Most people, at some time or another, have given in to the lure of gambling - maybe an occasional lottery ticket, a couple of quid on the Grand National, or a weekly game of bingo. But what happens when the betting bug bites deeper - when the relentless urge to cover your losses leads to a life of lying, stealing and debt? Nicki Household on the consequences of a flutter too far.
One of the things Victor liked best about working a 20-hour week as a design technology teacher in a Belfast FE college was that it left him plenty of time to nip to the betting shop during the afternoon. Not just for the occasional visit, but every afternoon and, if time allowed, mornings as well. He always stayed to see the result of the race. If he lost, which he usually did, he'd have another quick flutter to try to get his money back. Even on the rare occasions that he won, he usually blew all his winnings on another race.
His wife, Helen, also a teacher, knew nothing of all this. They had separate bank accounts, so she didn't notice that up to pound;200 a week was vanishing, though she was often puzzled that she seemed to be paying for everything.
"I would sometimes ask how much money he had in his account. He'd say 'very little', because of the standing orders for our mortgage and insurance policies. I just believed him," she recalls. Like most compulsive gamblers, Victor had become an expert liar. Keeping his and Helen's money separate was his idea, so they wouldn't get joint bank statements. Also, his conscience wouldn't allow him to gamble with money that was half hers.
"I had a story for everything," he says. "I'd invent an excuse to go into town, spend two hours at the betting shop. If Helen asked what had kept me, I'd say the traffic was horrendous or I'd met a colleague who kept me talking."
This situation lasted 15 years, by which time Victor was heavily in debt. Surprisingly, his gambling didn't affect his ability to do his job, or his relationship with his two sons (who knew he gambled "a bit" but would never have told their mother). But the only reason it didn't seriously affect the family's lifestyle was that Helen paid the domestic bills.
Despite not understanding why, with two professional salaries coming in, they couldn't afford any luxuries, she never suspected her husband was a gambler. "I was blind," she says.
The crunch came when she found a bank statement which revealed Victor was thousands of pounds overdrawn. When Helen confronted him, he told her everything. Though devastated, she said that if he promised never to bet again, she would forgive him and help pay off the debts. Victor promised. But when you're a compulsive gambler, it's not that easy. The next day, when they were both in town shopping, he slipped into the betting shop for one "last" bet. He probably would have carried on just as before, he says, if Helen hadn't found the discarded betting slip floating in the toilet.
The choice was now his - Gamblers Anonymous or a divorce. He chose GA and hasn't been near a betting shop for two years now. But like everyone else who attends GA meetings, he recognises that there is no "cure" for compulsive gambling and that the resolve not to give in to temptation has to be renewed every day.
GA meetings (like those of Alcoholics Anonymous) are run by and for addicts, without the participation of outsiders. The basic philosophy is that willpower is not enough unless a gambler recognises that he or she has an illness (compulsive gambling is now recognised as a psychiatric condition by the British Medical Association) and really wants to be cured.
Though not a religious organisation, GA has a strong spiritual element and encourages gamblers to look to a "higher power" for the strength to give up what, for many, is not only their favourite occupation but their main prop in life. A compulsive gambler, they learn, can never participate in any form of gambling again - not even tossing a coin - because the first small bet, to a problem gambler, is like the first small drink to an alcoholic. Sooner or later they'll fall back into the old pattern; even when they haven't gambled for 10 years or more, GA members know they must always think of themselves as compulsive gamblers.
James, a civil servant and regional secretary of Gamblers Anonymous in the North-West, hasn't gambled for seven years. He even avoids charity raffles. His downfall was fruit machines. He began playing them at eight and carried on until he was 32, when a mountain of debts and a court order for the repossession of his home finally drove him to GA. "If I hadn't gone when I did, I'd be behind bars or six feet under," he says. He was pouring as much as pound;250 a day into machines which had a maximum jackpot of pound;4.50, and occasionally stole from work (he has since replaced the money) to feed his habit.
"You do it for the buzz and the escape," he says. "Most compulsive gamblers have a low opinion of themselves and the betting shop or the gambling arcade is the place where you feel most comfortable. While you're there, the outside world doesn't exist because you're in a little world of just you, the lights and the machine."
According to GamCare (the National Association for Gambling Care, Educational Resources and Training), 90 per cent of adults and 75 per cent of teenagers gamble; around 3 per cent of the adults and 7 per cent of the young gamblers may be addicted. About 46 per cent of callers to the GamCare helpline are addicted to fruit machines. Off-course betting comes second (37 per cent), and casinos third (11 per cent). Scratchcards, the National Lottery, bingo, spread betting and card games each account for about 1 per cent of calls.
Although more men than women gamble, women are just as likely to develop a problem. And this is nothing new. According to the biographer Amanda Foreman, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, whose husband was one of the richest men in England, lost so much betting at faro (a card game) in the 1780s that she had to borrow huge sums - which she could not repay - to keep her creditors at bay and hide her debts (pound;6 million in today's money) from the duke. It blighted her life.
Even if women want to help themselves, one difficulty is the strongly male environment of GA, which makes some women feel uncomfortable. Similarly, many men feel awkward about joining the sister organisation for the relatives of problem gamblers, GamAnon, because so many of its members are women.
However, the GamCare helpline, set up in October 1997, offers an alternative. Callers, whether gamblers or their relatives, can speak to a counsellor in confidence and follow this up with further counselling sessions. Though deeply concerned with the addiction, GamCare doesn't want to abolish gambling. "We're actually pro responsible gambling, but we'd like to see changes in the legislation that would compel gambling companies to act in a more socially responsible way," says the charity's director, Paul Bellringer. This would include leaflets and notices at every gambling venue, making customers aware of the risks and pointing out where they can get help if their gambling is out of control.
GamCare also wants more protection for under-18s. "We want a committed stance from the people who make money out of gamblers," says Mr Bellringer. "We've nothing against gambling companies maximising their opportunities, but we'd like to see them minimising the harm at the same time." Surprisingly, he believes the National Lottery has been a force for good, because it has brought gambling out from under the counter. "There's much less hypocrisy now and this has enabled the gambling industry to move forward. And if there were no lottery here, we'd be battered by others from around the world. It's better to have our own."
He's more concerned about the 700 or so gambling sites on the Internet. "Internet gambling is supposed to be growing, but sociability is a big part of gambling, so I hope the pundits are wrong."
Victor no longer attends weekly GA meetings (mainly because they are 35 miles away), but admits he still misses gambling. "I'm glad I've given up. In fact I'm as happy as Larry and much richer. But if there's racing on the television I move away. I'm afraid I might say, 'That horse is going to win', and if it does I'll think my luck is in."
Gamcare helpline: 0845 6000 133Gamblers Anonymous and GamAnon helpline: 020 7384 3040There are 24-hour GA helplines throughout England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Numbers are in local telephone directories
ARE YOU AN ADDICT?
These questions have been devised by Gamblers Anonymous. The more you answer "yes", the greater the likelihood that you have a problem.
* Do you stay away from work to gamble?
* Do you gamble to escape from a boring and unhappy life?
* If you run out of money when gambling, do you feel lost and in despair and need to gamble again as soon as possible?
* Do you gamble until your last penny is gone, even the bus fare home or the cost of a cup of tea?
* Have you lied, stolen or borrowed just to get money to gamble?
* Are you reluctant to spend "gambling money" on normal things?
* Have you lost interest in your family?
* After losing, do you have a sense of urgency to return to win back your losses?
* Do arguments, frustrations and disappointments make you want to gamble?
* Have you ever thought of suicide as a way of solving your problems?