Tuesday 24 April 2018

High Roller: The extraordinary story of the Irish postman who gambled €10m and stole €1.75m at work

When the net finally closed on former postmaster Tony O’Reilly, he had gambled €10m with Paddy Power and stolen. €1.75m of it from An Post. He tells Sarah Caden how his online-gambling addiction cost him his marriage, his liberty and nearly his sanity. Plus, in an exclusive extract from Tony’s book, written with the Sunday Independent’s Declan Lynch, he recalls his life as Tony 10, the alter-ego that no one knew about until the whole country knew about it

Declan Lynch and Tony O'Reilly. Photo: David Conachy
Declan Lynch and Tony O'Reilly. Photo: David Conachy
Tony 10

Sarah Caden

DECLAN LYNCH wanted to call the book Not Repayable. You can understand why. They are two words that would strike fear into a person's heart. They speak of a point of no return, a hole into which you have dug yourself, without any hope of escaping. They sound so final.

Instead, however, the book is called Tony 10, an equally succinct title, the simplicity of which belies the complexity of its tale of human destruction. Declan wrote it with the man he calls his friend - Tony O'Reilly, the former postmaster from Carlow, who had racked up a €10m turnover in his Paddy Power online account at the turn of this decade, when he was arrested for stealing €1.75m of his spending from his employers, An Post.

Tony 10 was Tony's online-gambling name, his alter ego, you might say. Tony 10 was certainly his secret self for many years, as what started as casual dabbling in gambling turned into an addiction that saw him swing between feeling like a master of the universe; through desperation to gamble himself out of growing debt and criminal behaviour; to suicidal thoughts.

"I'd been writing about gambling for years," explains Declan over coffee with Tony and me in the Gresham Hotel, "and when Tony's story came out, it just struck me as a classic example of what I'd been writing about."

Declan heard about Tony at the same time as everyone else in Ireland did - when the story broke in early 2011 that there was this ordinary bloke who had not only gambled a fortune, but stolen one, too. And the massive sums that were reported - millions and millions - had all accrued without anyone shouting stop.

No one in Tony's life shouted stop because he was doing it all online, secretly, covertly, his nose stuck in his phone. And no one in Tony 10's life shouted stop, either. Instead, Paddy Power invited him to sporting events, sent him a registered-post diary of sporting fixtures, made a VIP of him.

"I decided then to write about Tony's case," says Declan, "because it had everything. There was no aspect of online gambling that wasn't represented in it. It was the complete thing. It had the total destruction of an individual, short of dying.

"And the story of the individual was the point," he adds. "Because corporate Ireland does go on, and you stand there in amazement of it, but to have an individual story and the ultimate individual story is amazing. The amount of money in Tony's case is, of course, staggering, and makes it remarkable, and people wonder how can that happen, but on a smaller scale this is happening every week now."

"But you don't hear about them so much," Tony interjects, "because those are situations that are repayable. People's employers don't report them, or their families bail them out, so we don't hear the half of them."

In Tony's case it was "not repayable", of course.

Tony hears these stories now in his work - counselling gambling addicts, seven years after his time in treatment and then time in prison. He hears the stories and he empathises, and sometimes their stories bring them back to how he felt as Tony 10. And when he sits in the Gresham with Declan and me, rehashing the things he did as Tony 10, it brings him back there, too. To an extent, Tony admits, it's like talking about someone else, but the sense of regret and remorse remind him that this tragic tale is his.

For each reader, it might be a different moment in the story of Tony 10 that makes them think they can take no more.

There are notable points in Tony's €10m journey when you just want it to stop. It might just be when his future brother-in-law gives him a €50 online-gambling voucher for Christmas. Or the first time he wins big. Or the day he doesn't withdraw his online winnings, but uses them to fund more and bigger bets. Or the first day he steals from the coin bags at work to fund his growing habit.

For me, it was the wedding.

I read the account of Tony O'Reilly's wedding with one eye closed.

The wedding, in the late 2000s, took place in Cyprus, and Tony and his fiancee Fiona had paid €4k of the €10k cost in advance. Despite the fact that Tony was already sinking into serious debt and a proper gambling problem, the €6k was there, untouched, to pay out in Cyprus.

Tony left Ireland in good spirits and full of good intentions. Almost 80 family and friends were coming with them from Carlow, and everyone was really looking forward to it. Further, Tony was high on the intention to do no gambling while he was away. The back-up to his resolve was there would be no chance to get online anyway, so for a full two weeks, everything was going to be fine. He'd be his old self and Tony 10 - the online persona that was starting to dominate his life, in that it was becoming increasingly his persona in the real world - would be left behind.

The first heart-sinking moment is when he spots a computer in the hotel lobby. From there, well, you can guess where it all went. Downhill; downhill badly and fast, to the point that there was nearly no €6k any more.

Only Tony knew this, of course, such is the insidious nature of online gambling. He was in the hole and agitated through the whole wedding, dreading the moment of reckoning later in the holiday when they were going to have to pay.

