'Now I want to help others': How gambling addiction took over Shropshire man's life
Statistics show that gambling addiction is on the rise. It took over Mike Chatha’s life, and now he wants to help others beat their addiction.
It was one moment and three 50 pence pieces that would change the course of his life forever.
As a student in Plymouth during the mid-80s Mike walked past a fruit machine in a bar – just like that things would never be the same again.
Two friends were frantically gesturing at the machine and asked an 18-year-old Mike if he had 50p. He gave it to them and more frantic cries followed. Two more 50ps later and it lit up, vibrating and churning out money. The whole bar ground to a halt. Everyone asked what had happened and who had hit the jackpot.
“Someone went to the bar and got a couple of pint glasses which just about held the £100 payout. We all had free drinks – the perfect student afternoon,” says Mike while we sit in his family home in the picturesque village of Longnor, a few miles south of Shrewsbury.
“Little did I know that, right there and then, my brain had also lit up with a massive rush of dopamine and had been inprinted and programmed with a new empowering set of beliefs: that I was lucky, that gambling was fun, that gambling makes you popular and that you could get money for nothing.”
Mike ticks the points off on his fingers shaking his head. The following day he walked past the machine again and put a couple of quid in it. Nothing major – he thought.
But within a week he was regularly feeding coins into the machine.
“I’d had a couple of unproductive £20 sessions. I wanted to see it light up and go crazy again. I wanted to be the centre of attention again,” he says.
“I started to become familiar with the machine and having my own theories about what I could do to control it, which you can’t.”
Within two months he had blown all his student grant. After another month he had spent all the money his dad had given him to tide him over.
“If I wanted to have ‘me’ time I would go to the arcade. It was a bubble. It was dark and I was uninterrupted, I was left alone. It became a lifestyle and I stopped going to lectures,” he said.
In the end Mike was thrown out of university and got elected into the students’ union as the entertainment rep. By chance he was offered a job in the music business with Allied Artists Agency in London
“I was invited on to Richard Branson’s barge for one of his networking events – I didn’t go, I was gambling. I was looking after acts like T’Pau – I never even went to see them live because I was gambling,” he adds, throwing his arms in the air in disbelief at his own decisions.
“I was supposed to be watching bands in the evening but instead I would spend all night until 4am gambling. I had landed the most peachy job ever at the age of 19 and when I look back I think how mad was I? I missed all of it. I lost that job eventually.”
Mike went from job to job in different towns. He borrowed money from friends and girlfriends, and was even left homeless on the streets of London for three months.
“That life cost me literally everything – money, friends, relationships, family, respect, dignity, my health and my home,” he says.
Eventually Mike came clean one last time to his mum and they decided to call someone for help. It ended with Mike visiting Gamblers Anonymous (GA) via the Samaritans.
“My life had become a car crash, but I felt like there was a bit of hope. I went to the meeting, it was a big deal,” he says.
“There were four guys in the room and one of them was the founder of GA, so I was fortunate to have attended a group where there was a lot of knowledge and experience. They helped me and gave me advice. I ignored most of it because I was a big-headed egotistical gambler. I wanted to do it my way and it didn’t go well, so I did it their way and fortunately things worked out.”
Mike wouldn’t be drawn on how much money he had lost in total – but for good reason.
“It’s relative to what you’ve got,” he says. “If you have £10 to see you through to the end of the month, or £10,000, it doesn’t matter. It’s the adrenaline. I liken it to taking your wages, throwing it to the wind and hoping you get it back. There is an invisible line between normal gambling and abnormal gambling, and once you cross there is no way back. Once you start gambling rent money, food money, your bus fare home, when you intend to spend £10 but 10 minutes later you’ve spent £100 – these are all indicators.”
Mike finally recovered from gambling and has been free of the habit for 25 years, settling down and starting a family as well as launching a successful computer software company.
But last year he had a health scare which required him having open heart surgery.
