Chris’s story is all too-common – childhood holidays in seaside resorts with seemingly innocent family trips to amusement arcades. The lure of the flashing lights and the possibility of winning some money can be irresistible to children, and may also be the start of a life-long gambling habit. This was indeed the case for Chris.
Chris went on to lose £350,000 in the grip of a gambling addiction that lasted over twenty years. This is his story, as told to Sarah Marten at Gambling Watch UK.
“As a child the flashing lights in the seaside arcades intrigued me. Looking back now I can see that my interest in gambling is quite deep-rooted. My Dad didn’t let me play the arcade machines; I just used to watch him enjoying himself. From there I progressed to some bets on the table football in the school common room when I was around 13. We just used to bet small amounts – I don’t think the teachers had any idea about what was going on.”
On the way home from school Chris used to pass the bookmaker’s, and it wasn’t long before he was removing his school tie and dropping in to place a bet on the horses.
“I was probably only about 15 at the time, and I think the staff turned a blind eye about my age to be honest. At this stage I had quite a lucrative part-time job, and it wasn’t long before I was spending all my earnings in the bookies. My gambling was starting to become an addiction – all I was interested in was winning money. I came from quite a large family and my Mum was busy working, so she didn’t really notice what was happening to me.
“At 16 I left school and went out to work. As soon as I received my wages on a Friday I would lose the whole lot on the fruit machines. Once I was old enough to go to pubs my gambling started to escalate, as I began to use the pub machines as well. Losing all this money was making me feel more and more upset, although no-one knew, as I kept everything a secret from my family and friends.
“I started to realise that my gambling was a problem, but I didn’t really know what to do. Friends started to bail me out - I didn’t even have enough to pay my parents for my keep. At the same time I continued to gamble all my wages.
“At the age of 17 I managed to get into a casino with someone else’s driving licence and this was the start of a new pattern for me. Nights out starting with the pub, then a club, then the casino. I was playing machines with much larger jackpots, as well as roulette and games of black jack. I’d even make excuses with my employer, phone in sick and then go to the casino instead of going to work. For me, it’s always been the idea of winning large amounts of money that was so appealing. But you always lose far more than you ever win.”
Chris is clearly a talented businessman and entrepreneur – his earnings have been consistently high and he has set up successful businesses over the years. But he feels his gambling addiction has all but ruined his life. He has come close to losing his home, his livelihood and his life.
“Gambling addiction has taken so much of my life away. I have learnt so many lessons, but it’s been incredibly traumatic. When I think of all the things I could have had with the money that I earned! But instead it was wasted through gambling. I do have my own property now, but it’s nothing like the one I would have had if I’d not been addicted to gambling.
“Gambling is definitely an addiction – it changes you mentally and physically and then brings out the worst in you. Most of my friends know nothing about this side of my life – they wouldn’t believe it if they did know. I have ended up living a lie and have become dangerously close to taking my own life as result. I’ve made so many mistakes and the damage I have done to myself is immeasurable.”
Chris has found gambling addiction to be degrading and humiliating, and it has led to feelings of intense self-hatred, shame and guilt, as well as many physical symptoms.
“The stress on my body has led to various physical health problems such as chest pains, insomnia, and dehydration. I put this down to the stress that gambling addiction puts on the body. You end up staying up really late, and trying to work out how to get yourself out of the mess you are in.”
And for Chris there is no doubt about the type of gambling he has found most addictive – the Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs).
“I have lost £9,000 in less than two hours on the FOBT machines, and around £25,000 in five months. I had the money on my debit card and I just emptied it. I have spent from 9am to 9pm standing in the same spot without water or going to the toilet. I was always trying to win back what I had lost. In reality there were many times I thought there was no way out, but instead of working my way out I borrowed another £10,000 here and there and progressed slowly but surely in gambling terms to a slow death.
“I have to say that sometimes the staff in the bookies have been kind to me, and one nice staff member told me she couldn’t bear to see me like this (gamblers so easily forget that the staff are human too). I’ve been known to head-butt the machines on occasions. It’s like I became a different person. You are in a different world, in a bubble. And when you use your debit card to pay for the gambling, it doesn’t even really feel like it’s your money you’re spending. You don’t see the banknotes, and so you don’t really relate to it. I truly believe that these machines are fixed, as you lose much more money than you should. But sometimes I’m on such a downward spiral, that I feel I have no choice but to go back in and gamble again.
“I’ve also become involved in internet gambling after I saw mainstream television advertisements with famous people promoting online bingo or other forms of gambling. I’m not so sure that the famous people care too much about the damage that can be done if the vulnerable follow their guidance.
“Spread-betting on the internet also led me to lose around £60,000 in three months, at a time when I really thought I had got my gambling under control. It’s so tempting and so easy, and you lose so much. Spread betting is a form of gambling with higher risks, the problem being that the general public who spread bet don’t have the knowhow that the stock market people have. Let’s face it, with recent stock market personnel losing billions in one fell swoop, what chance does this give Mr Joe public? Again this is a way to make the rich richer and the less fortunate penniless!
“I want our government to listen and to reduce the stakes on FOBT machines. Gambling should be regulated by a completely independent authority and not people who are on the payroll of the big gambling organisations; can you imagine the Chief of Police being on the payroll of a drugs cartel? There should also be more government funding for treatment programmes.
“The government has to stand up and be counted, they put us in this conundrum when they allowed the FOBT’s many years ago into our lives – they now need to control this. It’s not the losing that’s the biggest problem; it’s the amounts that you can win. This needs to be reduced by far to save the next generation of gamblers coming through; these gamblers may not be as lucky as me in their survival to fulfil their own goals in life.”
Chris’s experiences have motivated him to make a difference and to hopefully prevent others from taking the same path as him.
“I’m now trying to channel my energies in a positive way. Gambling has robbed me of my energy and happiness in my life and I’m now claiming this back by working with and not against my self-beliefs. There are no short cuts in this life - work hard and you will be rewarded.”