Wednesday 18 July 2018

Declan Lynch: The six degrees of speculation

Breifne O'Brien leaving Dublin Circuit Criminal Court in 2014. Pic: Collins Courts.
Breifne O'Brien leaving Dublin Circuit Criminal Court in 2014. Pic: Collins Courts.
Cathal McCarron. Photo: David Conachy.
Sean Quinn
Lord Lucan
Offaly's Niall McNamee
Oisin McConville
The Ponzi Man by Declan Lynch
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

With the publication of the paperback edition of his novel 'The Ponzi Man', which features a powerful theme of addiction to gambling, Declan Lynch takes six characters - and the various strands of gambling that they represent - pursuing this way of life which has, at its core, this profound moral ambiguity, as it's only seen as a problem if you lose



JP Manus may not be the leader of a major world religion, as such. And yet it can reasonably be said that an entire belief-system has been constructed around him.

JP is The Man Who Made A Fortune Backing Horses. And who seems to have somehow kept that fortune and added to it with some sort of currency-trading business and other relatively boring activities which need not concern us here.

The main character in The Ponzi Man, Johnny Devlin, also made a fortune betting on sports events, but he did not keep it. And he was nearly as good as JP - he had the perfect temperament, the gift of making enormous decisions as if they have no consequence of any kind.

But he was ultimately not as good as JP, because with gambling, the qualities which make you a fortune are the same ones that bring you down - confidence, optimism, fearlessness. And, of course, the mere fact that you are continuing to gamble, which will always get you in the end, if you keep at it long enough.

Unless you're JP McManus.

They say he started by winning £50 for a £4 stake on a horse called Linden Tree. They say that he had an enormous life-changing victory at Cheltenham on his own horse, Mister Donovan, in 1982, and they say that £250,000 was won by someone on Mister Donovan, though when JP was asked about it in 2008 by racing journalist Donn McClean, he couldn't quite recall if that 250 grand had, indeed, been won by him.

That's what 'they' say, though you may have noticed that JP himself is not the sort of man who can be seen tweeting compulsively about the nature of his genius - he did describe that win on Mister Donovan as being "important", and that would be about as far as he is prepared to go in publicly analysing his modus operandi.

He had an important enough win in more recent times, making some $17.4m playing backgammon against the private equity billionaire Alec Gores, a story which came to public attention when he disputed the US authorities' claim that the winnings were subject to about $5m tax.

I think we can safely say, for once, that it was the principle of the thing - and, anyway, he enjoys making contributions to society with his many charitable donations, especially to projects in Limerick.

Yes, it is sweet to imagine that the bookies may be raking in the money from the public, only for JP in turn to rake it in from the bookies, and return it to the public in some permanent form - he was a bookie, too, for a while, albeit with the advantage that he didn't have to take bets from himself.

Alone he stands, with his supernatural powers, this enduring symbol of the belief that It Can Be Done. Alone, all alone.


Lord Lucan

While JP as a young man actually sat behind the wheel of a mechanical digger in order to earn a crust, the Lord Lucans of this world enjoyed a more "gentlemanly" passage through life, squandering the fortunes of their aristocratic families in casinos such as the Clermont Club in Mayfair.

There had always been a mania for gambling among the rich degenerates of London's club-land, a curse which has finally reached most of the people of the world with the arrival of online gambling.

So in the 1970s, when 'Lucky' Lucan was getting all dressed up for his nocturnal adventures at the tables, there was a certain tradition to be upheld - it is said that Lord Derby, having lost some £250,000, or about £10m in today's terms, was leaving the Clermont Club in the morning, he was as chipper as a man who had had an excellent evening, marred only slightly by a small understanding over the size of the bill.

They called it style - though they might also have called it foolishness on a phenomenal scale. Indeed, chemin de fer, or 'chemmy', the card game favoured by Lucky Lucan and his ilk, is notable for its almost infantile simplicity.