In the aftermath he set on a path to take on the gambling industry and try to provide as much help as possible to addicts today.
“I woke up from the operation in a hospital bed. I had a wake-up call and thought ‘what am I going to do different?’,” he says.
“One thing was to spend more time with family and the other was to make a difference. I decided to go after gambling and that’s what I’m doing full time. I’m determined to make it work. There are 430,000 people out there who need help. I want the West Midlands and Shropshire to be a safer place.”
- The number of problem gamblers has quadrupled in the last ten years from 100,000 to 430,000
- In the last two years the number of under 16s with gambling problems has doubled from 25,000 to 55,000
- Gambling-related suicides have risen to about two per day
The Association of British Bookmakers, which represents street betting shops, says it recognises that there has been growing public concern about gambling and that responsible gambling is “at the heart” of what they do. Tackling some of these issues will have an impact ion the industry itself, particularly in terms of the changes to fixed betting odd terminals.
A spokesman for the association said: “From April 1 this year the maximum stake on gaming machines in betting shops will be cut from £100 to £2. As a result of this decision we anticipate that up to 21,000 jobs will be lost and up to half of all betting shops will close.
“Those shops that remain open will continue to provide a wide range of help and support including the ability for customers to self-exclude and technology that tracks player behaviour for markers of harm.”
One man who learned the hard way about the potential to lose money is Simon Perfitt, from Dudley, who at the height of his addiction lost £3,000 in a single lunch hour.
Before becoming hooked on FOBTs, Mr Perfitt drove a Porsche and held a string of highly paid jobs in the IT industry.
But after venturing into a betting shop for the first time at the age of 47, he quickly became hooked and lost everything.
“I would be taking longer and longer lunch breaks, because I needed more time to gamble, and when I was at work I was thinking about it all the time,” he said in an interview five years ago.
He spent about £200,000 over a 10-year period as he poured every spare penny into the machines.
Gambling related deaths
“I am very concerned with the growing number of gambling-related deaths – now two a day,” says Mike who is determined to effect change in the gambling industry.
“The gambling problem has gone up like crazy – 10 years ago there were approximately 100,000 problem gamblers and now that’s 430,000,” he says. “It’s a sad situation and everyone seems to be singing to the industry’s tune and I’m determined that’s not going to happen.”
Mike has used crowdfunding to set up the Back on Track community interest company to help addicts regain control of their lives.
He has ambitious aims. He wants to reduce the overall number of untreated problem gamblers, the number of gambling-addicted children, the cost to the NHS and the number of annual suicides through gambling by 20 per cent each over the next five to seven years.
To do this the company set up GamHelp, an online community platform where problem gamblers and their loved ones can get support 24/7. It includes forums, face-to-face video support and specific online groups for areas and institutions like colleges or universities.
Mike also intends to launch an app which will block access to gambling sites, provide online and onsite training for employers, establish recovery meetings in every town by 2022 and a gambling transaction block with the banks.
Mike believes gambling mirrors the tobacco industry.
“Cigarettes were being sold as good for you in the 50s, cool in the 60s and 70s, potentially harmful in the 80s and to be avoided in the 90s through until now, and I think gambling will follow a similar curve,” he says. “Gambling was deregulated by Labour in 2005, but they failed to put in adequate laws and safeguards to protect the vulnerable.
“Gambling advertising is constant and relentless, normalising gambling. 60 per cent of UK adults placed a bet last week according to the Gambling Commission. Some messages say sport is better if you’ve got money on it – but you wouldn’t see a drinks manufacturer saying you’ll have a better night out if you drink.
“There is a lack of adequate safeguards. If I want to spend £700 on a high street then I have to pass a credit check, yet I can currently gamble £100 every 20 seconds, which is £300 a minute or £18,000 an hour in a high street bookmaker or online. I can then go across the street to a payday loan company and borrow next month’s wages, come back and do it again.”
Mike has written a book called The Problem Gambling Handbook, which will be on Amazon.
