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Inside the mind of a twenty-year-old compulsive gambler

Gambling can take control of your life.

Oliver Peters* shuffles a cluster of black, red and pink plastic chips in one hand while staring intently at a clicking whirlwind of black and red. The consistent chime of the slot machines interfuses with the buzz and grumble of chatter across the dimly lit room. His heart pounds as he grips the edge of his chair. A tall, broad middle-aged man in a three-piece suit approaches the table. The man glares through his lowered bushy eyebrows and snarls, “I thought I told you to stop coming here.”

Oliver has left the casino feeling euphoric, the casino has mostly made him feel helpless. He fears the thought of how many hours of his life this room has taken from him. This room has pulled him away from his classes, from his loved ones and ultimately from himself. This room has robbed him of every last pound and has given him hundreds of them. Oliver loves this room. Oliver hates this room. Oliver is a gambling addict.

He scratched his well-groomed beard and walked over to the bar, rolling up the sleeves of his crisp cream shirt. He took a sip of the thick foam in his beer and let out a deep sigh, “I find it impossible to stay out of casinos. I couldn’t go into town for a drink without ending up in one, my friends eventually had to force me to self-ban myself. I had the option to ban myself from every casino in the UK- but I couldn’t. Just in-case. I really shouldn’t be back. I am a compulsive gambler.”

Oliver drank the last of his pint and looked around. Someone caught his eye and he rushed back over to the roulette table, “This man is my lucky charm. I’ve had my biggest wins at his table.” He pointed at the roulette worker, a small, young man with thinning hair and tufts of ginger-brown hair along his jaw and chin. Oliver placed two black chips down on the table. “Fifty… wait, no…one hundred pounds on red.” The swirls of black and red spun around again, slowing down by the second. Click, click… click.  Will he win or lose? The adrenaline soars through his body as he upped his stake. The blur of white in the centre of the dizzy chaos starts to resemble a little white ball, it eventually settles inside a black pocket. “Better luck next time”, said the employee. This is the third time the twenty-two-year-old finance student at Aberdeen University has been in the casino since he self-banned himself last April.

Like a first kiss or walking into a bar and buying your first legal drink, gambling has become a rite of passage for young people on their way to adulthood. Gambling addiction, also known as compulsive gambling is an impulse control disorder. If you’re a compulsive gambler, you can’t control the impulse to gamble, even when it has negative consequences for you or your loved ones. The number of gambling addicts increases every day with new research showing that almost half of everyone in the United Kingdom gamble online. Oliver’s gambling addiction, like many, intensified from the tip of his thumb. He said, “I walked out of a tutorial last year because I lost four-hundred-pounds on an app. I lose money most mornings before I even get up out of bed. It takes over my life.”

Oliver strolled back to the bar and sat down on a small black leather couch with a dark green bottle of German beer. The laughter and booming voices of people drinking at the bar drowns out the noise of the slot machines. An older man, in his sixties, with a greyish unkept beard, wearing a tweed jacket and creased white shirt sat across from him. He stared at the roulette and blackjack tables in the distance whilst clasping an Old Fashioned with his purple, freckly hands. Oliver starts peeling off the corner of the bottle’s label, he remembers some of his lowest points, “When you’re a gambler, you only ever want to remember when you win big. You try to block out the ten days in a row you lost. I can remember just before I banned myself my flatmates were away and I was home alone for two weeks.

On the first night, I got a bus to the casino and gambled all the money I had on me. I got a bus back and took all the money I had in my room and my bank card that I had savings in. I went back to the casino and lost everything. Then I got the bus home again and got my credit card and by the end of it I’d lost about five grand and had to walk home. I couldn’t pay rent and I was barely eating, I didn’t have a single penny until over two weeks later.”

The older man interrupted and said, “The devil invented gambling. It’s a disease. I didn’t care about anyone or anything. It makes you too selfish to see the havoc you’ve caused on your friends and family’s lives. I was ill. I was addicted for over two decades.”

The two men shook hands and exchanged names. “I’m Jackson.” The older man said as he pulled his hand away. He pointed at a band of gold around his finger.