Still they had their priorities in order - a gentleman would always pay his gambling debts, his wine bill, and his tailor. And anyone else, frankly, could bugger off, not least because there would hardly be much left after all that.

James Bond added to the cachet of that lifestyle with his own fondness for playing the tables at Monte Carlo, though, in fairness, Bond was also engaged in saving the world at the time.

'Lucky' Lucan couldn't even save himself, when he inadvertently murdered the nanny, believing her to be his wife - or so it is believed; he didn't hang around to help the police with their enquiries.

Ever the gentleman, the fact that he had massive gambling debts was a source of particular grief to him.

But perhaps the most compelling description of those louche upper-class wastrels and the depths of their addiction, was supplied by Clermont Club player Mark Sykes, who opined: "It's a stronger drug than heroin, a totally immersive thing. And the person who gambles, at the time they're gambling, is not involved in anything else. And that's why people can gamble all night and in the morning they're fresh as a daisy. Because it's as though they have slept".


mg Breifne O'Brien.jpg
Breifne O'Brien leaving Dublin Circuit Criminal Court in 2014. Pic: Collins Courts.

The story of Breifne O'Brien, above, did not go unnoticed during the writing of The Ponzi Man, not just because he had been found to be running a sort of a Ponzi scheme, but because he was indulging in a form of gambling - it's just that hardly anyone was describing it in those terms.

In general, I have been writing a lot about gambling, not just because there's a lot of it out there, but because there's a lot of it out there that isn't even acknowledged as such. So it was a significant moment when Breifne appealed against his sentence of seven years for inducing others to advance millions to him for investment in bogus property deals, and a psychologist's report submitted on his behalf described his motivation as being "akin to gambling".

'Akin' is right. Because it is a bedrock belief of the gambler that no matter how deep the hole in which his 'investments' have landed him, somehow he will find a way out of it. These guys back themselves to the very end; they have an inexhaustible belief in their own powers; they don't just stop at the first signs of failure and say, "That's me out of the game; I'm afraid this is just too rich for my blood."

Moreover, they are immersed in a global financial culture of 'risk and reward' in which gambling is seen not as some sort of potentially dangerous addiction, but as an essential life-skill. And yes, even if you're using other people's money, you're not doing something that's a whole lot different to what the wolves of Wall Street are doing, in their allegedly legitimate businesses.

Or at least that is what you might tell yourself, in order to justify another 'investment', to keep all the plates spinning for another few days.

Technically, a Ponzi scheme is "a form of fraud in which belief in the success of a non-existent enterprise is fostered by the payment of quick returns to the first investors from money invested by later investors."

So I would say, on the whole, that the running one of those things is akin to gambling, in the same way that consuming large amounts of whiskey is akin to drinking.


Every few weeks or so, we see a story about a guy who placed a ridiculously small amount of money on about 14 sporting events, and who won a ridiculously large amount, which he will be collecting from the bookie in the form of a very big cheque, just like a Lotto winner

The papers love reporting this sort of stuff, they go through all the bets in detail; the close shaves and the last-minute goals that kept the accumulator going, the joy of the punter who's been doing his 'acca' for years, and who now has to figure out what to do with his vast winnings.

And there's nothing wrong with these reports, as such, it's just that they are wrongly labelled. They should be clearly described as an 'advertising feature', but they are not.

Many of us are aware at this stage that the betting corporations are spending unconscionable amounts of money on all sorts of advertising, in order to lure a generation of punters into their maw, in the unlikely event that the industry might be subjected to a bit of regulation within the next 50 years.

But the best advertising of all is the free stuff that they are getting all the time, not least from these stories of the Guy Who Wins 400 Grand On A Tenner Accumulator.

You see, the bookies love that guy. They might pretend that they hate him, because he is winning all that money from him, but, in truth, they love all those little guys with their accumulators, because they hardly ever win.

