John* can’t say exactly why he started gambling. Other fellows were doing it. The betting agencies were offering all sorts of deals that made it sound like he could almost gamble for free. And he was working very long hours, coming home to a sleeping house and needing to unwind. At the age of 21, he already had two children, aged five and six – having first become a father at the age of 15. He’d say that having kids saved him from a ruinous track, running around with the wrong crowd and prison being a likely destination. He doesn’t talk about social disadvantage and how that, too, is a link to gambling. He just took it up – and it took him over very quickly.
‘I was making pretty good money as a chicken catcher – working on the farms where chickens are for eating. It was full-time employment and I was making more than a thousand dollars a week,’ he says. ‘I think it was the money that got the better of me. I got a TAB account and started betting over the internet. At first it was just $25 or $30 a week, but it sort of crept up on me, over time. Within two or three months I was betting between $300 and $500 a week. And then it really got out of hand.’
One night he got home at about 2.30 am. It was a Monday, and he’d just been paid. He jumped straight on the phone and somehow – some crazy accident he says – he managed to put his entire pay into his TAB account. It was $1300. ‘I sort of stared at it and felt I couldn’t do anything about it. So I put the whole lot on one bet. On a tennis game. It was going to pay more than $3000 if I won and I just thought: why not?’
Straight away he knew he’d gone too far. ‘As soon as I put the bet on I got really worked up,’ he says. ‘I went and had a shower and tried to cool down because I realised what I’d done. I had to tell my partner I had no money for the next week for the kids. At that point I thought I’d lost the bet. I started crying and woke her up. It was about 3.30 am. I told her what I’d done but she was too tired to take it in. She’d just worked a long shift and said we’d sort it out in the morning.’
Two things happened, both were disastrous. First, he found he’d actually won the bet and was up $3470. As for many gamblers, this was a powerful incentive to keep gambling. The second disaster was his partner taking the kids and leaving him. ‘She’d already told me I had to choose between gambling and her and the kids. But me putting the whole pay cheque into the account was the last straw for her.’
The combination of the win (money) and the loss (his family) sent him into a spiral. He thought he’d already lost everything, so why not keep playing? The pokies were better than loneliness, and the TAB account promised the kind of win that might turn things around.
Six months went by in a fog. One night, he finished work after a really long shift. ‘I fell asleep at the wheel and drifted to the other side of the road and went head-on into a truck. So then I couldn’t work and I ended up homeless.’
All seemed lost until he ran into an old mate who was playing footy for the Reclink team. Reclink provides sport and art programs to disadvantaged Australians to create socially inclusive, life-changing opportunities in terms of improved health and wellbeing, education and employment outcomes. The old friend gave John the number of the team’s coach. After making that one phone call, his life began to turn around.
*The name has been changed for privacy.