A 'lucky escape' from £60,000 debt
In another case of gambling addiction it's 3am and a successful high-end salesman sits in a bedroom clicking away at his computer, barely able to pull himself away despite the hours ticking down to when he’ll have to get up for work.
With bags under his eyes he blinks in disbelief.
He’s just lost £2,000 in a matter of seconds.
Gary, not his real name, is a 45-year-old married father-of-two – a normal family man.
But a cycle of online gambling left Gary hit hard.
His fixation lost him £60,000 – and many of the cornerstones of his life.
“I was in a lot of trouble,” he says over a drink at the Montgomery’s Tower pub in Shrewsbury.
“I was on William Hill and Coral doing poker games. It was extremely addictive and I got such a buzz from it. What happens is I chased my losses. One day I would lose £500, then the next £2,000, and I was like ‘I’ve got to win that back’.
“You chase and chase. You lose control. I had a lot of credit at the time – the credit was freely available as I had a good job.
“It was very easy to rack them up. I was also drinking a lot at the time and a lot of this would happen when I was a bit drunk. It was like Monopoly money to me.
“It was all on screen and at the click of a button, and that was a problem for me. What’s invisible is people in their bedrooms at home at 1am playing online poker.”
Gary had some successes, but what he won paled into insignificance compared to his hefty losses. He had become a gambling addict.
Eventually, his credit lines began to creak underneath the weight of his losses and matters came to a head.
“The credit dried up, I maxed out all my cards and couldn’t afford the monthly re-payments,” he says. “It was my rock bottom. I lost a girlfriend at the time and my house I was renting. I just sat and thought ‘what have I done?’.
“I had to go cap-in-hand to my mum. I was in tears and I was embarrassed. There is a stigma that people don’t talk about. You just feel you have been so stupid.
“My mum bailed me out for half of the £60,000 and I paid her back £500 a month for many years. The other half I managed to clear myself, believe it or not. I was in this good high-end sales job, I would get a commission cheque for, say, £5,000 or £10,000 and that would go towards clearing that debt.
“I was lucky to get out of it and I managed to stop.”
'A hidden epidemic'
The deputy leader of the Labour Party Tom Watson says gambling is Britain's "hidden epidemic".
The MP for West Bromwich said a report he commissioned into gambling found there are more than 430,000 problem gamblers in the UK with a further two million at risk.
“The numbers are staggeringly high,” he said. “And behind those 430,000 people are families under pressure.”
Mr Watson believes that the Gambling Act 2005 is now no longer fit for purpose and says that it was not designed for the digital age, which has made gambling more accessible.
“Back in 2005 no one could predict that people would be able to sit on their iPhone and bet from their living rooms,” he said.
Due to the widespread and far-reaching issues that gambling addiction creates, Mr Watson believes that the gambling industry should be paying to cover the cost of treatment.
The Gross Gambling Yield – the money made from bets by bookmakers – was a record £13.8 billion in 2017. In the year to March 31, 2017, GambleAware says that it raised over £8 million from the gambling industry, short of the £10 million target set by the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board, and the suggested voluntary contribution of 0.1 per cent of the Gross Gambling Yield.
“There is already a voluntary levy, but it’s not working all that well,” he said. “A lot of the bigger players do contribute, but it really doesn’t cover the cost, and that needs to be reviewed and a statutory levy put in place that equates to the cost of treatment.”
Another area of concern for Tom is people’s ability to use credit cards to fund gambling.
“It’s ridiculous and ludicrous,” he said. “You shouldn’t be able to use credit cards and you shouldn’t be borrowing money to gamble.”
“I don’t want to be puritanical and I’m not anti gambling, but we have to strike a balance.”
- For free help and advice as well as one-to-one coaching visit GamHelp.org and gamblingaddiction.blog. Help keep the vital resources going. The group is currently raising money to provide more services such as a suicide helpline and talks in schools. Visit crowdfundme.co.uk/campaign/gamhelp