The Rise of the Irish Gambling Problem

The turning of the roulette tables is mesmorising, as everyone waits with baited breath for the outcome
The turning of the roulette tables is mesmerising, as everyone waits with baited breath for the outcome All photography by Louise McLoughlin

Sitting in a casino on O’ Connell street, all sense of time and outside life is blocked out. There are no clocks, the temperature is constant. No one here seems to be able to tell you what time it is, or how long they have been here. There is no need; why would you want to know how long you have spent throwing money into a slot machine? This suits everybody perfectly. The owners of the casino probably don’t want you distracted from the gambling tables. And the gamblers probably don’t want to be made aware of how much time or money they are spending there.

The concentration put into gambling is intense. New people have come in to play, but no one has left the casino yet, only for a quick smoke and then they hurry back hoping their seat hasn’t been taken. Everyone has their own tricks and traditions. One person walks away every time his bet is placed and won’t look as the Roulette table turns. People hold their breath and stare at the table unblinking as they wait to see if they have finally struck gold. A young Hungarian man punches the table as his final bet of the day is lost. He tells me that the total spent so far is over three hundred euro. He doesn’t have a job, that money belonged to his sister. Before he leaves to go sell his iPad to get more money, he looks me in the eye and says that when he comes back he will just spend fifty euro. That’s all he needs, because then he “will win for sure this time.”

Unfortunately this is all too common an occurrence on a Wednesday afternoon in a Dublin casino. Gambling has become a rising problem in Ireland that few seems to be talking about. With all the concentration on other addictions like alcoholism or smoking, that have always been prevalent in Irish society, gambling addiction is an issue that sometimes seems to have fallen by the wayside.

David Hickson, the Managing Director of the Fitzwilliam Casino and Card Club expressed his concern at the Government’s lack of involvement in helping those with gambling addictions. “There are no gambling regulations in this country. Everywhere else has it. There’s been gambling regulations in place in the U.K. for almost fifty years. Around nine or eleven years ago there was a draft Bill put to the Government to place tighter restrictions on gambling in this country. So far, nothing has come of it.”

Talking a walk through the Casino and Card club, David shows me the protocols that they have put in place to try to regulate their own client’s gambling. “We have a system for people who want to become a member. Anyone can join, we get people on their holidays who want to come in for a day. We still make them fill out a form and show us I.D before they can enjoy the casino.”

The casino encourages people who think they may be developing a problem to take themselves off the membership list for a period of time
The casino encourages people who think they may be developing a problem to take themselves off the membership list for a period of time

You would think that every casino is just after money. David assures me that this is not the case. While there are some such places, a lot of casinos prefer to enjoy a more stellar reputation. “We train our staff to be able to identify when a person might be developing a problem. We look out for changes in their behaviour. That’s when we would go up to them, offer them a coffee and a chat. We would talk to them about how they are feeling and ask if they think they might be developing a problem. If someone is getting agitated or aggressive that’s when we would usually step in.”

It does appear that the aim of the Fitzwilliam Card and Casino Club isn’t to take advantage of people.  It is evident that there are two types of casinos, those who cater to responsible gambling, and those where anything goes. However, casinos are not the only place where betting can take place. We all know about places like Paddy Power and Ladbrokes, but now with the emergence of the internet, online gambling is making gambling addiction easier to fall prey to, and also easier to go unnoticed.

One would have to wonder, if the government doesn’t seem to be doing anything about regulating gambling, is anyone regulating it? Stephen, who wishes not to go by his real name, works in the customer care department of Paddy Power for their online site. He assured me that Paddy Power have their own restrictions in place to promote safe gambling. “I got a call one time, this guy was in his bedroom whispering down the phone to me so that his wife wouldn’t hear him. He told me that he was after spending his pension on the site and needed us to refund some of it so that his wife wouldn’t find out and kill him. Of course we couldn’t refund him the money, but we did talk to him about responsible gambling and I told him that due to our policy on “R.G.” we would have to shut down his account.”

The presence of online gambling is making it harder for people to spot a developing addiction
The presence of online gambling is making it harder for people to spot a developing addiction

Sadly, this isn’t the only incident of desperation Stephen has heard over the phone. “I get phone calls like this all the time. One time a guy rang up and said that he needed us to give him back the last few hundred euro he spent. I asked him why and he said that he needed to take his wife to hospital and he had lost the last of the money that he had gambled. I ended up giving him the money back, which I probably shouldn’t have done. But I did close down his account afterwards.”

The difference between going to a place like the Fitzwilliam Club and dealing with customers from an online site over the phone is huge. The Fitzwilliam actively encourages their clients to go seek professional help. They have self exclusion policies where a member may voluntarily remove themselves from their membership for a chosen amount of time or indefinitely. The Club also reserves the right to revoke a membership if they deem it necessary. Unfortunately it is not so easy to maintain this level of care through the phone, as Stephen points out.

“It would be nice if we could do more for them. But we can’t. I mean my job is to, I guess, to shut down their accounts and hope it does help. Maybe for some it’s that smack of reality that they need. I like to think so anyway. But we still see the same people try to reopen their accounts or make up new false ones, and they get so far for a few hours but we always end up finding out. We call them and tell them that whatever they gambled we have to return and shut down their new account as it isn’t a legal bet in terms of our policy. And they all have the same reaction. They’re just delighted they get the cash back.”

As gambling starts out as a bit of fun for most people, it is very easy to fall into that lifestyle of “just ten more euro.” You might not even realise how much you are spending. It is so easy to just keep betting, especially online as the money doesn’t seem real. It’s all just a silly game right? Just to pass the time? Sadly, it’s this casual way of looking at gambling that makes people believe it’s harmless. This is the reason so many people don’t even realise they have a problem.

There is nothing I have seen stronger than a gambler’s sense of denial. With the blame for a loss being put on everything but themselves, gambler’s seem almost blind to their addiction. Hopefully, with the help of casinos like Fitzwilliam, and the pressure being mounted on the government for tighter gambling restrictions, there is still a chance to help people before the gambling scene in Ireland begins to spiral out of control. As a Chinese proverb goes, “If you must play, decide upon three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time.”


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