GAA Football

Kenny Archer: Ireland's high level of gambling needs reduced, not encouraged

Tyrone's Cathal McCarron is one of several GAA stars who have revealed the damage done by gambling addiction. Picture Margaret McLaughlin

NOW is probably not the best time to consider how Ireland matches up to Great Britain, what with Brexit and that embarrassing defeat by England in the rugball.

Generally there’s pride in punching above our weight in comparison to our neighbours on the next (big) island over.

However, there should be shame and sadness about one particular area: the scale of the gambling problem in Ireland.

I was rather surprised when I checked the Gambling Commission’s figures and found that the betting industry in GB rakes in more than £14bn.

I was completely stunned to discover that the Irish equivalent is estimated at E5bn.

Think about that.

A population one-tenth the size of that of GB gambles around one-third as much money.

That is extraordinary. And not in a good way.

Fortunately, I never grew up around gambling. Living out in the country, far from betting shops (and pubs), I had little opportunity to do so, and no example to follow from anyone I knew.

The first ever football (soccer) accumulator I did came up successfully. I won more than £300, which was a lot of money back in those days.

Yet rather than thinking ‘I’m brilliant at this, this is the way for me to make my fortune’, my innate caution kicked in.

‘I’ve had my luck’, I thought. If I recall correctly, I bet a fiver over the following two weekends, lost them both, and thought ‘Flip this for a lark, I’m done with betting’.

The rest of the money sat in a tin on the bookcase in my bedroom for years.

I know I’m a lucky one.

I’ve placed the odd bet over the years. I’ve even been to Aintree several times (including Grand Nationals), and to Ascot, but I still stick to that fiver limit, albeit that being the stake per race.

I’m lucky enough never to have caught the gambling bug, that desire to keep chasing winners, ‘the buzz’ felt by having money riding on a horse or the outcome of match.

Instead of excitement, I feel fear at the thought that I’ve basically thrown money away.

Don’t be mistaken, I’m not exactly sensible with cash. I have spent (arguably wasted) plenty of money, mostly on music, books, and magazines.

We all have our vices.

There really is no harm in spending a small amount each week on bets, as long as you can keep it within sensible limits. It’s no worse than smoking, drinking, or buying yet another book to add to a packed bookcase (or put into an already groaning loft).

It’s the ability, or inability, to control our vices that differs from person to person.

Unfortunately, those with the urge to gamble are not helped by society.

There are far too many enticements and incitements to gamble, from the shirt (and stadium) sponsors of so many sports teams, to the adverts during every commercial break, and even during play.

GAA stars such as Oisin McConville and Cathal McCarron have honestly and heart-rendingly revealed the damage done to their lives by their gambling addictions.

Many of us like to test our sporting knowledge, ‘put our money where our mouth is’.

Yet most gamblers only talk about their wins, not their losses

And the harsh reality is that the bookie really does always win (as long as they do their maths right).

Just as slot machines have a built-in profit margin, only paying out a certain percentage of what they take in, so do bookies. Fair enough, they are businesses and employers.

They constantly calculate their odds and potential outlays to ensure that they turn a profit no matter what the outcome of the sporting event (or ‘celebrity’ TV contest, or whatever).

Sure, some individual punters can win big, some can even make a good living out of gambling – but they are very much the exceptions.

Most punters are only boosting bookies’ bank balances.

It does my head in when bookies garner free publicity by talking about some big winner and bleating about how much it cost them (the bookie) – failing to mention that they had more than covered their losses with all the other bets that DIDN’T win on that particular event.

How many people do you think actually backed Leicester City to win the English Premier League at 5,000/1? And how many more had money on Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Spurs, or Liverpool?

I dabbled in online betting a few years ago, broke about even – then tried to withdraw my money.

I gave up when I realised it would be easier and less painful to send them one of my feet through the post than supply all the forms of ID that they ‘required’.

Eventually I gambled the rest of it away - but that was the end of me betting money online.

Gambling is nothing new, of course.

A friend’s father ran a café in my hometown. My friend, when he was a teenager, remembers every Friday evening working men coming in, methodically putting their wages into slot machines – and leaving in tears as those machines ate up the money that was supposed to be spent on their wives and children.

Similar scenes are no doubt still enacted all over Ireland.

The Irish love affair with horse racing doesn’t help.

The growing problem is that it’s far too easy to gamble nowadays.

Spread betting and the ability to bet against teams or certain outcomes offer far more opportunities for people to ‘try their luck’.

To re-iterate, though: bookies don’t rely on luck, they profit from clever calculations.

‘When the fun stops, stop’?

Stop.

It’s often those who can least afford it who gamble the most, at least in relation to their income.

More must be done to limit online betting, with technology able to discern punters’ home addresses and/or bank accounts and thereby limit the amounts that they lay out.

Governments act to limit smoking and drinking – why not curtail gambling too?

Bet if you like – but everything in moderation.

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