Monday, March 05, 2007
Gambling is a mug's game.
Paddy Power didn't announce record profits for the umpteenth year in a row due to the amount of cash he's giving away, you know?
Nevertheless, gambling gets more and more popular every year. Now, I have an unusual perspective on gambling. I once worked as a professional croupier. I used to see all sorts come through the doors of the casino, blinded by the neon lights and the sheer James Bondness of it all.
And this in a sleepy South of England town! Most would leave a few hours later, down a few quid but having in many cases enjoyed themselves. After all, if they'd kept their punting to a certain level, they'd have spent less than they might have otherwise in the pub, and at least they wouldn't be waking with a blinding hangover the next day.
But there was always one or two who couldn't let it lie. A former soap star used to drive up to our casino in order not to be spotted in the plush London clubs. He'd regularly blow most of his not insubstantial wages on a single Saturday night.
He could've and probably should've been down the Ivy or some other West End glamspot, trying to score with vampy wannabes and sipping Cosmopolitans. Instead he was up with us, in the quiet hush of a regional casino, handing over his hard-earned.
The saddest case was a little old lady who'd come in every Friday evening with a plastic bag full of used notes. We used to wildly speculate on where she got the cash, which often topped three grand.
She never left till the early hours, and usually with virtually nothing left. Her game was roulette, and the little ball just didn't seem to favour her one bit.
One day, I was in a distant part of town, hoping to hook up with a guy who was selling some concert tickets. I stopped off in a little corner shop to buy some smokes and there she was, behind the till. Throughout the shop, the shelves were mostly empty.
She looked sheepish, and I couldn't meet her eye. Clearly, she was losing the shop's take on a weekly basis. I bought the smokes, attended the concert and then left the job within a couple of weeks.
I used to play poker long before it was online or popular. My friends, even my acquaintances, won't play me anymore, even though it's very likely they'd take my money these days, as my interest in the game waned in indirect proportion to its popularity. I haven't played much since they started televising it and sticking it online.
But I used to like the game. It's a cold hard mix of luck and skill. And it's beautifully karmic, unlike most gambling.
If you've got a lot of chips in front of you, somewhere across the table, someone you know has lost them. You've got to be able to look them in the eye and accept that, even as you have to look them in the eye and accept it when they've got the chipstack and you're the one on your uppers.
Back in 2000, a pal and me decided to find out could we make a living as professional gamblers. Not at poker, but by punting on sports mainly. We reckoned we knew as much about the games as the odds layers, and had a good eye for a decent bet.
We kept detailed and accurate accounts of all bets for a year exactly. At the end of it all, I was up about six hundred quid, my pal back around four hundred. We'd actually done the bookies out of a grand in cash!
However, when I worked out the hourly rate of income, ie how many hours had I spent reading, researching and thinking about my bets that it had taken to make that six hundred quid, it soon became apparent that gambling would never replace going out and earning a living.
Then a couple of years afterwards, I was in a pub in Rathmines, (South Dublin for the uninitiated), and met a bloke who worked as an odds setter for one of the big bookmaking firms. He told me, in tedious detail, about the form, home life and personal circumstances of even youth team members of Irish football teams.
He had to know that detail in order to set the odds, and he wasn't the only one employed in that capacity. A few times a week, he and his peers would gather and argue the toss over every soccer and GAA game, discussing likelihoods of certain players taking the pitch and so on.
It quickly became apparent that I'd never know as much about the games I had a punt on as the guys laying the odds. In other words, I'd been pretty damn lucky back in 2000.
So it seems to me, having been both sides of the table and lived through it without losing my shirt, that gambling is a mug's game. I'll still go out and stick a few quid on a football game that I'm attending or watching on telly, just to heighten the interest as it were.
But I've long dispensed with ideas of making money out of the passtime. I never frequent card clubs or casinos now, don't play any poker, and crucially I bet buttons rather than serious amounts of money.
I view stories of people suffering from gambling problems with dismay. Medical research shows that gambling is as potent an addiction as cocaine. I consider the development of 'super-casinos' in Britain as short-termist and highly dangerous. I'm very concerned about the proliferation of card clubs and online gambling in Ireland.
But I wouldn't ban it. It's unbannable. Gambling would only go underground, back to the shady criminal class who once oversaw all punting. Instead, I place my few quid on the odd game or event I have an interest in anyway, and permit lady luck to do her best and worst, safe in the knowledge that the rent is never at risk.
If only everyone could obtain the same perspective on gambling, I'd feel a lot better about giving money to and taking money from the bookies.
People sometimes ask me for tips, as if I have any great insight into the wheel of fortune from having spun it professionally for a while. I don't generally offer any, because I don't want to be anyone's enabler.
But just this once, I'll mention a bet I've placed. I think the odds are good, and I think it could come off. But if it doesn't, please don't blame me. And whatever you do, don't chase your losses if it or any other bet you place loses.
The SDLP are being priced at 2/1 to retain their 18 seats in the Stormont Assembly elections this week. I think those are generous odds. I've put some pin money where my mouth is. We'll know on Thursday if I'm up or down. But either way, it's just a bit of fun.
After Thursday, when the results are all in and the parties sit down to decide whether to go into power sharing again or not, that's when the serious business begins. And if ever there was some future event I'd love to influence, it's that one, not any bet I've ever made.
If you have a gambling problem or if you thing you might do, please click here.