No one but a gambler can understand what it takes to lose and gain when one is having a bet. And just like a roller coaster, gambling is filled with thrills and surprises.
The problem with this roller coaster ride is that it will eventually run out of track … and when it does, you crash into devastation.
That is exactly what happened to 38-year-old Mr Jackson Okoth. At the height of his game he won Sh60,000 in four days, nothing so big for some high fliers but to him, a messenger earning Sh14,000 per month, the figures confirmed that his dream of living large could become a reality if he focused on the game; but besides not achieving this dream, his earnings were nothing compared to what he lost.
Aside from losing cash to the tune of Sh2 million, this serial gambler finally lost his job, and his family in the process, all in the hope of making another buck.
It all started in 1993 with his introduction to Nairobi’s casinos by friends. And his first try was the fuel that lit the fire, which was to become a destructive addiction.
“I only had Sh100 in my wallet when I started. I spent Sh20 to buy a ticket and in about 4 minutes I had made Sh20,000. What a complete shock and pleasant surprise it was for me. Where and how could someone make such money in such a short time? From that day, I got hooked to the casinos,” he says.
“I thoroughly loved it. I was getting money regularly and could not compare it to my Sh14,000 monthly salary,” he adds.
But for the 10 years Mr Okoth spent gambling, he came to realise albeit a little too late, that placing stakes on his life was not worth a dime of his winnings. He lost everything — his jobs, friends, money and all the property he ever had, which he sold to raise money for the bets.
“I worked for 10 companies and lost all the jobs, since I spent most of my time in Nairobi’s casinos. I was there almost every minute of the day: The game took over my life,” says Mr Okoth.
His only thought was of becoming rich from the stakes he was placing. And as the obsession grew, he would do anything to finance his addiction, including borrowing loans from friends and his place of work.
The father of two gambled away his monthly salary in less than two hours, all the while keeping his the secret from his wife. Neither marriage nor the arrival of their children could help temper his addiction, but on the contrary, fuelled even wilder dreams of riches in his mind.
Mr Okoth sold anything he could get his hands on in their two-bedroom house at Kahawa West, Nairobi. Whenever his wife was out, he would ransack the house for cash.
He got into trouble with the credit union and his friends for the loans he had gambled away. “I remember selling my TV set, radio, gas cooker and all my electronics when I had no money to gamble.
My wife would ask me how work was going on and I would cheat her that everything was fine, yet in reality I gambled the whole day.
I was living in a dream world, thinking all the time that I would win a large amount of money and become rich,” he says.
A couple of times the gambler managed to win back the money he owed but was always tempted into making ‘just one more bet’, which resulted into more loss and more financial problems.
“At one point, I made Sh60,000 in four days. I was very happy because it was my first time to make such money through betting. You see, you can win I kept encouraging myself.
But the thing with gambling is that you keep gambling with the same money you won until you go home without even a single coin,” he adds.
That is how he came to lose more than Sh2 million through his gambling years. His wife also ran away after she realised that he was addicted to gambling and that he was spending too little time with his family.
“I was forced to move out of my two-bed room house to a single room in Dandora. I shifted because I was so optimistic that I would make more money and even buy a bigger house, but that did not happen. A few months later I moved to Kibera after I sold everything I owned,” he narrates.
Now it is almost five years since he last gambled in the Casino. During that time he has turned his life around — slowly getting out of debt and rebuilding relationships in his life. He has even remarried.
“When you are a gambler, you only remember the great day when you won some good cash, but you don’t remember the 10 days in a row that you lost a lot of money. Gamblers are very optimistic people, they always think they will win,” says Okoth, who is now a recovering gambler.
Mr Okoth who now heads Gamblers Anonymous, a fellowship of men and women gamblers in Nairobi, says that one can never really understand the addiction unless he or she has gone through it.
“It gets to a stage where the gambler uses gambling as a relief from stressful events in life. The problem is that gambling is much more of a stress than the event ever was.
"I knew for a long time that I was out of control . When I failed to win the bets I hid from those I had borrowed money from. That was absolutely insane,” he adds.
And although he has quit gambling, Mr Okoth admits that it is hard for an obsessive gambler to give up completely.
“I started going to church, trusting in God and rebuilding my life. I prayed a lot and eventually I got healed and now I am running my own business. I also started Gamblers Anonymous in Kenya and I am helping members overcome the addiction,” he says.
Dr Lukoye Atwoli, a psychiatrist at Moi University in Eldoret, says gambling has the same effect on the brain as taking alcohol or other addictive substances
“The more one wins, the more he gambles, and often the end result is total loss for the gambler. The thrill of anticipation gets one hooked. There are changes in the brain that correlate with this in the same way alcohol and other drugs change brain structure and functioning,” explains Dr Atwoli.
So how should gamblers keep away from addiction?
According to the doctor, they can do this by not getting involved in the first place. “There are certain groups of people who are vulnerable to addiction-forming behaviour such as gambling and substance use.
"It is not possible to tell who these are in advance, but once they start, you will notice that they have difficulties stopping themselves, despite clear evidence of harm. If such individuals are identified early, they may be helped to kick the habit and develop other more fulfilling activities.”
On the other hand, most financial experts agree that casinos are set up to benefit the owners, and this, they say, works by often ensuring that whatever winnings a gambler gets are smaller than what the casino makes out of it.
“When you consider the amount of time, money and energy invested by gamblers before they benefit, you will realise that the investment is heavier than any subsequent gain.
Casinos rarely lose money, it is gamblers who often gamble away much more than they will ever gain,” says Mr Kevin Odongo, a financial advisor with CFC Ltd.
Mr Okoth, who has also written a book titled “Not a Chance” that focuses on his gambling experiences, advises other addicted gamblers to reach him on 0721851089 for help.