Mat Crompton, photo: Leith Hillard
Mat Crompton has always had a passion for sport. He grew up playing soccer not only for pleasure and the execution of skill but the experience of being ‘lost in the moment.
‘Playing was a meditation,’ says Mat.
He moved away from his big, close family in the leafy London suburb of Wimbledon to attend university. What went with him was the feeling, perhaps fostered by that privilege, that ‘nothing had ever been beyond me’.
As a student with lots of time on his hands, he got involved in social poker games that turned into hours of playing online followed by solo sports betting.
He loaded the activity with calculations and rationalisations.
Hours spent playing online
‘I started with golf and tennis because they have the least number of variables,’ says the sports fan. ‘Tennis only has two players so two variables. Put together with my knowledge of sport, I believed I could control things. I had a method. My intelligence was giving me a tangible reward.
‘It gradually crept up to spending about six or seven hours a day gambling. I was aware that it was detracting but the more you intellectualise it, the more you think you’re in control. I was proving myself to myself. I wanted to beat the bookie but I also wanted to prove that I was smarter than other people.
‘I was proving myself to myself.’
‘It also justified my love of the game so I could do more of what I loved. Betting on a match justified watching a match. It gave that game much more meaning.’
He can now see that the escape into gambling was also an escape from social anxiety. While college friends saw Mat as the life of the party, that was a façade he could only maintain for a few hours before returning to his characteristic introversion.
And so the social withdrawal that can go hand in hand with gambling and Mat’s introversion reinforced each other, leaving him isolated and lacking the stimulation of new relationships in his late teenage years.
Social withdrawal and chasing losses
'I was gambling because I wanted to feel something; feel anything -- happy or sad, a win or a loss,' continues Mat. ‘People knew what I was doing but they didn’t think it was an issue. It was no better or worse than any other vice. It gave me connection without the fear of it going away or the fear of judgement. And it heightened the thing I already loved – sport.’
As Mat started chasing losses, he expanded the number of sports he bet on to include rugby, soccer and American football. He was spending more and more time at home in front of multiple screens and on his phone.
‘I wanted to feel something; feel anything -- happy or sad, a win or a loss.’
'You do feel exhausted,’ he says. ‘The strain of your betting builds up within you. There's the anxiety of the letdown when you don’t win. It's bet regret but it's deeper than that. There's a deep sense of emptiness after you’ve lost a bet. You miss the anticipation.
‘I’d feel disappointed and be short tempered.’
Mat’s best mates saw the anger and isolation and initiated a conversation, ‘but it didn’t work,’ says Mat. ‘They’d encourage me to do other things but I needed empathy from people who knew about gambling – people who knew that gambling was first and foremost bloody good fun but, more than that, that it gave meaning, purpose and focus.
‘It felt like nothing else was going to easily replace that.’
Gambling as ‘the perfect relationship’
That’s addiction talking: a fully-fledged obsession where Mat viewed gambling as the ‘perfect relationship’ with all its highs and lows but no responsibility and the perception of being in control.
‘I have a personality type that really values certainty,’ he says. ‘This was a major factor when it came to gambling. I saw it as my ability to influence and predict an outcome.’
‘You do feel exhausted. The strain of your betting builds up within you.’
By then Mat had completed his studies and moved to London to take up a full-time job. More money led to him betting voraciously with his addiction lasting three to four years across a total of eight years gambling.
With hindsight he can see how warped his ‘intellectual’ approach to betting had become.
‘I was so entrenched in gambling,’ says Mat, ‘that losing a bet became a good thing. Losing protected and reinforced my addiction. It justified my isolation – my me-versus-the-world mental state. It gave me permission to bet again to chase my last loss. And, perversely, once your desire is to lose, it’s the loss that gives you an endorphin rush.’
Promises to quit
His parents sat him down for a talk and promises were made, but Mat relapsed four or five times. It was only a dawning awareness of how different the lives of his contemporaries were that pulled him up.
‘I started to realise that time was slipping away and made social comparisons,’ says Mat. ‘People my age were getting married and having children. Gambling was like a grace period when there were no social pressures and no responsibilities. But having responsibilities becomes the norm and my abnormality became overwhelming.’
The man with the psychology degree who applied his intellect to gambling then used that intellect to quit. That and a necklace gifted by his mother as a physical reminder of the promise he made to his parents to quit.
‘I was so entrenched in gambling that losing a bet became a good thing.’
Through self-reflection and reading about the nature of addiction, Mat redirected his desire for certainty into beating his addiction. He’s brutally honest enough, however, to acknowledge that he hit rock bottom the day after his last bet.
‘But abstinence is the only way. Absolutely.
‘I needed to understand why I was gambling before I could change my behaviour,’ he says. ‘When I understood why, emotionally and intellectually, it gave me the freedom to make a conscious choice to not gamble.
‘When you bet like I did, you forget why you love the sport. Now I can get through a whole game of soccer and just simply enjoy it.’
A sign of confidence
Six months after he quit, Mat moved to Australia.
‘It was the need for a change to escape the crazy London lifestyle in favour of the pull of the outdoors,’ he says. ‘It was a sign of confidence and validation.’
The necklace from his mother has now been exchanged for a silver ring that carries the same promise. That vow is also inscribed on his body in seven small ‘plus’ tattoos, one for each year he has been free from gambling.
‘Overcoming gambling has given me so much in terms of learning who I am.’
‘Plus means more,’ explains Mat. ‘More life. More experiences.’
Mat holds close the wisdom of W.H. Auden (or was it Tennessee Williams): ‘If you got rid of my demons, my angels might leave too.’
‘Overcoming gambling has given me so much in terms of learning who I am,’ he says. ‘Now I know I have the character and the ability to deal with life.
‘Every gambler should ask themselves why. And find connections before they’re gone.’
'Effects of gambling' campaign
Mat Crompton shared his story as part of the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation’s Effects of gambling campaign, released in late May 2019 and run across media for six weeks.
Regardless of how often a person gambles or the amount of money they spend, gambling-related stress is a side effect commonly experienced by an estimated 550,000 Victorians. The majority of them are unlikely to have realised the relationship between how they’re feeling and their gambling activities.
'Think… is that true for you?' is the question posed by the campaign. It encourages people to pause and reflect on whether there may be a connection between the stress they may be feeling and their gambling.
‘Even people who only gamble occasionally can experience negative consequences,’ says Foundation CEO Shane Lucas.
‘Frequently overlooked emotional effects include stress, regret, anxiety, impatience, guilt, anger, annoyance or simply feeling down for no apparent reason.
‘They may seem minor at first, hardly noticeable, but the side effects can be cumulative and progressive and affect a person’s health and wellbeing.
‘There is good news though. Once a person has that moment of realisation, when they understand that gambling may be causing their stress, making it go away can be as simple as a few minor behavioural adjustments.’