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  • Alex Mills

National Interest: From First Bet to Problem Gambling

For many, the Grand National is their solitary bet of the year. Work sweepstakes are organised, whilst families gather around the TV at 5pm having picked their favourite name or colour, hoping their horse comes home first and they collect the winnings from their £1 stake.

For some the bet they place on a runner at Aintree today will be the only bet they put on in their entire lives. For others it will be part of a regular routine of wagering that, on the surface at least, will cause no obvious harm. For others still, it will be the start of, or a continuation of, a practice of problematic engagement with gambling. It is estimated there are between 250,000 and 460,000 problem gamblers in Great Britain alone.

Let’s stand two people side by side, the person who gambles without experiencing any material or emotional consequence, right next to the problem gambler – the man or woman for whom consequences and unhappiness have become constant, unwelcome companions. Why can one do something freely that for the other has become an obsession and a blight on their lives?

When I’m delivering education sessions in clubs and at training facilities for Sporting Chance, if there is one phrase that is almost guaranteed to come up when I ask athletes or support staff about contributory factors in relation to problem gambling, it’s chasing losses. And yes, it’s undoubtedly a factor and it features in countless personal testimonies of problem gamblers. So don’t chase losses. I could end my education sessions there I suppose, but I’m not sure how helpful or effective that message would be or how much more helpful it is than telling people not to lose in the first place.

Framing the issue exclusively around loss-chasing characterises the ‘problem’ element of problem gambling as purely financial and doesn’t acknowledge that gambling can have an incredibly detrimental effect on an individual’s quality of life even if their betting account is permanently in credit. It also doesn’t explain why some individuals who have lost significant sums of money through gambling are able to settle the debt, but soon return to gambling and to experiencing the (unwanted) consequences of gambling.

There is also plenty written on the psychological hooks that tend to precipitate loss-chasing behaviour (‘I shouldn't chase losses but this one is a dead cert’). Illusory control is an important factor here – for example, problem gamblers are often encouraged by the offer of choice and the sense of their own ability to make the right choice, the belief that their next bet involves more skill or a higher level of expertise than it does and that they are up to the challenge (this is particularly relevant to sports betting). There was a safer gambling advert put out last year (funded by the industry) that, attempting to encourage punters to bet safely, mocked an individual for speculating on Ukrainian football. It disingenuously taps into the idea that we’re far better off gambling on our domestic league because we’re more familiar with it, ergo much more likely to win, that this in some way represents ‘safer’ betting. Near misses are another example of illusory control. A moderate frequency of near-misses is often interpreted by problem gamblers as evidence that they are developing mastery of the game on offer and that a win is on the way (if you’re one short on your football accumulator or your horses keep placing second at Aintree this weekend, take note).

Chasing losses, illusory control, they play a part in why that first ever bet might lead to prolonged and harmful engagement, possibly an addictive disorder (as defined in DSM-V) but there’s a bigger picture here, a picture of problem gambling as a mental health issue, one that the Canadian-Hungarian physician Gabor Mate details perfectly in his assertion that ‘it is impossible to understand addiction without asking what relief the addict finds, or hopes to find, in the drug or the addictive behaviour.’

At Sporting Chance, we discuss the act of gambling, like many other behaviours, as a relationship, one that can change shape progressively or unexpectedly, sometimes for reasons that seem obvious at the time and sometimes for reasons that take time, and personal pain, to figure out. We talk about engagement in gambling as it relates to our thoughts and feelings, the beliefs we have about ourselves and the world around us, how we process our emotions or past trauma, relationship breakdowns, difficult experiences in childhood and adulthood. We talk about why someone might gamble for the first time, what might be going in their lives that leads them to a second or third bet, that leads to bets every day without fail, that eventually leads to them placing bets beyond their means. We talk about talking therapy and the twelve-step programme as solutions for those who develop problems, not just installing blocking software or handing over your bank cards to somebody else.

Problem gambling does not develop simply because your account is in the red or because ‘you’ve got no willpower’ or, as the safer gambling adverts made by betting firms will have it, because you're irresponsible. Those adverts don’t mention you’re more likely to experience harm if you have a diagnosed mental health condition, or you have an alcohol or drug problem or you have a family member, particularly a parent, with a gambling addiction or you just find it harder than some other people to process events and emotions. Depression and anxiety are often talked about as symptoms of a gambling problem, but they can also be part of the reason why people turn to gambling in the first place, those adverts don’t mention that either.

We are not anti-gambling at Sporting Chance, we are pro athlete welfare and we are responsible for providing a safe support system for athletes, through education programmes, and our network of talking therapists and also our addiction facility. We acknowledge there are many people in the world, including many professional athletes, who gamble without negative consequences and may well be placing a successful or unsuccessful bet today. There are sportspeople whose relationship with gambling is more complicated, who feel guilty or worried about their gambling, who don’t understand how something that started as fun - maybe as a day out at the races or a ‘one-off’ on the National – has become something very different and something very hard to open up about. For those people, Sporting Chance can help.


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