Dilemmas: A gambler's stakes just keep on rising

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HOW DO you imagine a gambler? As a poor, unemployed person desperately spending all his benefit money on scratch cards? A football fanatic staking his life savings on the outcome of the World Cup? A little lady in a white cardigan pottering into the bingo hall with a pound of pension money to spend? Or a dashing young devil in a dinner jacket and a rose in his button- hole swaggering into a casino at two in the morning?

Gamblers can actually be absolutely anyone, and whether we're people who own penny shares on the stock exchange, or who simply have a flutter on the Derby once a year, we're becoming a nation of gamblers.

William Hill estimates that betting on this this year's World Cup will exceed all other non-racing sports events ever. In 1994, the World Cup was the biggest betting event on sports that year, and 1996 lived up to the same expectations, but this year's World Cup is estimated to exceed pounds 100 million pounds.

Ever since the National Lottery started four years ago, we have gambled more and more and more. Before the Lottery, 74 per cent of people were involved in some kind of gambling; since the Lottery, the figure has shot up to 90 per cent. It used to be mainly men who bet on the pools and the horses; now more women and young people are involved in gambling. Of the 2.8 million people involved in Bingo, for example, 83 per cent are women.

Why do we gamble? And why have we always gambled? It is said that Caesar actually invaded Gaul simply to pay his gambling debts.

According to Angela Willans, author of Gambling, a Family Affair (Sheldon Press pounds 6.99), there are four reasons: the money, the social life, as a remedy for boredom, and finally there's the buzz.

The chances of winning the Lottery are, according to her, less than the chances of being mugged, losing your job and having your house repossessed all on the same day. The big lure is the jackpot. Much of this obsession with a big win is to do with an enormous lack of self-esteem and a feeling of "When I win the Lottery, then I'll show them". If people don't win on scratch cards, it's a spur to go on until they do, "and if they do win it's a spur to go on until they win some more," says Angela Willans.

The gambling social life is another reason to keep betting. Gamblers like the casino or the betting shop as much as the alcoholic likes the local pub. Here, no one criticises them for what they do, and they find a camaraderie that makes them feel better about themselves. Unemployed men find the betting shop a reason for leaving their houses and talk to friends; rich men like Adnan Khashoggi, who has recently reached an out of court settlement with the Ritz Casino after pounds 3.2 million worth of cheques bounced, must find it a relief to meet other rich men in a relaxed way.

And if you're unemployed and bored, gambling can give you a feeling of doing something. "I only come alive at the tables," is a common reaction.

Indeed, it's the buzz that's the most addictive thing about gambling. "A gambler will actually experience physical changes while the roulette wheel slows down, like raised blood pressure, a slowing down of the digestive system, a surge of adrenaline and over double his usual heart-rate," says Angela Willans. In other words, gambling can give you a physical high in the same way as you get high on alcohol or drugs. "Unless I was staking more than I could afford, there wasn't any buzz," said one man who bet on the horses.

It's the buzz that turns normal gamblers into compulsive gamblers. There are an estimated one a half million people who have a real problem with gambling and Gamblers Anonymous, which uses the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to help gamblers on their path to health, welcomes 15,000 of these addictive gamblers through their doors each year.

There are stories of compulsive gamblers raiding their children's money boxes and secretly re-mortgaging the house. Families can be completely destroyed by a gambler's addiction. The main signs are secrecy, huge, feebly-explained-away debts, unexplained borrowing from family and friends, stealing and, finally, an increasing tendency to gamble alone.

There seem to be two different sorts of gamblers. The saddos, who feel they have no power over their lives and hand their whole futures over to Lady Luck. (Even Adnan Khashoggi is superstitious. "He called me his lucky rabbit and liked me to go with him to the tables," says Soraya, his ex-wife.) These are people who are unable to accept reality, who are insecure, who want good things without making any effort, and who feel guilty and feel their losses are a way of punishing themselves.

Then there is the flashier type of gambler, who hangs out with the casino crowd, or may be one of the flamboyant and compulsive players on the stock market. According to one psychiatrist's findings, these are people who show contempt for moderate earnings, who are highly ambitious and workaholic, and whose boredom threshold is low. Competitive, they are bad losers, cynical and hypersensitive. They show contempt for unsuccessful people and they hide their underlying depression with an exaggerated air of importance.

The average flutter on the World Cup is a tenner, but William Hill recently took pounds 160,000 from a punter who bet that amount on Chile to beat Austria. He lost it all in the last ten seconds of the game.

If that happened to most of us, we'd resolve never to go near a betting shop again. But if it happened to a gambling man, he'd just shrug off his losses. Lady Luck is a fickle woman and who knows, tonight...

Virginia Ironside

Gamblers Anonymous 0171 384 3040

Next week's dilemma:

This was left off last week's Dilemma column because of a production error. We apologise for the omission. Please write in with your answers as usual this week.

Dear Virginia,

My husband's a gentle, kind man, devoted to me and our four children. We have been married 25 years this summer. However, his taste for pornography of sadistic and violent kinds has always been a shadow in the background of our marriage. My husband eventually promised to get rid of all his magazines and give it all up, as I worried the kids would find it. Then a week ago, I discovered a mass of stuff on our computer, obviously gained through the Internet. Stories about the total degradation of women, torture, humiliation, disciplining of young girls and children, and I'm furious that the children might already have seen it. I've cancelled our contract with the Internet, but feel betrayed and disgusted. Is separation from this man the only way now? It would be a terrible upheaval for myself and the children. Is it my fault for becoming less interested in sex over the years? I can't bear the thought of any sex at all with him now. We're supposed to be going to Paris to celebrate our 25th, but I feel now I wouldn't even go to the end of the road with him. Can anyone help me think straight?

Yours sincerely, Joan