All Bets Are Off: Hooked on Baz Ashmawy’s empathetic style
The goodtime guy’s anti-gambling crusade is more valuable than a current affairs expose
What chance do you have of becoming a gambling addict? The odds, I’m afraid, are not in your favour.
One in ten Irish people are problem gamblers, and while that addiction is not as conspicuous as others, it is more obviously ruinous. The Irish, Baz Ashmawy reports with his laddish brand of compassion in All Bets Are Off (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm), are the third biggest gamblers on the planet – or, as he puts it more evocatively, the “world’s biggest losers” – with a higher adult gambling spend than even Monaco (and tellingly fewer yachts).
It’s easy to get hooked on Ashmawy, a charismatic and reckless guy who is in plentiful supply and delivers a pleasing buzz. That may be why he identifies so readily with addictive personalities. Having recently decided to give up drinking, he’s also aware of the downside to craic. So we begin at the racetrack.
Here, losing bet after bet on the greyhounds, Ashmawy seems less serious about “the mindset I want to understand”, than keen to put a camera on the problem. (You can’t imagine him broaching heroin addiction in quite the same way, and certainly not without infringing on the plot of French Connection II.)
To be fair, gambling addictions are not easy problems to lens. Many people volunteered their experiences with gambling addictions anonymously, inhibited by spirals of deceit and shame. As a result, one vivid recollection is Ashmawy’s own, recalling his father’s late night rage over misplaced cards before a poker game. The incident turned Baz off cards for life. “That’s not what I associate with being a man,” he says.
From the writer and journalist Declan Lynch we get a cogent analysis of compulsion and malehood, and from there the show amasses testimony. We meet Podge Bannon, a young man (the demographic most at risk) who now replaces his addiction with almost constant workouts, who talks about stealing from his job (“In my mind it was borrowing”), hitting rock bottom, and, at his lowest ebb, considering suicide.
Ashmawy and director Joanne McGrath are wise to treat each story of addiction as equally significant, irrespective of scale. An elderly woman almost destroyed by scratch cards is interviewed with the same wide-eyed empathy as a man named Tony O’Reilly, who embezzled €1.75m from his job with An Post over a ten-year spree in which he won and lost close to €10m.
“It’s like a movie, isn’t it?” Ashmawy asks when they return to the hotel room in which O’Reilly had holed up before finally being discovered. But the drabness of that room, the dismal betting shops he frequented, and the joylessness of his addiction resemble no movie you’d ever want to see.
“There’s nothing rational about addiction,” Ashmawy says during the show, which is as true of the compulsion that pushes someone towards a bottle, a needle, a porn search or a slot machine, and it makes you wonder why gambling companies and governments should be so reluctant to address it.
“I’m not Claire Byrne, ” says an exasperated Ashmawy when every bookies refuses him an interview. But Baz might be more dangerous. If a goodtime guy like him takes the craic out of betting, at could have a more significant impact than any dry and dutiful current affairs exposé.
As to his similarly sound plea that government, “recognise that addiction is a disease”, he might recall one of his earlier statistics. In 2016, Ireland took home a €50m bonanza in gambling tax, almost half of which was generated online. That suggests another question. Is the Irish government the biggest gambling addict of all?