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Gambling addiction: When the odds are stacked against you

Premiership footballers, top-flight cricketers, iPad bingo players, the man on the street – gambling addiction can happen to anyone and is rising sharply. But new ways to tackle it are emerging, and Big Issue Invest is playing a part in the solution.

Paul Buck will never forget the horse that changed his life: Lisnarcargill Girl. It was Buck’s very first bet, made on a whim.

Noticing the horse had the same colours as his football team, Preston North End, Buck had a flutter one day in 1994. Galloping home victorious at 33/1, Lisnarcargill Girl won the Lancashire man £500.

“I only took seven minutes – so I suppose it was the seven minutes that changed my life,” Buck recalls. “It was an incredible feeling, an incredible high, and from that day on I was a gambler. At first it was fine but three or four years on my gambling had become a big, big problem. When I look back, it was really a whole decade of misery.”

Buck, a former bank manager, went to prison for 11 months in 2012 after stealing more than £400,000 from a Santander client to stave off his spiralling gambling debts. The ordeal was a chance to make a major change. After coming out of prison, having finally overcome his addiction, Buck started a new life as a problem gambling expert and consultant.

“After such a gruelling journey of my own, after I had hit rock bottom and come through, I thought, well, how can I help here?” he explains. “So much of problem gambling is hidden, like my own addiction was. For a long time anyone looking at my life – great family, great job – might have been envious. But I kept it hidden until it became pathological and the problem exploded.”

Online gambling has made it possible to log on and place a bet in less than 12 seconds, and generated a record £4.5bn last year

In 2013 Buck launched EPIC Risk Management, a socially-driven business aimed at helping organisations educate their own employees about the risks of gambling addiction. He has been in high demand.

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Unfortunately, problem gambling is deep, widespread and shows signs of getting worse. The most recent British Gambling Prevalence Survey estimated that there are 450,000 gambling addicts in the UK, up from around 200,000 in 2007. Digital technology has proved a game-changer, opening up the activity to people unfamiliar with the strange rituals involved in sticking a line on in bookmakers’ shops.

Online gambling has made it all easier than ever: it’s now possible to log on and place a bet in less than 12 seconds, and it generated a record £4.5bn for the gambling industry last year, more than Britain’s high-street bookmakers and casinos combined.

Buck and his team at EPIC Risk Management are now focusing on the fields where they see problem gambling – online and offline – come up again and again: professional sport, the armed forces and the financial sector. EPIC also works in the criminal justice system to help people whose addiction has already led to law-breaking behaviour, including violence, theft and fraud.

“Anyone can become a problem gambler but you see the need to replicate the buzz; the adrenaline of gambling occurs an awful lot in certain professions,” he explains. “Sport, for instance, is a high-octane job: short bursts of activity, a winning goal or tackle. You have excess downtime, excess money. You want the adrenaline rush but want to avoid the drink or drug-taking that affects performance. So gambling is what they turn to.”

EPIC is now working with both the Professional Cricketers’ Association and the Rugby Players’ Association to deliver programmes to top-level sides across the country. Some major football teams are also now engaged in prevention work. Buck recently visited Stamford Bridge to talk to some of the Chelsea FC squad.

“The club is aware of the gambling problem in football and sport more widely, and they take the risk seriously,” says Buck. “So they were happy to have us in. We told our stories, let them understand what the addiction is, and the potential vulnerability to it. Like many of the sports clubs we’ve visited, everyone was switched on to what we had to say.”

It is an illness but unfortunately there isn’t a pill that cures it

Having spent almost a year in prison, Buck has had plenty of time to ponder the nature of gambling addiction.

“It is an illness but unfortunately there isn’t a pill that cures it,” he says. “There are so many triggers – for some it’s boredom or the need to escape, for some it is triggered by a period of unhappiness or depression. So it’s partly about trying to master the risk and stay in control but it’s also partly about being absorbed in a cycle of stimulation.”

Attempting to escape daily routines is something we all tend to do, in one form or another. But is there such a thing as a compulsive personality? Are some people prone to swapping one intense addiction for another?

“Personally, I don’t have any doubts I have what some call a compulsive or addictive personality,” says Buck. “But compulsions only become a problem if you are gripped by negative and destructive behaviour. At the moment, for instance, I’m completely addicted to my son’s under-13s football team in Wigan. I help coach them, and it’s such an amazing buzz to see them develop and play good football.”

Big Issue Invest, the social investment arm of The Big Issue Group, has helped finance an expansion in EPIC’s work. In fact, Big Issue Invest is providing finance for several life-changing organisations across the country, working with addicts and their families to address problems with drugs, alcohol and other harmful behaviours.

Archie Chappel, investment manager at Big Issue Invest, said: “Investing in organisations like EPIC satisfies the main goal of The Big Issue Group – tackling the root causes of social problems. EPIC works to identify addiction early, preventing people from falling into a cycle that has detrimental effects on people and communities.”

I probably needed some replacement for the buzz, that rush of controlling a lot of things at once

EPIC’s operations director Justyn Larcombe is a recovering online gambling addict. A former Army Major who served in Kosovo, Larcombe was earning a six-figure salary as an insurance broker in the City of London and reckons he lost around £750,000 to his addiction in just a few years.

“I went from a high-pressure, high-adrenaline job in the City to one where I could ease off a bit,” he says. “So I probably needed some replacement for the buzz – some reassurance that I could get things right. It’s that rush of controlling a lot of things at once.”

Larcombe talks about the “suspension of reality” gambling can bring on, a state of mind where sums of money become abstract and unreal, and the need to make more people aware of the risks and consequen-ces when betting begins to become a regular fix.

“It is a strange thing,” he says. “Unfortunately, I think there is a trend with the digital stuff toward making this strange suspension of reality easier and easier, and it means the addiction will affect more people. That’s a huge problem.”

epicpgc.com; bigissueinvest.com

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