His gambling addiction landed wife in hospital
Online football betting, which is illegal in Singapore, is on the rise, say Gamblers Recovery Centre. Two out of five cases it sees are related to this. As the World Cup kicks off in Brazil, we speak to two gamblers whose lives were nearly ruined by their addiction
His relentless gambling drove his wife to such despair that she ended up in a psychiatric ward.
He was so addicted that he took his son out of pre-school so that he could pay off his debts.
Gerald (above, not his real name) has lost around $400,000 betting on football matches online for the past 13 years.
The low point came when he saw how tough life was after they had to give up their five-room flat and squeeze into a room, which was all the family could afford to rent.
So he stopped gambling. It has been nine months since he placed his last bet. Having fallen off the wagon so often before, he says he must be strong for the sake of his wife and son.
Still, the going is tough.
Every day, he looks at a mountain of legal letters and bills with regret. All of them - scars of a not-so-distant past - remind him that he is still more than a quarter of a million dollars in debt.
The irony: He's not a football fan and doesn't watch the matches that he bet on.
"I was in it for the money. When I lose, I would bet again because that was the fastest way to recoup my money," said the 30-year-old, who earns about $6,000 a month as a petrochemical technician.
Each time, he would bet between $500 and $2,000 on matches involving teams he had never heard about in the English Premier League and Uefa Champions League.
To fuel his habit, he borrowed from 15 loan sharks. When he could not repay them, they came in waves to splash paint on the corridor of his parents' flat, where he was living at the time.
Said Gerald: "They also chained up the front gates of my parents' and my neighbours' flats, and scribbled messages on the walls to get me to settle my debts.
"My parents had to defend me from angry neighbours, lying that I was a wrong target or a guarantor for someone else. I borrowed from licensed moneylenders to pay off the unlicensed ones."
He knows of Manchester United Football Club - but only because he won his first bet backing them when he was 17.
Back then, he was lured into it by a classmate who was a bookie in his school.
"My family was poor. My father was a drug addict who was in and out of prison, and my mother had several failed businesses. My classmate noticed this and asked if I wanted to bet.
"I won the first few games. When my classmate gave me my winnings of a few hundred dollars, it made me feel good. It also put food on my family's table," he said.
His initial winnings also paid for his dates with his then girlfriend Sarah (not her real name), who is now his wife.
Gerald was hooked, but he soon started losing. He turned to Sarah for help.
Sarah, now 31, said: "I was in polytechnic. I lied to my dad that I needed $3,000 for a course. I felt bad, but I was blinded (by love).
"I tolerated his habits because he kept reassuring me that things would get better. But each time he had money problems, he became moody and upset."
Sarah walked out of Gerald more than eight times, all because of his gambling. But they reconciled because of love after a few months apart.
Gerald said: "When she left, I stopped. But when she came back, I started betting again.
"I kept making promises to myself that I would quit. My wife, too, thought that I would quit when we got married."
In May 2010, two months after their marriage, Gerald confessed to Sarah that he was still betting online.
She broke down, and the next day Gerald found her in the bedroom laughing and talking nonsense while holding a library book about addictions.
She was taken to hospital, where she spent a week in the psychiatric ward.
After she recovered, he went back to football betting.
To pay off the debts, Gerald sold his five-room flat and downsized to a three-room resale flat last year. While waiting for the resale flat, he rented a small room.
After paying the downpayment for his three-room flat, he realised the sale proceeds of $130,000 could not clear off his debts of $200,000.
So he used some of the money to gamble, hoping to make more money to pay off the debts.
"I was overwhelmed with guilt every time I saw my wife and newborn son huddled in a cramped room," he said.
For the first time in more than a decade, he stopped betting. He wants to quit gambling for good to be a "good father to my son".
Said Gerald: "Every day I ask myself, 'Why didn't I quit earlier?' Now, I'll pay for this the rest of my life."
I earn $15K but I owed $100K
The hawker could have lived an easy life on the $15,000 a month he earns selling braised duck rice at Redhill Close.
But Mr Kenny Soon, 51, had to repay loan sharks because of his gambling habit.
For 32 years, he would bet on anything, even the flip of a coin and matchsticks.
In recent years, he started betting online, especially on football.
He would bet on many of the 500-plus matches taking place every week, despite not knowing most of the teams.
The father of three said in Mandarin: "Even when there were no more matches to bet on, there would be other sports like badminton and rugby."
Mr Soon finally kicked his gambling addiction about a year ago, after seeking help from the Gamblers Recovery Centre (GRC) in MacPherson.
By then, he was $100,000 in debt, which he is still trying to pay off at an average of $2,000 a month.
"I realised that I needed to seek help after a loan shark splashed paint on my door. That was the last straw," he said.
To get the loan sharks off his back, his wife and children had to borrow between $10,000 and $30,000 from friends. By the time he quit, he was in debt to a total of 17 licensed and unlicensed moneylenders.
During their 27 years of marriage, his wife told him repeatedly to stop gambling, but her pleas fell on deaf ears.
Said Mr Soon: "That's the mentality of gamblers. They don't know how to stop and seek help until they face a difficulty.
"Many of the others in my counselling group at GRC thought the quickest solution to settling their debts was to gamble more and win."
He now says that kicking his gambling habit was the best thing to happen to him.
"Every time I think of my debts, I lose confidence, I become upset. But my church and GRC helped by giving me financial advice, teaching me how to repay the money and even getting experts to help us," he said.
"I no longer feel the itch to gamble."
RISE IN NUMBER OF PROBLEM PUNTERS
With the start of the World Cup, hotlines that help gambling addicts will be ringing more frequently, said a National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) spokesman.
"Traditionally, calls to the helpline tend to increase during certain seasons, such as the festive and soccer seasons.
"We know that gambling tends to intensify during specific seasons, and take this into account in our public education efforts," the spokesman said.
He said problem-gambling cases involving football betting span different age groups and profiles.
While NCPG does not track cases related specifically to football betting, it receives an average of 21,000 calls a year.
Mr Billy Lee, a counsellor at the Gamblers Recovery Centre, noted an increase in the number of people going to the centre because of online football betting.
He warned recovering addicts to resist the temptation to bet during this World Cup.
"If possible, avoid the matches altogether. You may not bet on the first few matches but over time, you may start to feel that your predictions are accurate and try your luck again," he said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of people arrested for illegal gambling and betting activities:
SOURCE: SINGAPORE POLICE FORCE
National Council on Problem Gambling:
THK Problem Gambling Recovery Centre:
Gamblers Recovery Centre:
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin):
One Hope Centre: