Escape from gambling hell
Eugene Farrar combed his hair, put on his best suit and polished his shoes. He wanted to make sure he looked the part for the moment he chose to turn his life around. On a spring afternoon last year, the 42-year-old calmly walked into a betting shop in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, and told a member of staff: “I want to self-exclude – I’ve had enough.” Self-exclusion is a formal process whereby a person can ask a bookmaker to close their account and stop taking their money.
Just hours earlier, he had told his wife Tracy the secret he had been hiding from her for 12 years: he was a gambling addict.
Now, more than a year later, Farrar is perched on his chair, eyes welling up as he recalls the day he says he “got my life back”.
“Tracy said to me, ‘You don’t have to do it alone.’ When someone turns around and says that, it’s a really empowering thing to hear. When someone says they’ll walk with you, you immediately feel stronger,” the professional jazz musician says.
Farrar, whose grandfather owned a betting shop in the 1970s, played a gig in a local restaurant that night and said he “felt relief in every part of my body”. He has not gambled since.
Farrar, who estimates he lost more than £100,000 over two decades gambling, is not alone in his struggle. There are an estimated 450,000 “problem gamblers” in the UK, according to the most recent British Gambling Prevalence Survey.
And the numbers are rising – up from 0.6% of the population in 2007 to 0.9% in 2010, according to one measure. A further 3.5 million people were categorised as “at-risk” gamblers.
And GamCare, an industry funded body that provides support to problem gamblers, told a parliamentary select committee last year that 2% of 12 to 15-year-olds are addicted to gambling.
Betting shops are proliferating in the country’s poorest areas. In Hackney, east London, there are eight on one street alone, and 43 across the borough. In Haringey, where the riots flared up last summer, there are more betting shops than bookshops, according to Tottenham MP David Lammy.
Grasp, an independent reform group set up by former gambling addicts, and London Labour councillor Rowenna Davis recently launched a campaign called High Streets First, which is calling on the government to change the law to allow councils to prevent betting shops from clustering in poor inner-city areas.
Betting shops are classed as financial and professional services alongside estate agents and banks, meaning they can open up in any building that previously housed such organisations without planning permission. A review by retail guru Mary Portas recommended in December that councils be given the power to stop bookmakers opening, claiming “the influx of betting shops, often into more deprived areas, is blighting our high streets”. Last month the government rejected Portas’s proposal, saying councils already had adequate powers.
Lammy, who tabled an amendment to the localism bill last year asking for a change to the class of betting shops, says the government was “squandering the opportunity to change the law to give local people the power to say ‘no’ to more of these shops”.
The rise in the number of betting shops is being driven by a new breed of gambling machines: fixed odds betting terminals. People can bet £100 a spin every 20 seconds on these virtual roulette machines, and Farrar says he has easily lost £1,000 in a single sitting, if not more.
Dubbed the crack cocaine of the betting industry, the terminals account for almost half of betting shops’ profits, and there are thought to be at least 32,000 in the UK, or one machine per 1,500 adults.
Legislation restricts the number in each betting shop to four, but councils are powerless to stop more shops opening. In last month’s budget George Osborne announced a new tax on the profits from fixed odds betting terminals, which could raise £50m a year. Yet critics fear this move may pave the way for an increase in the number of terminals allowed in each betting shop to six or even eight.
“The new gaming machine tax on fixed odds betting terminals proves that the government is addicted to the problem gamblers’ losses,” a Grasp spokesman says.
“These machines offer high stakes and high-speed play never seen before on our high streets. You can lose £18,000 an hour without being asked a question. They’re the perfect vehicle to fuel problem gambling.”
The internet has also provided problem gamblers with a new platform to pursue their addiction in secret. According to the Gambling Commission, 9.8% of people gamble online, up from 5.2% in 2006.
Problem gambling is not confined to the residents of deprived inner cities. Phil Mawer, privately educated in Taunton and captain of his university rugby team, had a successful career in support services for the oil industry, which saw him working through a civil war in Yemen and, more recently, in Afghanistan.
Happily married and living in Cyprus, working abroad for months at a time, the ease of internet gambling – specifically, blackjack – proved his undoing. He estimates he lost £500,000 over 20 years.
“Sure, I’ve dabbled with fixed odds betting terminals, but I was that far gone with the internet that I didn’t need to look for even quicker ways of blowing my money,” says Mawer.
“I do take responsibility for gambling but if I had a choice, why – given my circumstances – would I have taken such a destructive path in my life?
“I’m an intelligent guy, university educated, well-paid, I’m running an operation with 2,000 employees, 6,000 clients – I’m very renowned in my small industry.”
Mawer, 49, whose wife died last year, has written a self-help book for problem gamblers, Overcoming Gambling, detailing the methods that helped him stop. His last bet, in a casino at Frankfurt airport on 11 August 2006, is a moment he describes as his “rock bottom”.
He recounts the day he told his wife about his addiction. After returning from a trip working abroad, she confronted him with bank statements as they sat down for a drink on the veranda. “She was very, very shocked – there wasn’t anger immediately,” he says. “She was looking at three months of statements. She then went to the bank with her daughter and asked for five years’ worth of bank statements for all the accounts, credit card, the lot.”
