Tuesday 21 August 2018

All Bets Are Off review: 'Baz brought perfect blend of curiosity, compassion and empathy to frequently disquieting film'

3 stars

EXPOSE: Baz Ashmawy, ‘seeing so many people gambling on their phones, young people in particular, he knew something big was going on here, he just wasn’t quite sure what it was’
EXPOSE: Baz Ashmawy, ‘seeing so many people gambling on their phones, young people in particular, he knew something big was going on here, he just wasn’t quite sure what it was’

Pat Stacey

At one point near the end of All Bets Are Off, an exasperated Baz Ashmawy, annoyed by the refusal of big bookmakers Paddy Power, Ladbrokes and Boylesports to talk to him, said: “I’m not Claire Byrne! I’m Baz from 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy. I only want to have a chat.”

With respect to Ms Byrne, who’s very good at what she does, it’s just as well it was Baz and not her presenting this documentary.

One can only dread what a dustily worthy but dull job a professional journalist might have made of a programme looking at the country’s epic gambling problem.

George Lee would probably have shovelled on the apocalyptic doom and gloom. Charlie Bird would almost certainly have made it all about him: a personal odyssey through the torturous byways of his own psyche as he agonised about whether betting €5 each way in the 3.45 at Kempton Park would rend the very fabric of his soul.

Baz, however, was just Baz, which was the perfect fit. This might not have been the case a few years ago with the younger, more frantic Baz of laddish travel show How Low Can You Go?, which tried to sell him as a kind of bargain-bin Irish version of Jackass’s Johnny Knoxville.

The 42-year-old Baz, who admitted to having an addictive personality, is a more mature, more likeable prospect, and he brought the perfect blend of curiosity, compassion and empathy — an underrated quality — to a frequently disquieting film.

“Gambling is so visible, it’s invisible,” he said against a kaleidoscopic swirl of colourfully enticing bookies’ ads encouraging us to gamble anything or everything on everything and anything. “It’s so familiar, so normalised, we don’t even know we have a problem — and that’s a problem.”

We certainly do and it certainly is. The Irish are the third-largest gamblers in the world and number one for online betting, which accounts for 20pc of the €50m in gambling tax that goes to the State every year (although this is piddling compared to the billions the big bookies pocket).

One in 10 gamblers has a serious problem. Only 5pc of those will ever seek help, while only 1pc will ever receive it, due to a lack of support services.

The problem is particularly bad among young men, said journalist Declan Lynch, who’s written several books on the subject, and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that, in general, “people don’t care about young men”.

Gambling addiction is not treated as seriously as alcoholism, even though the suicide rate among gamblers is between two and three times higher than among the general population.

“The only way to end it for me was to end my life,” said 25-year-old Podge Bannon of his mindset when his addiction had dragged him to his lowest point.

He started betting at 15 or 16, modestly at first. By the time he was 19 and working full-time, he was spending whole Saturdays in the bookies. “The only time you’d leave would be to go to the ATM,” he said.

If it was a choice between spending money on food or gambling, Podge — who ended up stealing €5,000 from work to fund his habit — would go hungry.

Read more: Broadcaster Baz Ashmawy counts the human cost of our modern struggle with gambling

There was a recurring, depressingly familiar pattern to the stories here. Two of them have already been well-documented: Offaly football star Niall McNamee, who spoke of winning $6,000 at a roulette table in a US casino and losing it all back in two hours; and former postmaster Tony O’Reilly, who stole €1.75m from his employer, An Post, over the course of an 18-month, €10m gambling spree, for which he ended up doing prison time.

Where the documentary came into its own was in shining a piercing light on the problem hidden between the cracks of a problem: lottery addiction.

Anonymous in silhouette, her words spoken by an actor, “Nora” told Baz how she used to spend up to €60 a week on National Lottery scratch cards. She ended up €35,000 in debt.

As the tempting advertising tagline goes, “It could be you.”

You can watch All Bets Are Off on the RTE Player and Catch Up.

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