The low points were fast mounting up for snooker player Mark King as he battled a crippling addiction to gambling. To huge debts could be added a marriage under severe strain and a promising career in danger of going into a tailspin.
As he bottomed out in the quest for stake money to put on the next dog, horse or card, King admits: "I found myself in a situation where I was even thinking about doing a robbery to get money to gamble. That is just not me, not who I am. I was considering quick fixes, stealing and stuff like that. I don't think it was even the debt at the time, it was just so I would have something in my hand to bet with. I half-thought about the robbery, and asked someone else to be involved. But in the end I couldn't go through with it. Looking back, it makes me feel physically sick."
Even that nadir, a decade ago, was not enough to fully deflect the two-time ranking-event finalist from his self-destructive path. And the road to Damascus moment, when it eventually came, was not accompanied by any fanfares or blinding flashes of light.
It arrived at his home eight years ago, as he was literally looking at himself in the mirror, driven by the thought of what sort of blighted life his wife and young family could expect unless he managed a radical overhaul.
King, now a father of three and in his 20th season as a professional, is speaking at his snooker club – the Q Ball in Chelmsford – in a private room adorned by faded billiard-hall pictures and containing the table where he is about to start practising.
The 36-year-old once sold a previous table for £1,000 in cash and promptly blew it in 10 minutes on three spins of a roulette-wheel machine in a nearby betting shop. As he painstakingly irons the cloth, it is clear that more care is being taken of this one.
Next Saturday, the world No 19 has one match in a converted badminton hall at Sheffield's English Institute of Sport to clinch a place at the Crucible Theatre and the World Championships for what would be a 13th time.
Final qualifiers to reach the annual showpiece are notoriously tense affairs but for King, who will be checking in next week for his regular Gamblers Anonymous meeting in Essex, a bigger battle is slowly being won.
The player, who at one time ran up gambling debts of £100,000, estimates he has squandered a total of £500,000 – or around half his career prize money. He says: "There is a gambling culture in snooker, and many players relax in that way. However, I am a compulsive and I don't know when to stop. There is a massive difference between peoplewho lose £50 and then don't play again for a month, and me. If I got £200 down it was like, 'You can't leave now'; I'd go to the cashpoint, then go to the next card table. When that closed, go to the roulette, then the blackjack, then the Caribbean poker. It's an illness.
"You are around it from a young age in snooker. At 10 or 11 at the Luciana club in Romford I'd pull up a stool and watch older players on fruit machines, and ask for a fiver if they won the £85 cash-pot, or get them to put in a pound for me. When I was 14 or 15 there were card tables at events, you could win £200, £300, even £1,000. I got into a private card game at somewhere called the Willow Rooms in Romford and you could be in there for 24 hours. All the time I was getting deeper and deeper into the mud.
"The most I was in debt was £100,000, and incredibly the last thing on my mind to pay it off was the one thing where I could earn the most – my snooker. If I had just stopped and got my head down and practised, I could easily have earned that in a year. But I wasn't practising, I was betting. Your career suffers, of course it does. I say to myself all the time, 'You've missed the boat, how much better might it have been?' "
King's first attempts to keep his addiction under control came after a day when he lost £3,500, leaving him "wanting to kill myself", and months before his marriage to Sally in 1998. "I went to GA, but after a few months I thought, 'I don't need this, I'm betterthan these people, and not as sick as they are'." Within weeks, however, King slipped back into the old routine, haunts and company, triggering a six-year spell of unchecked excess that almost cost him everything. Only on his return to the meetings in 2003, this time really ready to quit, did King stay the course. "I was a horrible person. I used to have rows on purpose with Sally so I could storm out of the house and go down the casino.
"She knew I gambled, but never the full extent, and the lying was the worst thing she had to put up with. It hurts me to say this, but at that time she may as well not have been there. When you're a compulsive gambler, you don't care about anything else. Bank statements would come through, and I'd
hear 'Mark...' and I'd know from the tone. She'd say, 'You've been gambling again', I'd lie through my teeth, get aggressive, but eventually admit it."
King also admits that he has suffered two minor gambling lapses since 2003, but is happy to confirm his last bet was six years ago. "We were at Center Parcs when my wife gave me an iPod after I had been off the gambling for a year. I did not deserve it after what I put her through. It was a 'well done', and there were tears in my eyes."
King, planning to write a book about his gambling experiences, also knows he can never afford to complacently consign his addiction to the past. "Of course there are times when you feel like you can't be bothered with the meetings. But then someone new comes in. They're 25, but look 105, white as a ghost, crying, their wife has left, [they've] done all their money, and their kids hate them. I think, 'That's why I come', you rewind to how you were, and it stops you wavering.
"The main things I have always got from it are the stories, men who went to prison for fraud or robbery, trying to fund their habit, and didn't see their kids born, or see them grow up."
Snooker's wider association with gambling in recent months has not been a happy one. The world No 1, John Higgins, was cleared of two corruption charges after a frame-fixing scandal last year, but picked up a six-month ban on disrepute counts. And two probes into irregular match-betting patterns, involving Stephen Maguire, Jamie Burnett and Stephen Lee, remain unresolved, with all three players maintaining their innocence.
Peter Kay, the chief executive of the Sporting Chance clinic, which specialises in the treatment of addicts, believes the kind of debts run up in the past by King would make players more vulnerable to approaches threatening the integrity of the sport. Kay says: "Hypothetically, if you owed someone £40,000 and they said, 'I can knock that off if you win five frames and then lose', that's a hell of a pressure."
King, who admitted last year he once rejected an offer from a stranger of £100,000 to throw a match, says: "If you are in debt, maybe you'd be more vulnerable to suggestions like that. But even at the height of my problems and debts, and with all the other crazy things I was thinking, never did it cross my mind to try and throw a match."
Most of all, though, he is delighted to have reclaimed a life that at one time looked to be spinning hopelessly out of control. "Without the meetings, I am a scumbag," he says, "so I will always do them. The last eight years have been the sweetest time, my kids don't cower because I made their mother cry rowing about gambling away the shopping money, and there is a lot of love in my life that just wasn't there before."
Life and times
Born 28 March 1974.
World ranking 19.
Highest ranking 11.
Career prize money £934,975.
Turned pro 1991.
Nicknames The Romford Battler, The Royal King.
Highest Break 146 (2006 UK Championship).
Facinating facts In April 2003, King retired from snooker, but soon reversed his decision. "At the time I wanted to snap my cue," he said. "I took a couple of weeks off, then had a long chat with my wife and we agreed I should stick with snooker." King's mother, who has since passed away, was jailed for life at the Old Bailey in October 2003 for killing her cousin. In 2004, King became involved in a spat with Quinten Hann after the Australian defeated a close friend of King's, Andy Hicks. After the match, Hann squared up to Hicks and, as a result, King challenged the Aussie to a boxing match. The bout took place, Hann winning the fight – dubbed "Pot Whack" – on points. In 2004, King reached the semi-finals of the UK Championship. He was losing to Stephen Maguire when a mobile phone rang in the crowd. King said: "If that's my missus, tell her I'll be home soon." He has the dubious honour of playing the longest frame in Crucible history, against Maguire at the 2009 World Championships: 74 minutes 58 seconds. He is one of three players to temporarily have a winning head-to-head record against Ronnie O'Sullivan – they are currently tied on 6-6.
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