Sarah’s husband Karl (not their real names) got hooked on gambling. It destroyed his marriage and robbed a year of his children’s lives.
Pretty, blonde-haired Sarah is just left with “ifs” after a three-year-long gambling problem steadily took hold of her husband, Karl*, and ripped her young family apart.
Welcoming us into her dimly-lit Woodmead sectional title home, the 38-year-old mother of three begins with her story almost immediately. Speaking in a slightly hushed voice, possibly wanting to protect the ears of her nine-year-old son playing in the room up the tiled stairs, Sarah begins with a story of how she, her husband and their children would be given accommodation and airfares to casino resorts around the country just so her husband could gamble. “It was crazy,” she says, the words from her lips tripping over themselves.
Asking her to backtrack, to start at the beginning, Sarah tells People that she met her husband through a friend back in 1998. At the time, she was a single mother with two young daughters and, Sarah admits, “he supported us; the kids saw him as their dad”. “In the beginning gambling wasn’t a problem,” she says, explaining that because he is Chinese, gambling is part of his culture. “They all gamble; just like they all smoke and drink. It’s about being a man in that culture. There were no casinos in Cape Town then and we would fly to a casino resort for the weekend – it was something that he couldn’t just get up and do because it needed some planning. While there, he would spend only a few hours gambling. There was no problem – he did, however, say that he needed to get a silver card, a gold card. That that would give us discounts on accommodation. That was until GrandWest (stet) opened.”
Sarah says that after GrandWest Casino and Entertainment World opened in Cape Town, just seven minutes away from their up-market Milnerton home, that’s when she believes her husband’s gambling problem started. “He could just drive there,” she tells us. “It wasn’t something that he had to plan anymore. He would go there during the day and just delegate his work to his driver. The nature of his work made it easy for him.” Karl was working in the family business which was involved in buying shark fin from the ships in the Cape Town harbour. “He always had R100 000 on him at any given time – he had to in case he got a call to collect a consignment from the harbour,” she tells us. “When his parents went to Beijing he would gamble the business’s money and lose it. To get the money back, he would gamble even more.”
Sarah attributes much of the blame on the casino industry. “Three years before we were separated, a casino in Dubai flew us there for a week,” Sarah says. “We were put up in five-star accommodation, our airfares were paid for and we were given spending money – all just so Karl could gamble. He would get phone calls and SMSes offering him deals and discounts – these casinos are profiting from and encouraging harm!”
That’s something the Addiction Action Campaign’s Warren Whitfield is fighting tooth and nail to get the casino industry to take responsibility for. “About 5% of gamblers are problem gamblers,” he tells us. “But from that 5%, the casino industry receives 15% of its profits! What we need is treatment, not advertising campaigns for ‘Winners know when to stop’!”
According to the National Responsible Gambling Programme (NRGP) annual report, measured between March 2009 and February 2010, just over R2-million was spent on advertising (it also received over R500 000 in discounts). Funded by “voluntary contributions from the gambling industry”, it receives 0.1% of gross gambling revenues which in the past financial year amounted to R15.6-million (based on this, the gambling industry made R15.6-billion).
One of the programmes of the NRGP is its counseling line, which received 18 737 calls. In truth, only 3 480 of those calls had anything to do with actual problem gambling counseling and in- and out patient treatment referrals. More should certainly be done, but where does the buck stop? Where should gamblers be expected to take responsibility for their own addiction?
Warren says apart from the casino industry and the individual, government also needs to account for what is happening. “Company tax, VAT and so-called sin tax – where does this money go?” Warren asks.
Sarah agrees: “Government has got at least R6-million in tax from my family alone. He once lost almost a million rand in a single week! Where is that money? Why isn’t it being used to help my family?” she asks.
But Karl’s gambling didn’t end in the casinos. According to Sarah, the sanity she saw prevail after he admitted to the casino that he had a problem and was barred from entering the building for six months, was destroyed by the online and telebetting industries. “He started by betting on the horses. At any time of the day he would call and place a bet – even when I was in the kitchen, cooking food,” she says, adding that after he discovered horse betting in the UK, he was constantly on the phone. “He was betting R20 000 each on six horses at a time! I’m not joking, but our phone bill was R60 000 a month just from calling the telebetting numbers. Online gambling was even easier – he could do it from bed or while I was sleeping.”
Sarah says that Karl would sit for hours in front of his laptop just gambling. “He never went to the toilet and I had to bring him his food,” she tells People. “He was even using my credit card and opening accounts in my name after scanning and sending my ID! That’s how easy it was.”
Sarah and Karl were together for 10 years before they finally got married. During that time they had a son together and lived under the same roof, despite Karl’s ever-worsening, seven-year-long gambling addiction. “I know, you’re thinking I should have left him,” she says, pursing her glossed lips. “I decided to stick with him in good and bad. I probably should have left him sooner, but I’m a very determined person and constantly felt I had to help him.”
No sooner had Karl developed a gambling problem when he started smoking Tik – something that made home life incredibly strained for Sarah and the children. “He stopped paying them any attention,” Sarah says. “He would walk in the house after coming from the casino and head straight past his children to his laptop upstairs. It was impossible to reason with him. One time I walked in on him and one of his friends while they were smoking Tik – I lost it! And he stormed out the house.”
Karl had his own way of stamping his authority – he would stop paying for his children’s school fees, make getting to school or the shops virtually impossible because he had left with the only working car, and literally left his wife and children to starve. “Once after he had left I had R100 in my wallet and R2 200 in my bank account,” Sarah says. “I put R100 in the car because the children’s school was 30-kilometres away and I knew I still had some money left in my account. But after dropping off the children I stopped at an ATM and found that my account had been emptied. He had taken my last bit of money. For a week we ate what was left in the house: two days’ worth of popcorn and then two-minute noodles. When he did finally come back home, carrying bags of groceries like he was Father Christmas, he admitted he had cleaned my account because he had wanted me to starve.”
The saddest part of this entire ordeal for Sarah is the effect it has had on her children. “They lost a year of schooling because of constantly getting kicked out of private schools due to non-payment,” she says. “In one year alone they were in four different schools!”
Sarah moved her children from Cape Town to Johannesburg in an attempt to provide them with a semblance of normality and stability. Her eldest daughter, who is 16 years old, “no longer dances and hates Johannesburg”. “She was president of the student Representative Council and was very outgoing,” Sarah says. “She misses her friends. If GrandWest had never come to Cape Town, my family would still be together. Gambling is not a hobby, it’s an addiction that gives way to other addictions.”
For help in finding treatment for a gambling or drug addiction, visit www.ineedrehab.co.za or call (011) 476-4351.