Hours later, Mawer was forced to lock himself in the bathroom after his wife came at him with a kitchen knife during the night.
Years before, Mawer’s wife had suspected he was having affair but, in reality, it was his secret gambling that was forcing him to sneak around in the manner of an cheating husband.
“Everything you’d be trying to do if you were disguising a relationship is what you do as a gambler,” says Mawer, who admits he spent up to nine hours a day gambling online.
“You’ve got highs and lows and you try to disguise that – you become inattentive, over-attentive when you’re trying to cover up. You become emotionally barren as you have to cover the wins and the losses.”
For many former gambling addicts, the problem can be traced back to an early age.
Bobby Gee, 34, remembers being taken horse racing when he was eight. Throughout his teens he dabbled with bets on the greyhounds and, when he went out with friends to the pub, he would always be the one playing the fruit machine.
“I was in denial for many years that I had a problem,” says the father of two. “It never really bothered me – I’d always find a way to pay the rent. There were always people to borrow money off. I only really started to think it was a problem when I had a mortgage.”
Like so many others, fixed odds betting terminals offered Gee, a pub manager, an outlet for his addiction. He would find any opportunity to slip off to the betting shop – before or after work, during lunch, on the way to the shops.
“I’d have, say, £1,000 a month to pay the mortgage and arrears, and I’d go to the bookies thinking, it doesn’t matter, I’ll only use a couple of hundred quid. Then I’d lose the whole month’s payment,” says Gee, who lives in Brighton.
“As far as my missus was concerned, the mortgage was paid, but it wasn’t. To this day she doesn’t actually know how bad it was.”
Gee, who says he is “probably 10 or 20 grand in debt” because of gambling, used to take money out of the safe at a restaurant where he worked to fund his habit. He says he always replaced it – borrowing from friends, family, credit cards and high-interest payday loan companies.
“I got so good at lying. The things I was saying I actually started to believe myself,” he says. “It was always things like the car had broken down, I couldn’t get to work. Especially when you phone up people like credit card companies or the mortgage people, it’s always the lie of home improvements going over budget.”
For Gee, Mawer and Farrar – who are hoping that their stories will encourage others to deal with their gambling problems – there is no reason to lie any more.
‘Gambling is an illness, not merely a compulsion’
Two-thirds of patients treated at the UK’s first specialist problem gambling clinic have indicated that controversial fixed odds betting terminals encouraged their addiction.
Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, who set up the NHS National Problem Gambling Clinic in London in 2008, also told Guardian Money society needs to recognise gambling is a fully fledged addiction rather than a mere compulsion. She hopes changing people’s perception of the illness will stimulate extra funding.
“It’s difficult for people to understand the severity of the illness unless they come into contact with patients. We have 2,000 files of people who have been referred to us. For example, they have lost their home, or their parents’ home, through gambling,” Bowden-Jones she says. “Many of them have broken marriages and have been separated from their children, lost their jobs or ended up in prison because of the gambling.”
The clinic, which has 10 staff including volunteers, survives on a budget of £300,000 a year, but Bowden-Jones hopes to increase funding by launching a charity called Gambling Concern.
“My dream is to have a day hospital and a drop-in centre, capturing people when they’re hot off the bookmakers. I can’t do that without the extra funding,” she says. “The fact that gambling is a hidden addiction works to the detriment of the pathological gambler because sometimes problems have gone so far with the gambler being able to hide the addiction, that by the time people pick up the problems it is an extremely serious addiction with people feeling suicidal. They don’t want to live any more because it’s a negative reality where they have no job, and no contact with friends because they’ve tried to borrow money and people have disowned them. They have no spouse, they’ve lost touch with their parents, they have no home.”
She says prisoners have written to her begging for treatment on the day of their release, indicating they will reoffend otherwise.
“Illegal activities among our patients are quite high. These are people who have an addiction and then steal money because they want to fund more gambling. The statistics are quite high – 40%, 50% of gamblers have committed illegal acts,” she says. “I really believe one of the things we should be doing, which we’ve started at the clinic, is to educate the criminal justice system to the fact that this is an illness and it needs to be taken into account when people end up in court.”
While gambling addiction is largely viewed as a male problem, roughly 10% of the clinic’s patients are female.
Professor Jim Orford, a leading expert on problem gambling at the University of Birmingham, thinks the ease of internet gambling poses a particular threat to women. “It’s something you don’t have to go out of the house to do, so women who stay at home are certainly at risk.”
Orford is also highly critical of fixed odds betting terminals, and backs the High Streets First campaign. “The kind of games you play on them are not your old fruit machine games – these are casino-type games of a kind that used to be confined to casinos. Now, here they are on the high street. By their very nature, I’m not surprised they combine all the features you would expect that make gambling particularly dangerous.”
Orford, who is launching a campaign group, Gambling Watch UK, thinks Tony Blair’s government lifted the lid on gambling. “As a country we were really quite restrained about gambling. It wasn’t advertised, it wasn’t encouraged – it was a bit of a dirty word among most people. Then the national lottery came and made a difference. It got gambling advertised in a big way, and all the other gambling firms got together and asked for a level playing field so they could be advertised themselves. I think there has been an enormous rise in gambling and an enormous rise in the accessibility. Attitudes are changing slowly and we really should be worried about it.”