So he had one last bet, on the Derby, in the hope of winning it all back. He could make everything OK. He could gamble his way out of it. That, both Declan and Tony say, is the mentality of the gambler.

"An alcoholic can't drink his way out of his problem. A drug addict can't use his way out of his addiction," Tony says, "but a gambling addict believes that he can bet his way out and make everything OK again."

I wanted to throw the book at the wall during the Cyprus wedding, but I kept going. In a funny way, Tony 10 is that sort of read, and Declan's talent is how he tiptoes you into the addiction, with details of bet after bet, euro after hundreds and thousands of euro, lie after lie, theft after theft.

You get carried along with Tony, to the cliff-edge and over it, and all the tiny increments by which his life was ruined by gambling are there in the minutely building tension, the frustration, the conflicting senses of reality and unreality.

"I can still picture the room in Cyprus," Tony says now of the bet that would make or break his wedding, "and me staring at the small TV and Fiona pottering around behind me, and all I could think was that if nothing every works out for me again, please let this work out."

So Dettori won, and it 'worked out' for Tony. He even had a few hundred quid more than the necessary €6k, so he told Fiona his stock line - that he'd put on a small winning bet, and wasn't it nice to have some unexpected spending money for the honeymoon?

And, of course, on he went.

"When I read the tribunal-report-sized list of all Tony's bets over the years," Declan Lynch says of research for writing Tony10, "the moments my heart would sink were the moments when he would win. You're reading it and thinking, 'Oh no, he won €54k'. It's so perverse."

Once you discover the descent of Tony into gambling addition, though, you get what Declan means.

If Tony had never won, always lost, and hurtled fast to rock bottom, things might not have got as bad as they did. He might have been caught, he might have had to own up, he might have been stopped before it became stealing from your employer and ending up in prison.

In Cyprus, if he'd lost the €6k, they wouldn't have been able to pay for the wedding, and Fiona would have learned the truth, but, ultimately, how bad would that have been? Not as bad as what actually happened, that's for sure.

Tony O'Reilly, as Declan Lynch points out several times in the book, is not the Tony O'Reilly. He's a guy from Carlow whose dad worked in the sugar factory. He's a guy who could have taken that route himself, but that Tony, as Declan describes it, always hankered after something more, something a little bit more special, a little less humdrum.

He worked in a bar in his native town for years, had a decent life, good friends, in particular Niall, who has stuck with him through the very worst of times. Tony was a clever guy, a good writer, a meticulous fella who could tend towards compulsive meticulousness. The way Declan paints the young Tony is as a guy who wanted more from life, but never quite fixed on what that more might be.

"When I was in treatment in Cuan Mhuire," Tony says of his recovery after his 2011 arrest for the €1.75m theft, "I saw that gambling was just an escape from a deeper underlying issue. Gambling is a way of escaping your life. It's a way of coping with issues such as self-esteem and confidence, and gambling dealt with those for me. It becomes your escapism, and then it becomes the place you need to go when you're feeling a little bit low, or even a little bit high. It's a way of coping with feelings and emotions. So in recovery I had to deal with those issues without gambling."

Addiction

Tony's betting began with a €1 bet. His online betting began with that €50 voucher, given to him for Christmas by his well-meaning brother-in-law. Without doubt, both Declan and Tony believe that his gambling addiction might not have reached the depths it did if there was no such thing as online betting.

"What is extraordinary about online betting is how it puts the onus on the gambler," Declan says. "Your gambling is your responsibility, and it draws attention away from the technology and how it is set up so superbly to be addictive. Not only in terms of the gambling, but the internet is massively addictive itself, and a lot of the things you're gambling on are on television and all around you all the time. It's like a kind of confluence of every major addiction known to humanity put together.

"And how it works for young men," adds Declan, "is that there's nothing men like more in the world than calling something and being proved right and getting money for it straightaway. I mean, how could bookies not have a billion-dollar business based on that?"

When Tony still had Tony 10 and his gambling under control, or so he told himself, the online bets were small, and he regularly withdrew his winnings and spent them on things in the real world. He even told Fiona about the winnings, or fractions of them, anyway, so as not to worry her.

Declan documents the wins and losses, the withdrawals and, in time, the cessation of the withdrawals. He extracted them from a huge ledger of Tony's bets as Tony sank into addiction and, as Declan predicts at the start of the book, you sort of become inured to the amounts as he goes on. Tens, hundreds, thousands, lose all meaning, as they did for Tony.

In fact, the only time money seems sharply real is when Tony runs out of it. He ran up huge personal debts initially - debts he continues to pay back today, seven years after his arrest - but at some point, he was so desperate for betting money that he decided to take some from An Post, where he had started as a postman and been promoted to branch manager.

