Saturday 14 December 2019

Declan Lynch: Winning my way to despair

I think I have a gambling problem. I bring it to your attention today in the hope that some of you out there may identify with the problem, and may be able to share your experience, strength and hope.

It is not the conventional kind of gambling problem, the kind that can be addressed by attending meetings of the fellowship of Gamblers Anonymous. In fact, it might even be described as a rare disorder. But whatever it is, I think I have it. And I think I need help.

It all started, as so many gambling problems do, with a substantial win.

At the start of the World Cup, I had €200 on Spain to win outright, at odds of 4/1. This would be considerably more than my average stake, but then this was the World Cup, so the investment was meant to stretch over a month.

I backed Spain, the favourites, because they were the best team in the tournament, with the best players. Which may seem like an obvious reason for backing any team, and which raises the question: why didn't everyone do it?

Well, the World Cup wouldn't be so beloved of the bookies, if it was all that simple. Like the three-card trick merchant or indeed any conjurer, the bookie thrives on distraction. And the World Cup market is one great orgy of distraction.

As soon as that first list of odds is published, with all the different colours and all the flags and all the exotic names like Cote D'Ivoire, the punter is struck down by a strong weakness. Immediately, a thousand permutations suggest themselves to him, so many opportunities, so many possibilities, so much fun.

He can immerse himself in that list for hours, for weeks even, trying to crack the code. And that's just the seasoned punter.

The World Cup is also beloved of the bookies because it attracts the greenhorns, the ones who are having their annual indulgence, just having a bit of fun, in their own way. Ah, it is so much fun, for everyone.

And the more that men look at that long, long list, the more they become distracted. They seem to think that the more consideration they give to all the options, the better their chances of success. Of course in truth, with every hour that passes, every new thought and every new impulse, their chances of success are further diminished.

All the while, they are getting away from the only question that gives them any chance of success -- which is the best team?

They may ask themselves that question, but they do not give it the proper attention. Because when they establish that, say, Spain is the best team, again they get distracted. They start mulling over issues of 'value', trying to be clever, too clever for their own good, as it happens.

Argentina, for example, are always hugely popular with the mugs, because they tend to be priced in that tragically tempting range of 7/1, available in some quarters at 15/2 or even 8/1.

Argentina is always 'the value', and as we know only too well, 'the value' has been the downfall of many a good man. Because when you're thinking about 'the value', you're no longer thinking about the only thing you should be thinking about -- who is actually going to win this thing?

Then you start tormenting yourself further, as your eyes linger on the 'dark horse', or maybe three or four 'dark horses', all of them available at what seem to you like crazy odds -- how could those bookies be so foolish, you think, to have Portugal at 12/1? And are they completely mad to be offering the impressive Serbia at 25/1?

Maybe you'll have a piece of that, you say to yourself, with Spain still being quoted at 4/1, and looking increasingly like the worst value of all time. Maybe about six months previously, with a clear head, you were totally convinced Spain couldn't possibly be beaten in this World Cup. Now as you feverishly scan the bill of fare, you can't understand why anyone would be throwing their money away on such a stupid bet -- "Spain at four to one? Are there really that many fools out there?", you say, shaking your head sadly.

Well, I can tell you that by the time Spain are in the quarter-final, that price of 4/1 is not looking so foolish. And by the time Spain are in the final, and you're still on them at 4/1, the best team in the competition with the best players is looking suspiciously like 'the value'.

That's how it looked to me anyway, on the evening of July 12 this year. And as Spain lifted the trophy, I logged on to my internet betting provider. With great pleasure, and not a little pride, I saw that my account now contained €1,000, of which €800 was clear profit. I lingered over this tidy sum for a few moments, savouring my success, my achievement in avoiding all the perils and the snares set out for me by the bookie, and then I pressed the button. I withdrew the lot.

I think it was at this moment that the problem started.

* * * * *

Why did I take it all out? Why did I withdraw a grand? I guess it was just the fever that was upon me, a form of madness.

You read about this sort of thing, a rush of blood which renders a man insensible for a moment, and leads him to do something he would never contemplate, if he was in his right mind.

Normally I would never have taken out so much money, and used it for my own purposes. Normally I would have re-invested immediately. I would have taken out perhaps 20 per cent of my winnings, pumping the other 80 per cent into the business, as it were. Giving something back.

That's how it works, is it not? Only women who accidentally back the winner of the Grand National would deem it appropriate to actually walk away with the money, and spend it. And they can be forgiven for that, because they just don't know how it works.

I know only too well how it works, and yet here I was going against every instinct I have developed as a sporting man, a betting man, nay, just as a man.

