survive on this little street.

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The result was swift, and it was decisive -- a third office opened, a branch of Boylesports.

'Gambling promises the poor what property performs for the rich -- something for nothing'

George Bernard Shaw

So I started writing about this thing, from the perspective of someone who had started betting in the days of dirty realism, when you actually had to go to a bit of trouble to get to some side-street bookie's office, and to stand there in the company of deeply damaged men, handing real money across the counter.

There was no Paddy Power on the radio with his "fun bets", no bank of TV screens, no water coolers and no coffee, and definitely no toilets or anything that might encourage you to linger or to have a pleasant experience in any normal sense.

Such was the forbidding nature of these dives, they brought you into direct physical contact with the raw realities of winning and losing, and losing and losing. They gave any young man who went there a clear vision of where he might be going, a living exhibition of misfortune and failure.

The young man in his bedroom, with his credit card and his laptop, betting in the middle of the night on the American football on Sky Sports, has not seen such terrible things. And, as a result, he has almost no chance of turning out as well as I have.

Though I will concede that I gained a further perspective on the global gambling phenomenon due to my work on the Irish drink phenomenon. I had a bit of 'previous' in the area of addiction. So I could comprehend with an appalling clarity that, for the man who is overly fond of gambling, to have round-the-clock online-betting facilities under his own roof was the equivalent for an alcoholic of living in a fully functioning pub -- a pub with a great atmosphere and a band playing.

Yet, if anything, gambling was my first love. So, having given up the drink, the advice from a therapist or any professional attached to the addiction industry would be to stay away altogether from the environment of gambling, which has become so outwardly jolly in recent times.

Ah, but if I have deep reservations about the gambling industry, I am not entirely convinced either by the experts of the addiction industry.

Essentially, I think they are too quick with the bullshit, too eager to describe anything that gives pleasure to human beings as an addiction.

I suspect that there is a self-interested and a moralistic undercurrent whereby addiction has become the new sin and, in the context of therapy, I feel that men in particular are seen as the more prolific sinners, condemned not just for what they do, but for what they are.

But was I just using these fine arguments as excuses as I discovered the easy pleasures of online gambling? Would I, indeed, become addicted in the true sense, as distinct from the bullshit sense? As I embarked on the writing of Free Money, which partly involved the keeping of a personal betting diary, the advice from any caring professional would have consisted of one word, underlined in bold capitals: 'Don't.'

'A dollar picked up on the road is more satisfaction to us than the 99 which we had to work for, and the money won at Faro or on the stock market snuggles into our heart in the same way'

Mark Twain

But then, I am not like the others. I was trying to get to the root of this thing, rather than writing some memoir for the talk shows about how I lost all my money, or a 'How To' book -- How To Win At Blackjack! -- which, at best, would perhaps lead you, one day, to be sitting at a table in Las Vegas beside a man wearing a large green hat.

Then again, every gambler thinks that he is not like the others. When you win a bet, it makes you feel that you possess some special insight, that you are blessed. Gambling is about having your judgement vindicated, it's about being proved right. Which may help to explain why it has traditionally been an addiction dominated by men.

To triumph over the odds, using only your brainpower and your sporting instincts, to live off your wits, is something that stirs the most ancient longings in the hearts of men. And it tends to be the men of above-average intelligence who will go further than most to have their judgement vindicated. After all, if you think you're a smart guy, you assume that you'll be able to stay out of trouble. Even if you're a million down, and heading south, your ego will keep you believing that you can turn it around, and with one mighty leap you will be free.

So, there was serendipity in the fact that I started writing Free Money on the day that a Frenchman called Jerome Kerviel, an employee of Societe Generale, was reported to have lost about €5bn, all on his own.

At the time, of course, €5bn seemed a lot of money for one man to lose. But it confirmed my feeling that the book should have roughly three strands -- the first would be the internet-betting diary, which would naturally bring us deep into the head and the heart of the gambler, and ideally bring down Paddy Power; the second would be a memoir of that old world, in which betting was still regarded as an unsavoury activity rather than a form of family entertainment -- a world full of dark and wondrous stories; and then there was this fresh lunacy, whereby a Jerome Kerviel might make a few wrong moves on his laptop of a Tuesday afternoon and make a venerable institution disappear.

For what was Kerviel doing but online gambling on a gargantuan scale? "It's more than you'll get from the Bradford & Bingley," I would say, describing a very conservative bet, which would yield a very small return, but which kept you going in the right direction. About six months later, my conservative punting had left me in a considerably stronger financial position than said Bradford & Bingley.