Which is why in their paid advertising they are always promoting accumulators and other unlikely propositions which allow the punter to dream for a while - not to win, just to dream.

Yes, the bookies love the high rollers, but it's the low rollers who also pay the rent, the multitudes with their 'accas' on a Saturday, the ones that win so rarely, they actually get their pictures in the paper when they somehow manage it.

The bookies don't want to be dealing with those rare souls who are good at gambling, they are engaged in the creation of bad gamblers on an enormous scale - and there's no gambler worse than the one who likes an 'acca'.

I wonder does our old friend JP McManus do an 'acca' every Saturday? I rest my case.


Sean Quinn

It is a tantalising aspect of gambling, one that puts it in a different category to most other addictive pursuits, that it's only seen as a problem in 'moral' terms if you lose.

So when the former billionaire Sean Quinn was betting extravagantly on those Anglo shares, he was obviously intending to make an enormous profit, in which case he would have been hailed for his acumen in this, as in all other aspects of his operation.

He would have been regarded as a kind of upmarket version of The Guy Who Wins 400 Grand On A Tenner Accumulator, an example to us all, of what can be gained by having a punt. It is one of the oddities of the game, this profound ambiguity, and in The Ponzi Man, it allows the protagonist to argue with some justification that he wasn't doing anything morally reprehensible or even all that unusual; he just got unlucky.

Quinn got exceptionally unlucky, punting on Contracts For Difference (CFDs), which sounds very complicated, but which may be explained thus: if buying a share in a company is the equivalent of buying a share in a racehorse, buying a CFD is the equivalent of putting a bet on that horse in a race. A massive, massive, massive bet in this case, but one which would not have been regarded as disgraceful in any way, if only the bloody 'horses' had won.

On the contrary, his legend would have grown, and we would be reminded that here is a man so in control of all aspects of the game, he can still play poker with a few friends every week, with just a fiver in the pot.

So our attitudes to this particular compulsion can be a tad complex, to say the least. We condemn the loser, and all the damage he does, though he is doing absolutely nothing that the winner is not doing - apart from the bit at the end when the winner 'collects', and the loser starts chasing.

This is as far as we've got with the addiction of gambling, the only aspect of it that is generally understood by society at large - just make sure you don't lose.


Cathal McCarron. Photo: David Conachy.

Oisin McConville, Cathal McCarron, above, Niall McNamee, Davy Glennon - four leading GAA figures there, who have declared an addiction to gambling. Which might suggest to the uninitiated that there is some kind of a gambling culture in the GAA, and as it happens, the uninitiated would be right about that.

But there is another culture developing in the GAA too, whereby people like the four players mentioned above, feel they will receive support if they admit to a gambling problem. And now that these most influential characters have told their stories, it will surely give others permission to do likewise. It makes you think, all the same - what if similar systems were operating in every walk of life, would the higher echelons of the GAA still be alone in revealing all these compulsive gamblers? Certainly there are the obvious attractions of gambling to young men who are deeply interested in sport and who are highly competitive. But it is not just top-class Gaelic footballers and hurlers who are deeply interested in sport and who are highly competitive. Indeed, a very large proportion of the male population might qualify under these headings.

Women, too, are highly competitive, if truth be told, though sports betting still remains largely the domain of the male, with the women catching up fast through online casino activities and suchlike. And even within the GAA, we are hearing mainly about these famously good players whose stories are so compelling, precisely because they are good. We can safely assume that there are many very bad players who have also succumbed to the addiction, not to mention spectators and "mentors" whose highly competitive nature breaks out at times in violent confrontations with their opponents. These days a "mentor" can have a bet on his smartphone so quickly, it need hardly distract him at all from his fighting. In fact, he can probably have a bet on himself to win the fight.

Online gambling has blasted so much of our sporting culture into another dimension, there is a tremendous amount of it going on, and only the most superficial levels of understanding of its addictive nature on the part of players and commentators alike.

Someone should write a book about it.

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