A hairdresser could not break her desperate betting habit even when she lost almost two years’ salary in a single afternoon playing online slot machines.
Now Christine Tolaini, 39, has come back from the brink and is determined to use her own experience help other female gambling addicts.
A disturbing new survey reveals that struggling women are turning to betting more and more as fuel and energy costs drive up the cost of living.
Christine became hooked on mobile phone game Rainbow Riches in 2016 and in five years she blew more than £100,000 of savings, credit and winnings.
Once she won tens of thousands over a week – then gambled the lot to lose £70,000 in just four hours.
The crushing incident prompted her to get help – only to relapse when she was bombarded with free bet offers while unable to work during the pandemic.
She recalled: “I hit rock bottom. I was hopeless and completely lost. I didn’t know how I was going to get out of it.
“I went to the doctors and they didn’t know what to do with me. I wasn’t eating, and I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t concerned about looking after myself.”
It was only when she had maxed out all her credit cards in April 2021 that she reached out to Gamblers Anonymous, which helped her turn her life around, although she still has debts of around £60,000.
Compulsive gambling is a mental health problem,” she said. “For me it was a distraction from emotional problems – a compulsion that made my brain calm down. It put strain on all my relationships.
“I was losing such extreme amounts of money and I can’t believe the banks were allowing me to have this amount of credit cards. I didn’t always think I would win but there was some excitement in the risk factor. I gambled when I was in a good mood too.”
Christine had always enjoyed betting. Even as a child she loved playing on 2p and 10p arcade machines.
She went to Las Vegas at 21 and was more excited by betting than her friends. A year later she got a time-share hotel room to visit once a year. But the real issues began in her thirties. In 2016, she won £150 from a 10p free bet. “It escalated badly within a year,” she said. “I was a binge-gambler, sometimes going for a couple of weeks without it, and then spending a lot in one afternoon.
“The first time I lost a large amount of money it was £5k, then it was £10k and then it was £45k. You can play and lose £200 in a second. My family had no idea how bad it had gotten. You hide.”
Her game of choice was Rainbow Riches, which involves spinning a wheel to move a leprechaun along a path, looking for prizes on the way. Bets start from 20p but players can increase their wagers to £10 per spin. Launched by US gaming firm Light & Wonder in 2019, it has had hundreds of thousands of downloads.
Christine’s then-partner “had no idea what to do ” about her probem, she says. He covered the rent and she could get new credit cards from banks in the UK and overseas to stay afloat.
She sought medical help in August 2017 after the blowout session in which she lost £70k in a day. “I won the £50k jackpot that week but because I was a compulsive gambler, I continued gambling,” she recalled with a shudder.
“The worst thing that can happen to a compulsive gambler is winning, and I lost £70,000 in four hours. It was a horrible, indescribable feeling.
“I phoned my banks and told them I had a problem. I went to the doctors, but back then they didn’t know what to do and sent me away, so I phoned gambling charities. Counselling helped and for a while I was clean.” Eighteen months into her recovery, a gambling site deposited a free £400 into an account she had not closed but she resisted the temptation to bet with it. Then in 2020, when she couldn’t work during lockdown, another site deposited £150, which she gambled and won £1,500.
She quickly found herself back to square one for the next six months.
“I don’t even know how much debt I was in – it was thousands,” she said. “Someone should’ve been monitoring that I had eight credit cards and was losing that amount of money.
“My mental health was very bad so being locked in during the pandemic made it worse. I was very unwell – I wasn’t eating or sleeping properly.”
On April 7, 2021, Christine maxed out the last of her cards, having blown £10,000 in one day.
She recalled: “I broke down and told everyone, including my family, that I was a compulsive gambler. They were very supportive and very concerned to know it had been going on for years.” Christine, by now single, began attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings where she spent time with other addicts for the first time. “I didn’t hang out with gamblers during most of my addiction and it changed my recovery, speaking to people who have been through something similar,” she said.
She also started seeing a counsellor and has not gambled for nearly 19 months. “It was very hard and GA is still very male-oriented, but for me it’s been amazing. More women are starting to go now,” she said.
“I’ve not overcome it and will always be a gambling addict, but I won’t live in fear again.”
She still has about £60,000 in debt across 20 credit cards and knows she will struggle to get a mortgage, but Christine can at last feel optimistic about her own future. However, the cost of living crisis is expected to spark an increase in harmful gambling among women as they scramble to make ends meet
One in four female gamblers aged 18-49 expect to bet more in the coming months, says a survey for GambleAware. And 12 per cent said they had already started.
The charity’s chief executive Zoe Osmond said: “As financial hardships accelerate… and the number of women gambling online increases, we are concerned it is creating a perfect storm which may lead to a rise in the number of women experiencing gambling harm. We must break down the pervasive stigma that prevents too many from seeking vital support.” The number of UK women being treated surged from 1,100 in 2015-16 to 2,500 in 2020-2021 and GambleAware has now launched a female-targeted prevention campaign. Christine is training to be a peer aid support worker at another charity, Betknowmore, and she wants more action to protect addicts.
“Betting companies lure people in with free bets and banning credit cards from betting sites isn’t enough as gamblers will always find a way,” she said. “Accessibility and advertising is making it worse. I want to make people aware of the help and support they can get.”