Gambling addiction – the irresistible lure of Cheltenham

Car windows smashed in temper, wild-eyed men on the edge of a big pay-out pacing the floor, and paranoid gamblers screaming in your face over a late price – it’s tough working in a betting shop during the gambling catnip that is the Cheltenham Festival.

Irish people just love the Cheltenham Festival, running this year from March 13-17. We spent more than €22m at the horse racing festival on 2017 and accounted for 30% of total punters at the event. At home, we gambled over €100 million on bets in bookies’ shops and online.

It’s the one time of year many people break out a fiver, pick a horse they like the name of, or a jockey they’ve heard of, and have a flutter. It’s just a bit of fun; offices, factories and other workplaces are a-buzz with tips and talk of the winners and losers.

Unfortunately, for problem gamblers – either in active addiction or recovery – this time of year is an absolute nightmare as it’s everywhere. It is practically impossible to listen to any radio station, read a newspaper, or watch the TV without hearing talk of gambling at this time of year. Outside of St Stephen’s Day (the busiest day of the year) Cheltenham is top priority and bookies will do anything to get you in the door. 

View from the other side of the counter

“Cheltenham is the biggest time of the year for any bookie. After Christmas, you’ll see punters coming in every week after being paid and topping up their accounts by €100, so they’ve a pot of a grand to spend come festival time,” says Michael (not his real name) who has worked in a bookie’s for several years.

“There are people who take a ‘Cheltenham loan’ out every year of €5000 and they take a week off work to be in the bookies from Tuesday to Friday, as well as being   in and out of the pub. They’ll spend the €5,000, no problem. If they’ve a good Cheltenham, they’ll pay it back straight away or if not, pay it back over the year – it’s a religion for them,” says Michael.

“If you’ve an addiction, Cheltenham will make or break you. It will break most, who walk out with nothing in their pockets after spending all day, for four days, chasing losses,” he says.

Gambling the Irish way

Sports betting is big business – Irish people gamble more than €5 billion every year, which is €10,000 every minute. Every minute.

Historically, there is a centuries-old culture of gambling on sport in Ireland. People would bet on anything involving a contest, from a GAA match to two snails climbing a wall. But the nature of gambling has undergone a revolution; while 12% of Irish adults still bet with a bookmaker every week, many more have moved online.

As a result, it is difficult to calculate numbers but guarded estimates suggest that there are perhaps 40,000 Irish people with a gambling addiction.

Cheltenham adrenaline rush

It’s called the ‘silent addiction’ because there’s no outward signs that anything is wrong. Physically, you’ll usually be able to see if a person has an addiction to alcohol, drugs, or food but it’s often not until the gambler is in too deep and has lost every penny, or their job, or the house – that it comes to light.

It starts off as small bets, €5 here and there, but whether you’re on social welfare or making €100,000 a year, betting anything beyond your means is a problem.

“I’ve a wealthy businessman in a suit coming in, spending €200-300 every day. He’ll put more on the next one after a loss and keep chasing it. Win or lose, he’s back the next day,” says Michael.

“I’ve seen people €2,000-3,000 up on any given day during Cheltenham and they end up walking out with nothing. You’ll never beat the bookies because even if you win, the adrenalin rush is so potent that you’ll inevitably go back in again and hand your money right back to them,” he says.

Everyone’s a loser

Can the staff tell who has an addiction? You can tell by their reaction to a loss, suggests Michael.

“Some get very aggressive and they’ll pick a fight with you. They get sneaky – prices are always changing, so they’ll write down a price and chance their arm with a bigger price. That’s when the trouble starts.

“They’ll get defensive and aggressive. They are convinced you are personally targeting them. They are paranoid that you are out to get them. There will be a fight over 50 cent or a euro, they think they’re being robbed.

“They are angry at themselves but take it out with arguments with the staff. Some can be very intimidating, one colleague had his car windows blown in and I’ve seen terrible verbal racist attacks on anyone perceived to be a non-national, especially from older men.

“It’s not always so apparent that someone has a problem. One of my favourite customers, lovely guy, came in just before we closed up recently to put a fiver on, his usual bet. He lost.

“Suddenly, he wanted €100 on another race and lost. Then another €100. He was panicking, not a penny left. Spending €200 in ten minutes, sitting with his head in his hands is so out of character for him. I didn’t know what to say to him.

“I realised that he was no longer a ‘social gambler’, he has a gambling problem and can do a lot of damage when he wants to. It opened my eyes.

“He won it back, was beaming, all smiles, laughing and straight back into the pub. If he hadn’t won that, what would have happened, how would he have got home? I worry he’s headed down a slippery slope,” says Michael.

Gambling support

“When panic and desperation set in for the gambler, relationships can often be a casualty,” says Mick Devine, Clinical Director of Tabor Lodge, an addiction treatment centre based in Cork.

“Things are said and done that cause emotional and physical damage. The lies, deceit and theft can be the last straw.

“Tabor Lodge offers support to people with a gambling addiction. It’s an option people take when they realise they have nowhere else to turn. Support from previously close relationships might be wearing thin. It can be very scary when the person realises they have really burned their bridges.

“At Tabor Lodge, people can get to the safety of the residential treatment environment and take stock. Education about gambling addiction helps them see there is a disorder in the gambling habit.

“Care for the person provided by Tabor Group staff can help the person to relax and become less defensive and more honest. When treatment goes well, it can feel like a ‘joining-the-dots’ exercise and the picture become clear. This clarity may open the way forward for the gambler, one day at a time,” he said.

Gambling signs

The signs and symptoms of gambling addiction include:

  • Preoccupation with gambling. Thinking about it more often, and finding more ways to gamble
  • Beginning to feel shame and guilt related to gambling, but doing it anyway
  • Withdrawing from relationships with family or friends to engage in gambling
  • Hiding your gambling from family or friends
  • Spending more than you intend to, or can afford
  • Chasing/trying to regain losses by gambling more
  • Mood swings/tension/stress/unhappiness/depression
  • Spending money that is not yours
  • Being unable to stop gambling despite your best efforts

Tabor Group

Tabor Group is a leading provider of residential addiction treatment services in Ireland. We provide support and care to hundreds of clients suffering from addictions to alcohol, substances, gambling and food. For more information on Tabor Group’s services click here 

This article was first published on March 12, 2018 in the Evening Echo