Antony Smith has never felt more helpless than he did in the early hours of January 25, 2015.
An obscure Mexican league football match he had been keenly following on his laptop ended 0-0, and that result plunged him into despair because he’d bet £600 that at least two goals would be scored in the game.
By that stage his gambling debts had reached almost £36,000 and he was in serious trouble. With payday-loan companies bearing down on him, his credit cards at their limit and his family refusing to lend him more money, his last chance of winning enough to keep them temporarily at bay had vanished. For a time, Antony only saw one way out.
‘When my Mexican bet failed, I knew I didn’t have enough money to pay off my creditors and had nowhere else to turn,’ recalls the 28-year-old web designer from Ellesmere Port, Cheshire. ‘I’d exhausted everywhere to get money – I’d begged my mum shortly before to loan me a further £2,000. I owed £3,200 that needed repaying by the end of the week alone.
‘I couldn’t have felt any lower. I cried myself to sleep, thinking, “Where on earth do I go from here?”. I thought about killing myself because I couldn’t think of what else to do.’
Antony talked himself out of suicide, but entertaining those thoughts showed him how out of control his gambling addiction had become.
It all began so casually, games of poker for loose change in the sixth -form common room. ‘In my late teens my mates and I would spend Saturday afternoons in the pub watching football and betting on the results,’ says Antony. ‘Back then I enjoyed the buzz and would bet on any sport. I’d use my online account to bet on Brazilian beach volleyball. I wasn’t interested in the sport, just my bet.’
At university, easy access to student loans, overdrafts and grants funded his gambling; he also borrowed more from his mum and aunt, and took a part-time job in a bookies. Like many habitual gamblers, he enjoyed the occasional good day. ‘I had a couple of weeks when everything I touched seemed to turn to gold,’ he says. ‘I won £7,000 on the Champions’ League Final in 2013. I took my mates out and went on a spending spree.’
Such days were rare, though, and when he lost he tried chasing that loss with further bets. ‘Watching sport on TV when I had lots of money on it was horrible. I’d shout, cry and punch things as I waited for a goal to go in that would instantly change my fortunes. I spent whole weekends in bed with my laptop, betting on sport. I would arrange to see friends and family, but let them down with lies if I lost a bet and didn’t have any money to go out.’
After the Mexican match, Antony realised he needed help. The next day he told his boss about his gambling addiction. Fortunately his employer supported him, lending him enough to satisfy the loan companies and setting up a debt-management plan to help him pay back everything he owed.
‘I had counselling and by then I properly wanted to quit. I was only gambling out of necessity to pay bills and there was no fun in that.’
But quitting left a large void to fill in his life. ‘I suddenly had lots of free time because I wasn’t gambling,’ he says. ‘I’d put on weight while sitting around betting all day. I hadn’t properly exercised for years, but as I had no money I needed to do something cheap. That’s when I realised running might be the answer.
‘My first run was two miles from work to home. I was very slow and it left me exhausted. It felt truly horrific, but I knew I wanted to do it again.’
He began running regularly, often with workmates at lunchtime, and soon shed 2st from his 13st 7lb frame. It gave him the confidence to enter his first race, the Farndon 10K, in October 2015.
‘Anything under an hour was my goal, so I was delighted to finish in 49 minutes. Even though I’d lost weight and achieved my goal time, I realised I actually enjoyed running.’
The following May, Antony, now a member of Ellesmere Port RC, ran the Chester Half Marathon. He hopes to have run 1,000 miles by the end of 2017, fundraising for the charity MIND. He plans to run his first full marathon in 2018 and to achieve another goal – his last debt payment – in January.
Antony hopes he’s left gambling firmly in his past. ‘I now understand that I had an illness and was addicted; I wasn’t well and that’s why it got so out of hand. I’m ashamed of the lies and the broken promises, but I’m proud that I have turned my life around by facing my problems.
‘Gambling was something that eventually gave me no pleasure. But running has given me a new type of buzz. It might still be an obsession, but it’s a healthy one.’