From the top of the world – to rock bottom

By: Tristan Trumpour

Kenny Rogers described the phenomenon of gambling with the words, “If you’re gonna play the game/Boy, ya gotta learn how to play it right.” However, he failed to mention that many in fact do not know how to play the game right, and this can often lead to a problematic trail of destruction.

Gambling is nothing new to our society. For centuries, games of chance have entertained people all over the world. However, the repercussions resulting from gambling – today – are becoming more noticeable.

According to industry estimates, Canadians are spending around $4-billion annually gambling online, even though many of the websites are offshore.

Most gamblers pride themselves on knowing their capabilities and limitations. However, being aware of their weakness is not enough to prevent them from falling prey to it.

Sometimes, the urge becomes too powerful. Midland resident, Robert Anstey, started gambling online when he was 17. He admits this casual hobby morphed into an addiction, almost immediately.

“I knew it was an addiction early on,” says Anstey, who is now 24. “I would get home from school and sometimes play right through the night, until it was time for school again.”

Money was the bait, and, after tasting the triumph of his first big win, Anstey was hooked.

The lure of the game reeled him in instantaneously. The satisfaction of winning large amounts of money – with no more effort than the click of a mouse – was far too rewarding for him to stop.

“My first night playing online, I won just over $1000,” Anstey says. “It seemed to immediately click that I could do this.”

Anstey thought he could control his luck and beat the game for income. What started out as a recreational activity evolved into his dream job. He started playing in tournaments, where his “big win” could potentially continue to grow.

“Thinking about the possibility of winning just one of these tournaments was enough to keep me hooked,” says Anstey.

His opponents, he never knew; their game plans, unknown. What was already a game of chance was made even more so by the fact that he was playing a table occupied by faceless individuals.

Yet he continued down the inevitable road of destruction, unknowingly dragging his family along with him.

“My gambling affected everyone around me,” utters Anstey. “When I was losing, I would take it out on my mom and my girlfriend. When I was winning, I would just play more so they wouldn’t see me as much.”

The experience became painful for Anstey, and constantly got in the way of his personal life.

“My roommate and best friend at the time no longer speak anymore because of our poker addictions. It affects all aspects of your life. “It’s not easy to lose $1000 and smile about it,” Anstey admits.

Losing big money was made worse by the sheer simplicity of it; a single difference in the cards could have swung his fortunes the other way. Yet, it didn’t stop there for Anstey. It took a much larger monetary blow, before he reached a tipping point that caused him to admit to, and deal with, his addiction.

“I realized I needed to stop after losing $11,000 in one night,” recollects Anstey. “I had been building a bankroll for about six months, and decided to give the higher limits a shot. Two hours later, I had lost $6,000, and proceeded to lose the rest trying to win it back.”

The loss shook him, bringing him face to face with his destructive habit. ”I was devastated, and my only concern was finding more money to try and win back what I had lost,” he says. “I was distraught for days, but was able to come to my senses and tell myself I needed to stop. This is when I knew for sure I was addicted and it was a problem.”

Anstey is not alone. Shane V. is a member of Gamblers Anonymous, and he attends meetings every Friday evening at the Martin Grove United Church. This is a place where you will find yourself listening to stories of problematic gambling, similar to Anstey’s.

Shane is the secretary and treasurer for Friday night meetings. His responsibilities include opening the meetings, getting refreshments prepared, and making sure the rent for the location is paid. He views his contributions as giving back to an organization that played such a vital role in saving him from his addiction.

“I was a compulsive gambler for many years, and I finally capitulated and hit rock bottom,” Shane says. “I couldn’t sleep, ran up a boat-load of debt, and didn’t have much ambition left.”

Shane’s experience drove him to seek help, and after joining Gamblers Anonymous – and hearing about his peers’ troubles – he experienced a power far greater than that of his addiction.

“The power of listening and sharing eventually sank in, and I started hanging out with non-gamblers more and more, to the point where now, gambling isn’t a major facet of my life.”

For Shane and Anstey, and others like them, it took a rock bottom experience to realize they wanted – and needed – to quit. “It just happens at some point, but every one is different,” explains Shane.

That point occurred when he lost thousands of dollars.

But, while that loss helped put an end to his addiction, he still hasn’t allowed poker to disappear entirely from his life.

“I still gamble, but not to the extent I used to,” Anstey tells me. “It’s more recreational now, and just for fun. Win or lose, it doesn’t really make a difference to me. “

While it has been a challenge to return to poker with a different mindset, Anstey has learned to let go of the financial aspect and appreciate the game for what it is: just a game.

“I still gamble online from time to time. I enjoy the strategy that goes along with poker and other games you can play online. I think the big difference now is that I understand the life of a professional poker player is short-lived,” he notes. “It’s like anything. If you win less than 50 per cent of the time, in the long run, you’ll always be a loser. People just can’t understand that when they first start gambling. It’s not a job, it’s entertainment . . . it needs to stay that way.”

Online gambling is enjoyable, but can be dangerous. Toronto has yet to build a casino in the GTA, and although there are casinos in neighbouring cities like Niagara Falls, online gambling seems to be the best possible outlet for local gamblers.

“Our society is built in a way that anything you want to do is easily accessible,” Anstey says. “ I think it’s hard to prevent people from becoming addicted to anything, gambling, drugs, eating, etc.

So how do you take this activity in a dose that keeps you safe? Anstey believes that by getting stories out about those with gambling addictions, more people will get the message.

“The only thing to do is keep people informed about the dangers of online gambling,” says Anstey. “I can honestly say, had that experience not happened to me I may still be gambling online today.”

If the urge becomes too strong, then talking to someone through a programme like Gamblers Anonymous can help. “It’s nice being able to listen to others, who share the same problems as you,” Shane explains. “It’s often difficult sharing with other non-gamblers, because you feel judged thinking people just don’t understand. ‘Why can’t you just quit?’ is a phrase often repeated by well-meaning friends and family. When I share, I feel less alone and everyone just needs to be heard and understood at times.”

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