I think I realised as early as the following morning that I had crossed the line into some dark new place, when, instead of making my usual modest online investments in the one-day cricket markets, and perhaps a football match 'in-running' in Saudi Arabia, I thought: frankly, I can't be arsed.

Immediately I was shocked by the crude nature of my own reaction, but I couldn't deny it. I sensed I was already in trouble with my gambling, and yet felt totally powerless to address the problem.

Over the next few days, I tried to get 'back on the horse', but with little success. I actually gave up backing horses altogether a few years ago, so that was hardly an option now -- certainly the day's card at Musselburgh, or the dogs at Sunderland, would not have much appeal for a man in my condition.

For the first time I started to fear that I might never gamble again, that this was not some aberration, some temporary insanity, but a problem of a chronic nature. I experienced moments of wild panic -- what if I have a look at the prices for the next 'major', the USPGA at Whistling Straits, and I simply decide that there's nothing there that's worth a punt? How will I look at myself in the mirror on the opening day of the Premier League, when I search the coupon in vain for something that gets the old juices flowing again? What will there be left for me in this life?

And could it be, that I am -- and the words chill me to the marrow -- that I am getting out while I'm ahead?

I began to curse that big win, and the way it had apparently sated me, draining me of all desire to bet. I had heard of how a big win could affect people, but usually it would merely give them a taste for further triumphs. It would actually drive them on, filling them with a sort of mad confidence, urging them to take it to the next level.

With me, it had the opposite effect. I was now becoming locked into this dangerous cycle, feeling increasingly isolated from the reality I once knew, unable to work up any enthusiasm for some tennis match in the early rounds of an ATP Challenger event in Poland, or even a spot of the old Major League Baseball, always such a lively market, now just another dead thing to me.

My friends were telling me that I was becoming distant from them, a withdrawn figure, but did I listen? I did not. I did not even reply when one of them tried to jolly me up with a text from the Ebor meeting at York: "betting my brains out here, it's not the same without you mate".

Yes, they tried to reach me. I would receive messages on my answering machine: "interesting market developing here on the European Ladies Basketball . . . just thought you'd like to know".

To me they just seemed like voices from a past life, one that I would probably never see again, as I plunged deeper and deeper into this spiral of indifference.

Gradually, agonisingly, I was starting to accept that I was becoming addicted to not gambling.

* * * * *

But then the chance came to escape. Even with my addiction at its most rampant, I knew that I wouldn't be able to let the Ryder Cup go by without having 'an interest'. There was some last vestige of my former humanity left in me, which would not let this three-day extravaganza of punting pass -- no, I would be getting involved in this one, for sure.

And I tried, I really did. I had a hundred on the Americans at 11/10 to lift the trophy, a respectable enough investment, hoping that I'd become increasingly immersed in the tournament, enough to be having an interest in the individual matches, and then who knows? Maybe I might even be back to my old self by Monday.

As Jim Diamond so eloquently put it, I should have known better. Once you are locked into that hellish pattern of abstinence, it eats away at your enthusiasm, at your spirit. Even that bet on the Americans itself was something of a sentimental choice, based on my long-standing dislike of the Europeans, the majority of whom I regard as a disgraceful bunch of bottlers who are all heroes when they've got 11 other guys out there with them, but who can never quite hold it together coming down the stretch at Augusta or at the British Open.

So even as I was trying to break my addiction, I was doing it in a half-hearted way, allowing my emotions to intrude on what should be a cold and measured judgement.

Nor did the hysteria at Celtic Manor persuade me to invest any further in the proceedings -- not even the 12 singles matches could get the old fever started. Hell, I wasn't even that angry about losing, because I knew deep down I hadn't much chance of winning, letting my heart rule my head.

I went through the motions anyway, on the morning after. With messages of support still pouring in from my long-suffering friends, and aware of what it would mean to them to have the old "me" back, I switched on my console anyway, to peruse the bill of fare.

A game of Moroccan football perhaps? Surely a tempting proposition for a man so familiar with the Moroccan scene, a man who, back in the day, couldn't pass a game between Kenitra FC and Fath Union Sport de Rabat without getting involved? Alas, it did not move me.

I switched off the machine, and busied myself with some work. Already I could feel that false hope of Celtic Manor slipping away. I had to resist this terrible urge to go for a five-mile run, or even to do something socially useful, apparently lost forever to the world I once knew.

A few days ago I had to come to terms with the fact that the entire Commonwealth Games had gone by, and I hadn't had any money on it. Maybe that was my rock bottom.

But I get the feeling I am not there yet.

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