Pinchbeck recovering addict's gambling concerns sparked by Spalding gaming centre plans
A recovering gambling addict who placed bets of £80,000 over seven years has spoken of his fears for others if a new gaming centre is allowed to open in Spalding.
Matt Amess (25) also says there is no face to face support for addicts in the area to get the help they need.
He has chosen to speak about his experiences for the first time after Merkur Slots was last week given a bingo premises licence for 32-33 Hall Place - and now wants to raise awareness about the wider issue following his own struggles.
Mr Amess, of Pinchbeck, began gambling on machines in bingo clubs aged 18 before moving on to online casino games, buying virtual players for the FIFA video game and later visiting bookmakers - and is now paying off debts of £24,000.
He said: “Through the years I did try to get help. I had private therapy but nothing seemed to help.
“Then, in June this year, I split up with my partner and I went through quite a rough patch with heavy gambling and I thought to myself, enough is enough.”
He eventually got support through Gamblers Anonymous - but had to travel to Lincoln, with there and Peterborough his nearest options for help.
He added: “It came to the point when I had to do something because I knew I couldn’t carry on like this.
“A switch went in my brain and I had to stop. I always knew for the whole seven years that I had a problem but it was about admitting I wanted to stop.”
For Mr Amess, gambling gave him a passion and excitement that he struggled to find elsewhere.
He said: “I got bullied through school - at primary, secondary, college - and didn’t have many friends.
“When I went to gamble I got the feeling that nothing else gave me. It sounds strange but it was the love of my life.
“I still class myself as addicted to gambling because I feel I always will be but I am not actively gambling.
“When I was actively gambling it was the love of my life but on the flip side there were times when I had never felt any lower. I was suicidal.”
His powerful testimony aims to raise awareness of an issue that many non-addicts would struggle to fully understand.
Mr Amess told the Free Press how gambling wasn’t about winning money - and that he even worried about winning too much as this would alert his then-partner to what he had been doing.
At times that meant spending thousands of pounds of winnings on machines to hide his behaviour and on one occasion he even hid £4,000 in cash in a sock in his car.
He sometimes obtained cash by lying to his mum - pretending he needed money for car insurance when in fact he spent it in a bookmaker - and attended private therapy paid for by his nan.
It’s this impact on his family that he deeply regrets now. He explained: “At the time I honestly didn’t care about anybody. When I think about it now I just feel sickened and horrible - it’s all the lies you tell.”
It’s his deep understanding of an addict’s mindset that he says makes him concerned about the arrival of Merkur - which wants to take on the former Dorothy Perkins shop in the town.
The store would be open from 8am to midnight, with 41 gaming machines and 20 bingo tablets inside - a figure he feels is ‘absolutely ridiculous’.
He feels gaming machines can be worse than other forms of gambling - with graphics and gameplay that build excitement and get you hooked.
He added: “If a place like that is open at midnight you won’t see any non-gamblers go there. They are open at that time to attract one type of person and that’s a gambling addict.”
At last week’s licensing hearing, councillors were told about the firm’s safety measures - including staff being asked to challenge people who appear to have a problem.
For Mr Amess, those sorts of measures are simply not enough.
He said: “There were always times when the person behind the cashier would say to me ‘are you sure?’ and that was it.
“I know there are rules and regulations and ‘when the fun stops stop’. When you are actually addicted there’s no way you are going to stop.”
Merkur cannot open in Spalding unless a planning inspector overturns the council’s decision to refuse a change of use for the retail unit. Mr Amess retains hope that this won’t happen - although is worried there’s nothing to stop even more gambling establishments coming after Merkur.
He said: “I saw the comments on Facebook saying that it’s better than having an empty shop and I understand that but the only reason they are putting it in there is to attract one target market.
“I am not the only one with concerns. I have concerns for personal reasons - there are other people out there actively gambling - people who are too scared to say anything and don’t know where to go.
“Do you really need that in Spalding? Probably not. I still feel like it will be rejected.”
He would support a system similar to the payments made by developers in planning applications - with gambling establishments ordered to pay to fund addiction support services - but is also keen to use his own experience in a way to help others.
He said: “In the future I want to try to help people and raise awareness about gambling addiction because of the seven years I went through.
“I am only young, I haven’t got children and a wife - there are people going through the same things I went through who do have kids. When I came to look there was no support in Spalding whatsoever. It’s hard for people who don’t drive.”
Firm’s stance on problem gambling
Although Mr Amess’ experiences relate to gambling as a whole, his testimony was prompted by Merkur Slots’ plans to open in Spalding.
A Merkur spokesman said: “Although gambling and gaming should be enjoyed as a recreational activity, it can cause a problem for a minority of players. We aim to prevent problem gambling and underage access to our venues while simultaneously providing a friendly and entertaining gambling experience for our players. As a responsible gambling operator, the well-being of our players is of utmost importance.”
Merkur says it has worked with experts to develop its ‘360’ programme to ensure a ‘responsible gaming culture - and has external audits. It has a ‘Think 25’ policy to stop children entering the premises and has leaflets across venues explaining ‘golden rules’.
A spokesman added: “Our staff are fully trained and on hand to lend help if customers show signs of or feel the need to take a break. Taking a short break can help, but some customers may need to consider our Self-Exclusion scheme.
“During the self-exclusion period, customers will not have access to gambling on our premises or premises in the area or nationally (Bingo Licensed premises). We will also stop from sending any marketing materials. At the end of the self-exclusion period the customer will need to complete a re-instatement form to be able to return and play.”
Where to get support
- Gamcare via www.gamcare.org.uk or 0808 8020 133.
- Gamblers Anonymous via www.gamblersanonymous.org.uk or 0330 094 0322.
- Citizens Advice. Open from 9am-3pm Tuesdays and Wednesdays at South Holland District Council offices in Priory Road, Spalding. Or call 0808 278 7996, Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm.
- Connect to Support Lincolnshire via lincolnshire.connecttosupport.org or by calling 0300 303 8789.