Lost in the shuffle

The seductive world of gambling rears its ugly head every festive season. With New Year's Eve around the corner, Rocky Thongam loaded the dice to test the country's gambling itch. Read on for some startling confessions

Come New Year's Eve and people in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai will bet on anything from shares, cricket and horses to two rats running inside a sewing pipe. It's an itch which takes us over as the festive season arrives," says a source we meet on day one of our quest to uncover the underbelly of the party season. As his driver drives us around south Delhi in a Mercedes, he keeps fidgeting with his Mont Blanc pen, so we choose to address him as Mr MB.

Pic/ Rocky Thongam

If the grapevine is to be believed, Indians are hooked to gambling on the share market, cricket, horse racing and cards. "Starting Christmas, till New Year's Eve, almost everybody is playing cards. In Mumbai, the film and TV fraternity has card parties all the time. Only the stakes are higher in the games we play here, sometimes running into crores," informs his socialite wife, who confesses to a weakness for cards and horse racing. 

What's the scene going to be like this year? "This year the action will take place at farm houses in Delhi and big parties in Mumbai because the economic slowdown is going to limit travel," she says, explaining that in earlier years, high-stake gambling moved from places like Macau to Sikkim and Goa.

Information is aplenty, and fascinating. "India's obsession remains cricket. Mumbai and Delhi have the largest number of sport bookies in the country. We are talking about Rs 1,00,000 crore or more. I was a sports punter, someone who gets in touch with bookies and places bets. Only a punter can introduce you to a bookie and take your financial guarantee," claims Mr MB.

Next, we get an invitation to a mall the next day to introduce us to a 'healthy' (harmless) betting session. "You'll see first hand what a compulsive gambler goes through."

On day two, we are at a parking lot in a mall and introduced to two young men. One is cocky and dressed in black; the other is like any regular GAP-clad rich college kid. For the first half hour, it all seems juvenile. They bet on girls entering the parking lot. All one has to do is to bet if the next girl to enter the area will be pretty or not. The game starts with five bucks. It seems like harmless fun, so we up the ante with Rs 200. Twenty minutes later, they have stripped us of that amount but we are now gripped with a hypnotising confidence that makes us put in Rs 500 more. "See, this is how it works. It's more potent than alcohol or drugs. It gives you a false sense of being all-powerful and before you know you are in a dark abyss," explains Mr Black. We had indeed tasted the treacherous pull of gambling through an absurd game. But how dangerous could it really get?

The gloomy truth is revealed on the third and last day of our 'gambling itch experiment' at a secret meeting in a dark church. "My father was in the ICU, I admitted him and drove away to the next television set to bet an ongoing cricket match," says Harish (name changed), who runs the Gamblers Anonymous chapter in Delhi.

We are introduced to men and women who are compulsive gamblers on the road to reformation. Stories tumble out one after another. "Compulsive gambling is an illness like drug or alcohol abuse if not worse. I was in rehab in Florida for weeks. But nothing seemed to work. I know I'll keep gambling till the day I die but now I have some control over my life with this program," he says. 

Rishi is a 22 year-old member of the group is already in heavy debt. "I have been clean so far but I don't know what I will do when India starts touring Australia. I have removed sports channels from my television set. But let's see," he says.

As we head back and the brutal December chill hits our face, we realise the gambling itch has evaporated. Somehow, the cocky king of spades we met at the parking lot now seems like a poor man lost in a shuffle of harsh reality.

Test yourself
A compulsive gambler is a person whose gambling causes a continuing and growing problem in any department of his or her life. They become dominated by an irresistible obsessive urge to gamble. Try and answer these questions to find out if one is lurking inside you.

1. Did you ever lose time from work or school due to gambling?
2. Has gambling ever made your home life unhappy?
3.Did you ever gamble to get money with which to pay debts or solve financial problems?
4. After a win did you have a strong urge to return and win more?
5. Have you ever gambled to escape worry, trouble, boredom or loneliness? 
Most compulsives answer yes to the questions.

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