Early doors, I had been extolling the virtues of Sean Quinn's weekly poker game, in which the pot would usually contain no more than a fiver, to illustrate how a man can get off on the primal energies of gambling without necessarily blowing his wad. Six months later, I would be lamenting the emergence of the same Sean Quinn as a billion-euro casualty. I would see Bear Stearns down, and Lehman Brothers, while I made modest profits and losses on tennis matches in Romania in the afternoon on Eurosport, or backed Harrington to win the British Open.

I felt, with some justification, that I was the one making the wise investments, while those guys were gambling, gambling the world away.

'The urge to gamble is so universal, and its practice is so pleasurable, that I assume it must be evil'

Heywood Broun

Gambling in the 'financial services' sense has indeed destroyed the world as we knew it. Yet there is still a lack of understanding out there, of just how powerful the addiction can be, probably the most powerful of them all.

Islam is against a lot of things, but it is probably more against gambling than it's against anything else. And perhaps Islam is calling it right here, identifying gambling as the daddy of them all, which "makes rich families poor, and humiliates proud souls".

Gambling relies on no drink or no drug, but on self-generated toxins such as vanity, and greed, and the deadliest of them all -- hope. We are, as the novelist Michael Chabon puts it, "ruined again and again by hope".

And this helps to explain why the gamblers of Wall Street were able to take us all the way down. Because, uniquely among all the addictions, gambling holds out this promise: no matter how deep the hole you have dug for yourself, you can get yourself out of it, using the same shovel that got you into it. You don't rescue your drinking or your drugging career by drinking or drugging more; but right until the very end, you can entertain the hope that all your gambling losses will be erased, with one spectacular play. These are bright guys, remember, who will never lose faith in their own abilities.

This is how the operators of Ponzi schemes keep going. As incurable gamblers, they keep hoping against hope that their smartness will bail them out. Bernie Madoff went down eventually, but for 30 years he was ahead of the game. Which is a long time for a gambler to be winning. Long enough for him to suppose that the evil day will never come, that he is just too good at this thing to lose. That he has been right all along.

And, now, anyone with an urge to gamble is being facilitated at every turn by the synergy between sports, television, and online betting, a devastatingly powerful three-way combination -- many sports are now sponsored by betting corporations, and are televised almost entirely for betting purposes. The legalities are a mess, and constantly shifting, with online betting still officially banned in the USA, Germany, France and Holland. But it is rampant throughout the sporting world, and the trends are towards legalisation rather than prohibition. Which probably makes sense, because the alternative is to hand it all over to our friends in the organised crime sector. And because this thing is too big.

'The better the gambler, the worse the man'

Publius Syrus

To give an idea of how big it is, I like the story of a tennis match in the second round of a tournament in Poland in 2006. Tennis is now massive in the online-betting markets, because punters enjoy the fact that there are no draws, and organised criminals enjoy the fact that it's so easy to fix a tennis match.

So, there were 'unusual betting patterns', as they say, around this tennis match, and a subsequent investigation cleared all parties of wrongdoing. About €7m was reportedly wagered on this match, with Betfair.

But, for me, the true revelation lay in the report that this wager was 10 times what Betfair would usually expect to see on such a match. Which means that, in the normal run of events, one tennis match, in the early rounds of some obscure tournament in Poland, would be generating about €700,000. On one website. And still, they want more.

While I was getting deeper into writing Free Money, I saw this headline claiming that about one-third of online gambling accounts are now held by women. I was astonished, because I knew that this couldn't be even remotely true in relation to sports betting, which is what mainly concerns me here. But could they be talking about casino games and poker and suchlike, which are not really my thing?

Turns out, they were talking mainly about online bingo. Bedroom bingo. This is the gateway drug, by which they hope to inveigle the other half of the human race into the maw of gambling. Because, historically, the natural enemy of the bookie is Woman.

Lacking that obsessive streak of the male, and his self-destructive desire to be proved right, she wanders into the betting office, maybe once a year, knowing nothing. And perhaps liberated by that very lack of knowledge, she will somehow back the winner of the Grand National at 100/1, while men who have been working hard all their lives at betting stand back in stupefaction.

But for the bookie, there is an even more sinister weapon in the armoury of Woman.

Because having backed the winner out of pure dumb luck, she will then take that money and walk out of the shop. And then, she will spend that money. She will not give it all back, as men understand that you must do. She will not even give something back. She will spend it. Somewhere else.