"Oh, I was sick over it," Tony says, "but with gambling, you justify these things. I think in the book we describe it as being like Lloyd Christmas in Dumb and Dumber and his briefcase of IOUs. I really genuinely thought, from my previous experience of winning big bets, that I could go bigger on the bets and be able to put it back in and no one would ever know."

So you convince yourself it's borrowing and not stealing? Even when you progress from stealing from bags of coins to removing notes from stacks of currency with a pliers you have especially for that task?

"Yeah," Tony says. "I convinced myself I'd get it back and I suppose, in gambling, your values, morals, everything, go out the window. I'm not going to say it was borrowing - it was stealing. You can't dress it up. I stole it. But with gambling you justify your actions, and if I could figure out in the therapy room why that happens or how to fix that, I'd be a very rich man.

"One of the sisters in Cuan Mhuire said that you'd do something today that you'd never do yesterday to fuel an addiction," Tony concludes.

Needless to say, even when Tony won massive sums on his bets, he also continued to lose, and he never put back the stolen money. He started changing figures on the books to convince An Post auditors that nothing was amiss; he began living his life in a state of panic as the sum total of his theft grew and grew. It was a living hell, with his mind whirring constantly. There was, with each win, the belief that he could, in fact, make it all OK.

"I know now though," says Tony, "from years of listening to other gamblers, that getting back to zero, getting the money back, is never enough. So even if I'd got the money back, got it back in the safe, I would have had that sense of relief for a while, but then I'd probably have gone, 'OK, I got away with that, I'm going to go again'."

On top of the highs and lows of the bets, then, Tony also had the fear of being found out. And, conversely, the desire to be found out, as well as the thought that he should end it all and that everyone would be better off without him.

Friends and family noticed that Tony changed in the last months before he was finally found out. He was distracted and disconnected, always on his phone, never at peace. At his trial for the theft, Tony's An Post colleagues testified that they put his strange detachment down to the fact that he and Fiona had a new baby.

Near the end, Tony almost confessed all to his father and, separately, to his best friend Niall. Never to Fiona, though perhaps the reason behind that was similar to why he never confessed at work. If he told her, then everything would come crashing down. He'd lose it all. Even though, in reality, he'd lost it all already.

The ability online gambling offers a person to keep their addiction secret fascinates Declan, who has written for years about the subject. A spouse like Fiona will always ask themselves why they never noticed this huge thing occurring under their nose, in their house, in their marriage, but the odds are stacked against them when it comes to online gambling.

"It's something that facilitates your self-destruction in a matter of days," Declan says. "It's there, and nobody's doing anything about it. Surely it should be made slightly difficult - that you can't just sit up in your bed in the middle of the night betting invisible money on something that's happening in Australia or whatever. It amazes me that something is out there that is causing incredible levels of carnage and no one is doing anything about it."

Censure

Tony says he wanted to write Tony 10 because he wants to highlight the ease with which an ordinary guy with a "house, a marriage, a dog" can find himself in prison, with a gambling addiction and a "not repayable" theft to his name. His earnings from the book will go to Cuan Mhuire and to Eist Cancer Support Centre in Carlow.

Tony wanted Declan to write the book with him because Declan got it. He got that it wasn't just about the individual, but about a bigger gambling problem that Tony and Declan believe is growing and growing without censure. Tony also appreciated that Declan never wrote about his experience as "a caper", even when he was on the run in the North after the net closed on him, still trying to gamble his way out of the mess.

"I'm most scared of opening up old wounds for other people," Tony says. "I can deal with it. I've been through recovery and prisons, and recovery was as hard as the prison part, but I'm conscious about bringing it up again for Fiona and her family, and for An Post and people I worked with. But I think it's a story that needs to be told. Not in terms of me, but in terms of online gambling."

Tony hasn't had a bet in nearly seven years. It took him two years to be able to watch a sporting event without feeling sick. He still struggles from time to time when he's feeling down, or even feeling especially good. Two weeks ago, when his partner of two years started a new job and he finished a draft of his thesis for his ongoing career in counselling, a little voice told him a little bet wouldn't hurt, that he could handle it now.

Tony knows how to deal with that voice now, though, and he knows that it lies. And he's never going back again. His marriage to Fiona didn't survive Tony's actions, but his family and his best friend Niall, and now his partner, are still with him. He's not going to gamble with their trust and faith.

Tony continues, of course, to feel shame for what he did and sorrow for those he hurt.

"When I was in recovery in Cuan Mhuire," he says, "Sister Susan told me to try to get to a place of peaceful regret. I know what she means and I do try, and sometimes I think I'm nearly there. But I'm ashamed of what I've done, and that's hard.

"When I showed the cover of the book to my partner, she asked could they not have put 'took' instead of 'stole' on the cover. I said no, that you can't butter it up. This is what I did. This is who I was. It's not who I really am, but that's what I was and I have to live with that."

Read on, for an exclusive extract from 'Tony 10: The astonishing story of the postman who gambled €10,000,000 and lost it all' by Declan Lynch and Tony O'Reilly

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