Money down the drain

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 March, 2007, 12:00am

Last month, a 16-year-old girl visited Macau's Sands Casino with her family and hit the jackpot.

After initially refusing to pay the winnings because of her age, the casino finally paid HK$740,000 to the girl's mother.

Youth workers are worried that the case will set a bad example and more young people will be tempted to try their luck at casinos.

As more and more casinos are being built in Macau, Hong Kong's gambling counselling centres have seen a marked increase in teenage casino visitors.

The Tung Wah Group of Hospitals Even Centre, a charitable organisation which provides counselling for gamblers, recorded a 16.3 per cent increase in youth gambling over the past year.

Of the gamblers aged under 25 who sought the centre's help in January, 57 per cent are frequent visitors to Macau casinos.

'More and more young people are attracted by the recent hype surrounding the new casinos in Macau,' said Elda Chan Mei-lo, supervisor of the centre.

'Seeing their friends return with winnings from Macau, they think they can also make a quick buck.

'After winning a few bets, they think they are blessed. Amid the noise of ringing slot machines and the cheers of gamblers, they lose their sense of judgement easily. They don't realise that their initial winning streak could spell disaster.'

Twenty-four-year-old Ah Dee, who did not want to give his full name, has been receiving therapy at the centre since January this year.

A poker and mahjong enthusiast since Form One, Ah Dee paid his first visit to Macau when he was 18.

'I won HK$20,000 to HK$30,000 on the trip.

After that, I spent most of my weekends in Macau. Once, after I arrived at the pier, several people approached me and asked whether I needed to borrow money,' said Ah Dee.

Despite knowing that they were loansharks, he couldn't resist the temptation.

'I kept telling myself that there was a 50-50 chance of winning and I was good at playing Baccarat. It was unlikely for me to lose.'

Ah Dee left Macau that night with a debt of HK$200,000. Escorted back to Hong Kong by several men, he was devastated at letting his family down.

After paying off his debt with a loan from relatives, his fisherman parents made him work on their boat for two months.

His stint at sea did not cure his addiction and he started gambling again after he found a job as a kitchen helper.

The debts incurred in his subsequent trips to Macau amounted to HK$250,000.

'My folks wanted me to work with them on their boat for the rest of my life. But that seemed like a prison to me, so I agreed to get therapy.'

The 24-year-old attends counselling sessions twice a week with case worker Chau Suk-hing.

Ms Chau has counselled other youth gamblers over the years. She says young people often have unrealistic ideas about gambling and rely on superstition.

'Some think that wearing shirts of certain colours will bring them luck at the gaming tables. They also think they know tricks which will guarantee winning,' said Ms Chau.

Now that he has stopped gambling for two months, Ah Dee looks back and regrets the grief he had caused his family.

'Don't get overjoyed when you win. When your luck runs out, you lose not only money, but the trust of your friends and family,' he said.