I've nothing against internet gambling in principle. In fact, I'd indulge in it around the clock if someone could remove the risk factor. We seem to have reduced risk from just about every other area of our lives, from cycling (silly helmets) to driving (airbags and hair-trigger brakes that stop your car whenever we blink). But until we manage to make gambling a win-win situation, it will always be
the ultimate mug's game. Maybe it really is 'the scourge of the 21st century': a description that will resonate with poor Richard Mahan.
One wild night last year, this Scottish sucker gamely started gambling online, racking up #90,000 ($1.27 million) of low-effort profit within an hour of logging on. Then Mahan's luck changed and he started losing. In a bid to break even, he used, of all numbers, 13 of his parents' credit cards. Proving that Scots are not necessarily tight with their money, he giddily continued into the wee hours, amassing a debt of #158,000. Just reading that figure makes me feel hollow. You can understand why Mahan, 25, was so mortified he tried to end it all. His parents, Linda and James, rang the police after the credit-card firms told them their insurance would not be valid unless they did so. Presumably, they will get their money back.
But imagine the stress they must have experienced in the meantime.
The case makes you wonder whether depraved video games really are the main menace in the digital age. The reaction from the gambling industry has been less than reassuring. Graham Sharpe, a spokesman for bookmakers William Hill, says the industry is heavily regulated. 'How could anybody know he was not who he said he was, or that the credit cards were not his? If I spent #90,000 on a car with my credit card, would anybody criticise me?' Sharpe says. What an argument. The difference with spending #90,000 on a car is ... you get the car: some solace for the outlay.
Internet gambling seems to be a singularly dodgy and scary business, largely thanks to ease of access. Before the digital revolution, if I wanted to blow a fortune, I had to make an effort: get in my car, brave the lurid carpets, screechy noises and dodgy bunny girls of the local casino, then humiliate myself in public, seeing and hearing the chips being raked away as my fortune dwindled, attracting increasingly intense looks from security personnel. And finally, the long ride home. Now, gambling is infinitely more 'on-your-doorstep'. Sure, if you have a pop-up blocker installed, you no longer have to face random persistent harassment in the shape of looming gambling advertisements. Even so, if you have an itch to punt, it must be almost impossible to resist. Baccarat, blackjack, poker, bingo, horse racing: they're all just a click away - unless, of course, you're trying to use a credit card issued by a Hong Kong bank, all of which forbid such behaviour.
If your finger is itching, never forget the games are designed to tease - you may win enough now and then to stay interested while your dollars disappear into a virtual vortex, but there's a reason you seldom see a poor bookmaker. If you feel a compulsion spend, steer clear of thin-air casinos and go for the car.