my big win – a cautionary tale

Regardless of their reasons for gambling, it’s my experience that most problem gamblers are looking for that one big win. You know, the win that will make all their losses worthwhile. The win that will vindicate their decision to gamble in the first place. The win that will give their life meaning, and allow them to shed those feelings of guilt and desperation.

I know all about this. When I was gambling, I was convinced I was going to win big, sooner or later. Absolutely convinced. Oh, I knew the pokies were random and that each game had as much chance (ie: not much) of paying out as the last or the next, but that didn’t matter. I knew. It was only a matter of time.

And so I played on, day after day, week after week. After a while that “one big win” became almost mythical. I started thinking, all I need is that One Big Win and I can stop. I can pay back what I owe, I can pretend this period of my life never happened. It doesn’t even need to be big enough to cover my losses, just big enough to make a start. One Big Win, and I can move on. And the losses piled up, and up, and up. And then one day it happened.

I was playing at one of my regular haunts, on Bourke St in Melbourne’s CBD. It was my lunch break, although I hadn’t eaten. I’d been playing since midday and it was closing in on three o’clock… another ten minutes or so and I would have to get back to work, I was already fiendishly late.

This was a Tatts pokies joint, and back in the 90’s there was a time when all the Tatts pokies across the state were networked together. It was a jackpot promotion, I can’t remember what it was called but I do remember the TV advertisements. The idea was that any Tatts pokie, across the state, could win a jackpot at any time of day or night. One week the jackpots might be $100,000, the next week they might be $5,000, the next week $20,000. All you had to do was be playing a Tatts machine when the lights started flashing in your venue, and you could be the winner.

So I was playing, already about $300 down and I knew I would have to leave soon. Suddenly lights started flashing around the room and everyone who wasn’t playing dived for a machine. The jackpot was going to go off! There was a palpable excitement in the air, staff were running around looking for the winning machine…

…and then the flashing stopped, and my machine went wild. It was me.

I felt curiously numb as though I was watching it all happen to someone else. People I didn’t know were patting me on the back and congratulating me, which I hated; I didn’t play pokies to socialise. And then the manager was there, telling me I’d won $5,000 and wanting to take a photo of me for their wall.

That’s when the sensation of being numb snapped. I panicked. No way they could take my photo, I shouldn’t have been there at all! I couldn’t possibly afford to have my face on their winner wall, and so I refused the photo, told them I’d overstayed my lunch break and had to go. They were disappointed, but I walked out of the room a few minutes later with $5000 cash in my wallet.

As I walked back to work, the number were rolling in my head. I could pay off one of my credit cards, or make a significant dent in both of them. I could pay back a chunk of my loan. I could take care of the bills I was hiding. But most of all, I could start over. This was my chance, my opportunity. Who cares that I owed something like $12,000? With this win, I could finally take a step in the right direction. And with a little luck, my partner would never know.

Less than two weeks later, it was all gone.

That afternoon, I went in to the bank and slapped most of my winnings back onto one of my cards… but I kept $500 in my wallet, because by then I was already planning my next assault on the machines. And the next day I was back at my regular spot, but this time I made a bee-line for the dollar machines. The plan was that now I had a decent amount of available cash on me, I could play big and win big. I was going to invest that $500 and clean up. Absolutely.

Well, that $500 was gone in thirty minutes. I was gutted… but not gutted enough to stop me from walking out to the nearest ATM and hitting my credit card for another $200. Back I went, but I stayed away from the dollar machines this time; I’d been burned and thought I’d play smart. How stupid I was.

I lost that day. And over the next few days, I kept playing my winnings, trying to make my plans come true, but to no avail. It wasn’t long before every cent of that $5,000 win was gone, and I had nothing to show for it; nothing but guilt, and shame, and resentment.

When you’re a problem gambler, the big wins don’t make a difference. All the best intentions in the world can’t stand up to the temptation to take those winnings and turn them into even bigger payouts, but it doesn’t work. And if, as a problem gambler, you’re waiting on that One Big Win to allow you to get away from the machines once and for all, trust me: you’re dreaming.

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