FEATURE-The thief who stole thousands helps gamblers kick the habit
LONDON, Dec 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sitting in his prison cell, Paul Buck was determined that something good would come out of a secret addiction that had seen him gamble away millions, attempt suicide and almost destroyed his marriage.
The British former wealth manager had a year behind bars to think about it, after being jailed for stealing 434,000 pounds ($583,000) from his employer, Santander bank, to fund his habit.
"It took one bet on a Thursday afternoon in October 1994 to turn me from someone who had no interest in gambling to somebody who didn't go without a bet for 17 years," the 41-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
As chief executive of Epic Risk Management, a social enterprise that educates people about the dangers of gambling, Buck now shares his story with prisoners, students, soldiers and sports professionals at risk of falling into the same trap.
Gambling has higher suicide and bankruptcy rates than any other addiction, he said, and has also been linked to poverty, domestic violence and child abuse.
Addiction rates are rising because of the accessibility of online gambling, which accounts for a third of all gambling in Britain, according to the regulatory Gambling Commission.
Losses via computers, mobile phones and tablets rose by 10 percent between 2015 and 2016, to 4.7 billion pounds ($6.3 billion), it said.
"Prevention is better than cure," said Buck, who lives in Preston in the north of England. "It's a long way back if you are suicidal or have ended up in prison."
Buck started betting at college, after joining a football team full of gamblers.
"There was an enormous buzz when that first horse went over the winning line, an intense adrenaline rush, a complete feeling of elation," he said.
In his 20s, Buck's banking career took off. His skill in providing sound financial advice to wealthy individuals earned him successive promotions and a six-figure salary.
But he felt overwhelmed by lofty expectations of continued success. Gambling provided an refuge and a release.
"Gambling was my safe place, the place where I felt comfortable, without any stress, away from pressure," he said.
"In reality, it was the thing that was destroying me."
The amount of time Buck spent gambling on his phone and computer made his wife suspect that he was having an affair.
Wins and losses did not matter. It was just the act of gambling on the spinning roulette wheel that had Buck hooked.
"You can spend 1,000 pounds every 20 seconds," he said. "And you can do it hidden - at work, at church, wherever."
Buck became a problem gambler, a term which means someone cannot control the time they spend gambling, the money they spend or their thought processes.
"Problem gambling is a recognized mental health condition," said Marc Etches, chief executive of the charity GambleAware, which estimates there are 430,000 problem gamblers in Britain.
Mired in lies and debt, Buck said he decided to take his own life in 2011.
He hosted a managers' meeting in the office, and then went upstairs to an unused storeroom where he attempted to hang himself but ended up unconscious for several hours. He knew then it was time to seek help. He told his mother and confessed to his wife that he had spent 4.8 million pounds ($6.4 million), via 93 separate betting accounts, over the previous eight years and told Santander that he had stolen from them.
Buck was convicted of theft and fraud and sentenced to two years and eight months in jail.
In 2012 he was sent to a Victorian prison where he was locked up for 23 hours a day with a stranger in a tiny cell.
"It was horrendous," he said. "You're hearing violence and you're seeing someone getting stabbed on your floor."
He was freed just over a year later and immediately set about creating Epic Risk Management, which works with high-risk industries, from sports and entertainment to financial services, to prevent gambling harming their staff and businesses.
Chelsea Football Club commissioned Buck this year to educate their elite academy squads, he said, recognizing the lure of betting for well-paid, competitive young men with time on their hands.
"We have our first tech-savvy generation who have been subject to gambling ads and gaming since the age of seven," he said. "It's a ticking time bomb that's ready to go off." (Reporting by Lee Mannion @leemannion. Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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