As with our bankers, online betting sites hold all the aces
As large gambling companies lure punters in with 'free' money, Carol Hunt lays her cards on the table
LAST week, purely for research purposes, I bought a lottery ticket. Yes, I know the ad asks why would I do x, y and z ridiculous things to become a millionaire when all I have to do is play Lotto. But, as I always yell at the TV in answer, that's because I know that my chance of winning those millions is as likely as me becoming the next pope. Being an incurable pessimist – or realist, as I prefer to call it – I don't gamble.
Although, of course, that's not strictly true. Being Irish I've more than once had a flutter on the gee-gees – which, unlike the Lotto, at least provides an entertaining run for your money.
And I still remember the rush of adrenalin I would get as a kid when the one-armed bandit in Funderland would eventually cough out a 20th of what I'd put in. If my stack of hard-saved 10-pence pieces hadn't eventually run out, I'd probably still be there.
Then there's the fun poker games with friends – I'd never call them "gambling" but I'd refuse to play if hard cash wasn't involved. What would be the point?
Okay, I admit it, not too deep inside me is probably a gambler of Nick Leeson proportions just waiting for the right opportunity to make a killing.
So it was with interest I watched Joe O'Shea's programme last week, Reality Bites: The Gambling Gene, on RTE One. Is gambling a peculiarly Irish obsession? It would seem so, as the programme revealed that the Irish gambling market is worth about €2bn.
Meanwhile, last week the UK Independent revealed that "a huge increase in gambling addicts will make Britain's obsession with gambling a £2bn business".
If these figures are accurate, even accounting for the sterling/euro difference, it's obvious that the Irish appetite for gambling far exceeds that of the British. And as the programme made clear, the internet and smartphones have completely changed the way we gamble. It's like having your local bookie literally taking up residence in your pocket, as firms like Paddy Power do everything to ensure that you're never more than two seconds away from making a bet.
So, whereas in the past someone like me would have had to push my way, kids trailing behind, through smoke and aul fellas and greasy ne'er-do-wells into the bookies to make a bet on the 4.30 at Fairyhouse/Eurovision/sex of Kate's baby, now all I need is a laptop or a smartphone and who's to know what I'm at while I'm stuck at home making the dinner?
No wonder there's been a huge upsurge in online bingo as bored housewives entertain themselves, credit card in hand. And betting companies are now deliberately targeting women who wouldn't have dreamed of putting a delicate nose into a scruffy betting shop. But sure it's all just a bit of fun, isn't it? And as the nice man from Paddy Power says, they see themselves more of an "entertainment" than a gambling company. Well yes, except, as my mother would say, don't go to them when all that laughing inevitably turns to crying.
Declan Lynch of this parish (who has written extensively on our fascination with gambling) made the point on the programme: "All we're hearing is the upside. That it's fun and family entertainment. [But] the casualties are piling up every day . . . it's not something that you have to point out. It will become so obvious that people will wonder why it wasn't pointed out before.
"Gambling is unique in that theoretically you can dig yourself out of a hole using the same shovel you dug yourself in with."
"Theoretically" is the salient word there. As in "theoretically" I could win the Lotto every week if I just bought the winning ticket. Or "theoretically" Jedward could win the Eurovision. It just ain't gonna happen.
I've had a quick look through the main betting sites on my laptop and all of them offer "free money" to start you off on your gambling spree. I find this a bit odd. Down my neighbourhood it would be akin to the local dealer offering you a free bag of heroin to see if he can turn you into a steady customer. Or, in the world of legal addictions, a drinks company giving out free shots at a college piss-up.
Aren't we supposed to disapprove of such blatant manipulation? Will gambling companies set aside a sum of cash to help deal with the inevitable casualties that will result from their "pushing" of what can result in a very serious addiction, with all the misery, hardship and pain that will entail? Will they donate to charities that support people with gambling addictions? Will they whaa?
Or are we just all delighted that Enda was able to announce 800 new jobs at Paddy Power HQ recently – and f**k the begrudgers?
Currently that seems to be our attitude as Nick Leeson, gambler extraordinaire, made plain on the programme. "Sure, feck 'em if they can't take a joke," is what he was told when he entered his exile in Galway after breaking Barings, the oldest merchant bank in the world.
Both Lynch and Leeson made the point that what goes on in places like Paddy Power HQ – with their mathematical experts, their traders and their number crunchers – is similar to what went on in our banks.
"It's the same thing," said Lynch. "I'm amazed that the connection isn't made more often . . . these fellas you see sitting in front of their screens, masters of the universe, are punters [except that] they're betting large amounts of other people's money. However, they've clothed themselves in a veneer of seriousness and profundity which some poor divil scratching out a treble in their local betting office doesn't have. They're doing just what he's doing on a vastly greater scale and causing infinitely more damage."
And, I would have to add, instead of having to face the inevitable consequences of a gambling addiction: shame, loss, disgrace . . . our traders, bankers, investors etc are on a win-win trajectory. They no more have to deal with reality than the kid given the money to make a bet on the gee-gees and then compensated by a kind grandparent when he loses (a tale told to me recently). When they take a risk they do it with someone else's money and they get rewarded no matter what happens.
Now, that's the sort of "bet" I'd be up for, except of course that it's not gambling, or risk-taking, it's "stacking the deck". And in all honest gambling venues, it's illegal.
National Gambling Helpline: 1800 753 753