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Gamblers Anonymous, Luton

From: Dave Death
Category: Life
Date: 31 January 2006


The Luton branch of Gamblers Anonymous holds its meetings a long, long way from the Clermont Club, yet its attendees once had the same grandiose ambition. They tried to find God through the spin of a wheel, turn of a card or the roll of a dice. Since as we know there is no God, they were unsuccessful. They now try to deny the beauty they once had through their gamblers' quest.

Meetings are held every Tuesday in a church hall on the outskirts of town. A dozen people attend each week, drawn from a pool of twice that number. The average age is 40 and the look is life-scarred blue-collar. Near-pensionable Irishmen; a Turk; Cockney chancers; little-brained little men addicted to the slots - these nasty stereotypes contain so much truth.

These men have had their share of divorce, imprisonment and desolation, and are keen to proselytise of the hope they've found since stopping gambling. Yet newcomers howl with desperation of the unbearable misery gambling has caused them; "I've reached rock bottom" they declare, their first learnt phrase, and the next Tuesday they don't come back. Perhaps they've been cured, if that's what they needed - who knows? Only once has a woman attended one of these meetings, and she did not come back either. This is a world of male misery, men whose small ambitions were thwarted, finding themselves enslaved to the God of gambling for decades which they now recognise as having been miserable.

Gambling addictions of the old school had a long gestation time, with the progression from the odd flutter to being a junkie of the turf taking many years. The invention of fixed odds betting terminals in bookies - i.e. roulette machines -together with the online poker epidemic will doubtless speed up the incubation period, yet the new compulsive online gambler, more often than not middle class, will find himself alienated at GA unless he can truly see his fellow man as his equal, however rough his tongue and cloth. I found myself darkly delighted to be meeting bare-knuckle fighters, railway workers and jack-the-knife swindlers, and wondered what new forms of gambling they might introduce me to. One week came a man whose life had been placed on hold while he waited for the roulette wheel to finish spinning - which of course it never does. I wanted to shake his hands afterwards, telling him of my delight to finally meet Dostoevsky's gambler, a devotee of the purest form of gambling this site of the chemin de fer, but I didn't think he'd understand.

The Luton meeting lasts for two hours regardless of how many people there are - their "therapies" extend to fill available time. Some speak entirely in 12-step cliche; others have no powers of communication whatsover and say the exact same thing each week; others have been known to speak for upwards of twenty minutes without once coming to the point. However, running a book on who'll go on the longest is actively discouraged.

The cost of attendance is upwards of a pound, tea and sympathy included, comparing very favourably with an evening at the cinema or discotheque. The total amount collected is announced at the end of the meeting - somewhere in the region of 20, which is then not placed on a horse in the hope of it becoming 40 or 100. Those who make it to a year, two, ten even without a gambler are given a "pin" to celebrate - in AA you're rewarded with a chip, but in this context it would perhaps bring back inappropriate memories.

For some attendees the meeting is a chance to wistfully remember the happier days of their first gamble, of manic journeys to racetracks, dog tracks across the country, of the "insanity" of their compulsion, afternoons wasted in bookies and long nights in casinos, caught chasing absolute wealth which, since unobtainable, inevitably led them to absolute poverty. Now they are glad to go about their manual jobs, chat to "the missus" and drink in their pubs. They find their lives have become more manageable, free from chaos and risk. But all the while they have to deny what they once recognised as truth - that the gambler's quest for an absolute, through the medium of money, is no different from the sinner's search for salvation in the arms of an omnitpotent God.

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