Friday 19 January 2018

We're risk-takers, but are we addicted to gambling? You betcha!

Joe O'Shea

The German lady sipping Merlot in a Dublin wine-cellar was admirably blunt: "You Irish, you love to gamble, you love to take risks."

The student from a large town in Bavaria standing next to her was equally forthright, pointing to an important cultural difference between her nation and ours.

"When I came to Ireland first, I could not believe how many gambling shops you have. Every street. Three or four gambling shops. I don't even know if we have just one in my city".

"Why would you take a risk with your money like that? With horses? I'm sorry, but it's something that is maybe hard for Germans to understand."

They were perhaps too polite to say so, but it seemed a connection had been made between that quirk in the Irish psyche, that impulse to take a punt, and the German interest in our economic affairs.

Seeing our society through their eyes brought home just how much gambling and the culture of risk-taking has permeated, some might say corrupted, Irish life, how it came out of the bookies and into the boardrooms.

I was talking to Germans living in Ireland as part of a one-off TV programme looking at the Irish and gambling (part of the RTÉ Two Reality Bites series.)

And after several months of immersing myself in the issue, talking to gamblers, to addiction specialists, academics, bookies and a cellar-full of bemused Germans, I came to one conclusion: gambling is now everywhere and in everything in Ireland.

We have always loved horses and loved a wager. But at some point in the recent past, in the years after the introduction of the National Lottery and since the explosion in online bookmaking, betting came out of the back-streets and slap-bang into the mainstream.

The old-school betting shops would demurely call themselves "Turf Accountants" and paste newspapers over the windows to protect the reputations of their punters. They were places the black sheep of the family ducked into for a surreptitious flutter.

Today, the likes of Paddy Power, Betfair and Ladbrokes (to name just a few) have a highly visible presence on our high streets, online, on TV and on the jerseys of your favourite GAA or Premiership football team.

It is right at the heart of public life. How do we start every presidential or general election? With the candidates standing outside the bookies holding a big cardboard sign with the odds. From politics to the Eurovision, to plot-lines in Fair City or the All-Ireland Final, every major event is partly another excuse for a flutter.

Smartphones –with their gambling apps – have put a virtual bookies in everybody's pocket. And it's open 24/7.

You can quite easily gamble away next month's mortgage payment in a couple of minutes from the comfort of your couch or barstool.

And we love to gamble online. Economists reckon that the online betting market could be worth up to €2bn in Ireland this year.

It is legal. And we are world leaders when it comes to innovation. Just look at Paddy Power, an incredibly successful Irish company that is now a global leader in online gambling – with share prices surging by 280pc between 2008 and 2012.

And then you have our businessmen. One of the people I talked to was Nick Leeson, the 'Rogue Trader' who brought down Barings Bank in the mid-1990s and who now lives in Galway.

Nick knows the Irish pysche and his take on our economic collapse was that it was, at its heart, problem gambling on an epic scale – even if Nick tends to lay most of the blame at the feet of the regulators.

"The people who were supposed to be in control, turned those controls off," he says. "The people who were gambling at that stage were the bankers, the central bankers, the regulators and, ultimately, the Irish Government."

Nick says his own experience, in losing $1.4bn via what was effectively gambling on the Toyko stock exchange, mirrored the behaviour of a problem gambler.

"Risk-taking is what investment banking is about. And it's highly addictive in the same way that gambling can be. There are a lot of similarities," says Leeson of business at the sharp end of the financial markets.

Again and again, from Leeson to academics and bookies, we got the same view – that the Irish love to gamble. We may be a conservative people in many respects, but we do have this impulse to take risks, to take a shot at it, whether that is in gambling or in business, or even just life in general.

In some ways, it could be a valuable resource. Neil Armstrong might have become a retired accountant and St Brendan The Navigator just some monk if it wasn't for that very human desire to launch ourselves into the unknown.

But as our recent history has shown, only a fool goes all in when he can't even read the odds stacked against him.

Reality Bites – The Gambling Gene is on RTÉ Two on Monday at 9.30pm

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