He said, “I haven’t gambled in nearly fifteen years because it was either that or lose my wife. I started going to Gamblers Anonymous twice a week and have been ever since. Until now. My wife just died so I’m back. I have nothing else to lose. I’ve been here every day this week and I won three hundred quid last night but lost three times that today.”

The man spoke about his experiences going to Gamblers Anonymous. “They sorted me out. It got to the point when I was stealing from my own wife. I gambled away money we had kept aside for weekends away with the kids. More than once I gambled away our entire food budget and took money that was for bills down to the bookies. You’re too young. You don’t want to go through what I went through, it will only get worse son.” The man gave Oliver a number to call for Gamblers Anonymous in Aberdeen. “I can’t do this shit anymore, I’ll probably see you there.”

As Oliver walked out of the casino, the man in the three-piece suit with thick bushy eyebrows caught up with him. He joked, “Don’t come back!” The man had a small mirrored name tag, underneath his name read Manager. Oliver laughed and walked out while zipping up his burgundy puffer jacket.

At home in his flat, Oliver thought about his earliest memories of gambling, a collection of dirty dishes were piled up in the corner. He sat on the edge of his cream fabric couch fiddling with a black casino chip he found in his jacket pocket on the walk home. Oliver realised he caught the gambling bug before he was even a teenager. “I was at an amusement park on a trip with the Boys Brigade and we went to the arcade—I must’ve been eleven. I remember the sound of the constant rattle of coins in the machine and the multi-coloured flashing lights guiding me and my bucket of money toward the slots.

I can still smell the candy floss and can remember the cosy feel of the room, as cosy as a living room. I only went on one or two rides the whole day. I just kept going back putting pound after pound in the machine, waiting for a sea of coppers to come flooding out. Looking back, I was hooked.”

The online gambling industry took another prisoner. Oliver said, “From third year of high school I used my mum's email to create betting accounts online. I would sit in class and gamble all of my savings and money I earned working for my dad. I’ve been gambling online for eight years. I bet on anything, like, football, horses, greyhounds. I don’t care what I bet on, I just want to win.”

Oliver sat back on his couch, “I guess it’s always been my escape. When my parents got divorced, or when I was having trouble at school and struggling with living on my own in Aberdeen - it was my safe place. When I self-banned myself, I realised the power it had over my life- and my wallet. My parents have never known but my friends do. They’ve seen me at rock bottom ”

Oliver took the older man’s advice and arrived at the next Gamblers Anonymous meeting at Ruthrieston Community Centre. The meeting is held in a large room with grubby pale grey vinyl flooring and cream walls. A pyramid of abandoned artist easels collect dust in the corner. Three rows of discoloured metal chairs with blue worn fabric gather in the centre of the room. The murmur of chatter from a group of people in the middle row is drowned by the deafening silence of everyone else. A woman with sleek blonde hair scraped back into a tight bobble in the back of the room, sat nervously peeling jade green nail polish off her fingernails. A man in a navy blue knitted jumper and black jeans walks over to a wooden table with tea, coffee and a plate of biscuits on top. He starts talking to a woman in her forties with short boyish brown hair whilst stirring a plastic cup of tea. He turned around and looked toward the door.

“Hello, I’m Dougie.  What’s your name?” He approaches Oliver and reaches out to shake his trembling hand. “Is this your first GA meeting?” he asks giving him a warm smile before taking a sip of his tea. “Come with me, it’s okay to be nervous. Fancy a cup of tea?”

Oliver walked out of the meeting an hour later, his nerves were gone and he was smiling. “I cut up my credit card and deleted all my betting apps. That’s the first step in my recovery.”

Dougie walked toward him, “How do you feel after that? Will we be seeing you at the next one on Tuesday? Remember take it one day at a time.”

For a gambler, it’s hard to walk away from a winning streak, it’s even harder to leave the table when you’re on a losing one. Oliver is ready to leave the table.

*Name has been changed.
If you have a gambling problem, you can find out how to get help on the NHS website.