Now, with the online bingo, and perhaps the inevitable progression to roulette or blackjack, have the bookies finally cracked it? Through the online phenomenon, and by their relentless campaigning to make themselves look like purveyors of family entertainment, have they finally found a way to capture that half of the human race which for so long has eluded them?

And in their fantastic greed, are they perhaps losing sight of certain fundamental truths, as did their counterparts in the City? Is the ruthless and disgraceful pursuit of their old enemy, Woman, perhaps their first big mistake ?

Put it like this: the day you see the headline, 'Mother of four commits suicide over gambling debts', is the day the world will look anew at this business. Then we are all in trouble.

'The subject of gambling is all-encompassing. It combines man's natural play instinct with his desire to know about his fate and his future'

Franz Rosenthal

So, this is the vision of family entertainment offered by the 'gaming' corporations: father is punting away on the football, on Sky Sports, while mother busies herself with her bedroom bingo, and little Joe, a brilliant professional poker player at the age of 18, is on his laptop honing his instincts before they all go to see him representing Ireland in the World Championship in Vegas. Happy days.

Time was, about three men in Ireland were going around calling themselves professional gamblers; now, they seem to be everywhere. And, as I was writing this book, people kept mentioning to me that they knew someone, just some regular bloke who had lost, maybe, 10 or 15 grand gambling. There was a guy who had to cancel his wedding because he inadvertently lost his savings of €20,000 on the horses.

I would hear of bigger losses, of pubs and shops which had been in families for generations, disappearing on the back of a run of bad results, maybe even on the Virtual Racing, which is an increasingly popular form of pretend racing that you really don't want to know about.

Yet, every day can bring some small disaster to the punter, and we have always borne them as quietly as we can, in the circumstances. The fact that gambling leaves no physical scars means that it can go undetected for longer. And the etiquette of betting has always encouraged a culture of silence, as it is considered wrong for men to be roaring with anguish in their local Ladbrokes.

Yet, I remember one day, a long time ago, in a betting office in Inchicore, watching a man who had been losing all day, but was putting on the brave face, remaining affable in the face of the most outrageous misfortune. It was really admirable, the way he refused to let his friends see his suffering, though he was losing hundreds on the day.

He kept it up until the very end, saying a big goodbye to everyone, goodbye, and we'll have another crack at it tomorrow. Then he went to his car, which was parked nearby, where he must have thought that no one could see him. But I was leaving the office, too, and I saw him. He was banging his head off the steering wheel, again and again and again.

'The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet'

Damon Runyon

But it is not just the technology that has sent gambling rocketing, though the internet might have been made for it.

We are also living in a time in which we are at the mercy of vast and incomprehensible forces, in which the men who were thought to be the most sophisticated of them all -- the money men -- can sound increasingly like some medieval rabble of superstitious peasants who have seen strange signs in the skies, and terrible portents.

Today a stock-market analysis can sound no more rational or authoritative than the babblings of an old crone telling fortunes at a carnival. Which is where gambling comes in. Illusory though it may be, we feel some sort of control over our destiny when we are punting our own money, rather than letting some delinquent institution punt it for us. We may even see no other way to get money than by forecasting the winner of a dog race at Sunderland.

Just for a moment, when the result is in the balance, we can feel a bit like General Dwight D Eisenhower directing the Normandy landings, rather than the soldiers being shot to pieces as they scramble onto the beaches in Saving Private Ryan. We need that illusion. In a hostile, unstable world, we need reassurance that the force is with us, that we are in good standing with the gods.

That we are lucky.

L

'Free Money -- The Gambler's Quest'

by Declan Lynch is published by Transworld, €11.99

Bikini top, Agent Provocateur, Brown Thomas. Visor, Topshop. Bow tie, Marks & Spencer

Bodice, La Perla, Susan Hunter. Visor, Topshop. Bow tie, Marks & Spencer

Backdrop from a selection at Hickeys,

see www.hickeysfabrics.ie

Susan Hunter, Westbury Mall, D2, tel: (01) 679-1271, or see www.susanhunterlingerie.ie

Photography by Sarah Doyle

Styled by Liadan Hynes

Hair by Paul Davey at Toni&Guy,

52 Dame St, D2, tel: (01) 670-8745

Make-up by Vivien Pomeroy-Trehy at Brown Sugar, 50 South William St, D2, tel: (01) 616-9967


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