Friday, 23 August 2013

Plucked from a Gambling Hell

By Bryan Cooney
THE new Scottish football season has barely tied the laces of its new, streamlined boots and yet finds itself experiencing a siege situation. The ominous shadow of gambling has fallen across us again.
There are many questions to answer. Has the normally somnambulant SFA, for instance, woken from a stupor and gone uncomfortably over the top in its pursuit of Rangers star Ian Black?
The latter, I would remind you if you need any reminding, must answer charges of betting against his teams and, in many eyes, has assumed pariah status. Has the governing body been right to name him at this early juncture ?
Is former footballer Kevin Twaddle exaggerating when he says that the betting bug has turned into a virus ? Or is this only the tip of an iceberg that could sink ten Titanics?
There again, can we blame players for punting when the encouragement for doing so is all around us 24-7? You are almost programmed to gamble these days, after all. So, where is our caring Government hereabouts? Wasn’t it only yesterday that the Labour lot were advocating the opening of giant casinos to assist us with our leisure time?
In fairness, let’s put such hypocrisies aside and wait until next month’s Hampden hearing before any conclusions are drawn.. All I know is that I feel great compassion for anyone whose life is governed by gambling. Bitter experience insists that it draws you in with all the efficiency of a wanton woman - and spits you out with the haste of a vindictive one.
Most of us, I’m sure, are in favour of instant reward. I remember my own instincts being sharpened in a smoke-filled, subterranean room in an Aberdeen backstreet. One evening, circa 1964, at 19 years of age, this apprentice sports journalist initially experienced the vicarious buzz of being a winner.
Having shipped a considerable cargo of ale, I tumbled into the Belmont

Club. It looked, at first glance, as if the local prison had agreed an amnesty. Intoxication, however, ensured that I didn’t give a damn who was there. I eventually secured a seat at a packed chemin-de-fer table and opened my account with a ten bob note.
For those unfamiliar with the process, chemmy is a card game whereby you take the bank and proceed to draw two cards against the two cards of the person who has challenged your right to be banker. If your cards add up to eight or nine, you turn them over for victory. If not, you draw another card in attempt to get the highest score. A face card counts as zero. You can either draw your winnings or let them accumulate, whatever your fancy.
Anyway, Lady Luck was my very special companion that night. On my first attempt at the bank, she saw to it that I won ten times on the trot. By the time my turn came round again, the envious eyes of all the Belmont Club were on me. I had become everybody’s friend and could scarcely breathe for people breathing down my neck - people, I may point out, whom you would not take home to mother for afternoon tea and crumpets.
I embarked on another glorious winning run and, when it ended, was attempting to add up the bounty. I needn’t have bothered. The resident mathematician, who made it is business to known how the dosh was being distributed, had completed the calculations. “You have exactly one hundred and eighty pounds,” he offered.
At which point, commonsense kicked in. I figured I would never make £180 from a ten-bob starter again. I was taking home circa £9 a week back then. It was time to go home, by ordered taxi, of course. There were too many dark alleyways and cobblestones around Belmont Street to chance an early-morning stroll. Besides, Craiginches Prison was enjoying an amnesty, wasn’t it?
It would be nice to report that this was my first and last visit to the Belmont Club. Or else to say that it led to a rapid expansion of my private wealth. Unhappily, like most mug punters, neither was the case. The narcotic proved immediately addictive. I found I was drawn back there repeatedly as if someone was employing a giant magnet to guide me in. Triumphant repeats, however, were not to be part of the subsequent agenda, But, by then, I was gripped in a particularly sensitive area by the wicked lady of gambling: and, there was no denying it, she was beginning to do my bollocks in.
The unhealthy obsession multiplied. Everything seemed to have my name on it: horse racing, greyhound racing, clandestine card games in the bowels of my place of work: the Aberdeen Press Journal; challenge snooker matches for half crown and dollar stakes at the local Burroughes and Watts snooker centre. If it seemingly moved, I wanted a bet on the outcome. And I’d do anything to sustain the habit: lie, cheat, steal, pawn my possessions. I was familiar with my own crime sheet. I didn’t need a Jeremy Kyle figure to tell me I was a disgrace to the human race.
One day, I realised if I didn’t do something desperate, I’d resort to the ultimate form of desperation. Suicide seemed an appropriate alternative to a life teetering on the razor edge. Thankfully, commonsense prevailed and I transported my desolation to my father. This was by no means the easier option. This was the father who’d always inhabited a distant planet, the father who refrained from overt displays of affection, the father whom I believed was so fixated by his books and his garden that he didn’t have time for me.
I told him everything and, figuratively, curled up into a protective ball, waiting for the explosion of anger and derision. There was none. Instead, there was tolerance and understanding. And also revelation. He told me that at one time he, too, had been overly fond of a bet and that if it hadn't been for the poverty-stricken circumstances of his youth, he, too, might have found himself in my position.
Most important, he offered an alternative. ‘Look,' he said, ‘you get paid of a Friday night, don't you? Okay, from now on, I'll come down to Broad Street on a Friday night and you'll hand your pay packet over to me. That way, (some of) the temptation will be removed. It'll be all down to your willpower after that. But, just consider this, I'm an old man, not in the best of health, either. If I go out of my way to do this for you, whatever else you do, please don't let me down.'  

It became a Friday night ritual. My father, my undemonstrative, non-tactile yet caring father, would appear, around 6.30p.m. Even with his health deteriorating, he never missed an appointment with a dissolute son. In the side alleyway of the newspaper office. I'd open the brown pay packet, extract enough for a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of beer, and hand the rest to him. Willpower can be an extraordinary force. Somehow, I religiously kept my promise not to gamble, staying away from clubs and bookies' offices as if they were plague-ridden and would contaminate me.
Whenever temptation arose, I thought of the man who, in what would be the last, precious years of his life, was devoted to the correction of misspent youth. In essence, it was easy. If he could make the effort, then I would be strong and make the effort, too. I vowed there would be no going back, no return to the madness.
Today, as far as gambling is concerned, the straight and narrow is a precious place for me. I’m not being sanctimonious when I say that. I shiver when I remember the past and really feel for those who cannot find the postal code of that precious place. Thank God I had someone to show me the way. Some men are anxious to make sportsmen their role models. But life’s most authentic role models often are to be found far closer to home. I know mine was…
*Adapted from Fingerprints of a Football Rascal.

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