An unsteady, elderly man spends the better part of a minute dismounting from his stool. He hobbles over to the counter, props his walking stick up against the desk and pulls a crumpled 5,000 ISK note from his pocket. He is unshaven, unwashed and clasps a half empty beer bottle in his stick-less hand.
The desk is unattended, and the man grows more impatient by the second. Finally, from behind the bulletproof glass, a disinterested staff member emerges, still chewing down his lunch. He takes the elderly man’s note and methodically changes it for coins. The old man collects his coins and his stick wordlessly and begins the journey back across the crusty carpet, through the muted-gold lights, past row upon row of slot machines of clashing tempos until he makes it to his preferred spot.
Ask any staff member. On any day at any Háspenna slot machine venue in the capital city, the scene couldn’t be more familiar. And it is only midday.
Although gambling is illegal in Iceland, the government has made exceptions to allow the University of Iceland to run a national lottery and Íslandsspil to run slot machines with funds going to ICE-SAR, the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue; the Icelandic Red Cross; and SÁÁ, Iceland’s National Center of Addiction Medicine.
TAKING A GAMBLE ON TREATMENT
Approaching the reception desk at SÁÁ, I ask for Ási, the gentleman I’m due to meet. The woman manning the desk smiles back at me sympathetically before asking for my full name. I give it to her. She then requests my social security number.
I look back at her curiously. She meets my stare and after a few seconds says, “Never mind. Well that’ll be 2,000 ISK then.” Further confused, I ask her why I need to pay. She looks amused, but still sympathetic, and replies simply, “You know, to seek treatment, you need to pay.”
At this point I tell her I’m just here to chat with Ási, not to ‘chat’ with Ási.
When she finally understands, she starts laughing, turns to her colleague and explains the misunderstanding to her, who also breaks into laughter while I steal a glance at my reflection in the glass divider to check just how shabby I look.
Resurfacing from the laughter, she finally turns back and says, “Sorry I thought you needed treatment.” I thank her for her flattery and proceed through the door to meet Ási, a former alcoholic who has been an alcohol and chemical dependency counsellor with SÁÁ for more than 15 years.
He offers me a coffee—a permitted vice here—before we settle into a pair of comfortable chairs in one corner of his office. Sporting a beard and well-worn sweater, Ási comes across as a wise man. I get the feeling he treats all he meets with an equally understanding, calm manner. Not long into our chat, I realise I shouldn’t have taken offence at the lady’s mistake.
Approximately 4,000 to 7,000 people in Iceland between the ages of 18 and 70—or about 2.5% of the population—suffer from gambling addiction, according to a study conducted by the University of Iceland. “And they come from every stage and layer in our society,” Ási says of the problem gamblers who come in for treatment.
Soon after SÁÁ was founded, staff started to notice that there were Icelanders not able to take care of their addiction to gambling and started offering treatment. “But we did not invent the problem,” Ási says. “The problem was always here.”
Ási tells me that about 50% of those he helps are also struggling with other issues. “They have different problems, but they are connected. Sometimes when people try to stop drinking, they start gambling instead.”
At SÁÁ, the problems are treated separately. If the gambler cannot stop gambling, he or she is signed up for a motivational group that meets once a week and encourages addicts to rebuild their lives with day-to-day plans. “And if they cannot do that, if they cannot stop gambling, then we send them to Vogur, our rehabilitation centre,” Ási says.
CASHING IN YOUR CHIPS
When I call the gamblers anonymous helpline, Svava answers the phone quietly. A former gambling addict for almost 40 years, she tells me she didn’t realise that she had a problem until she tried to take her own life. “Only then did I realise that I was in a bad place,” she says.
She tells me at first she did it for the money, but it intensified and soon became more about the release. “I just wanted to be alone in my place where I was gambling,” she says dejectedly.
She pauses and takes a deep breath before saying quietly, “I was financially ruined when I quit.”
Svava is much better off than others though. Weekly, she speaks with people who are gambling with their houses, their cars, their whole lives.
Although now sober for two and a half years, Svava doesn’t believe her addiction has improved much since she quit. “I went to a place with a slot machine the other day and I got a real…” she hesitates for a moment before continuing, “It wasn’t a good feeling. It was like the slot machine hit me back. Then I understood I was just the same distance from my addiction as the day I quit.”
So what’s different now?
“I have a family around me to help, and gamblers anonymous,” she replies contentedly.
THE SCIENCE OF SLOT MACHINES
Ási bemoans that gambling addiction is too often talked about the way alcoholism was talked about 30 years ago. “People ask gamblers, ‘Why don’t you just stop gambling?’ It is easier to understand why it’s hard to stop drinking. But it’s a similar thing going on in their heads. Their brain releases these…” Ási leans back and strokes his beard, stuck on the word. “The brain releases these [endorphins], then you get drunk. The gambler’s brain can do this through the eyes and ears and the thought of getting a big win soon.”
My attention is directed to a diagram showing two almost identical images of a human brain, with the same small spot glowing yellow on each. I am told the one on the left is of a cocaine addict being exposed to cocaine use, while the one on the right is of a gambling addict being exposed to gambling.
“You have heard of Pavlov’s dogs?” Ási asks me. “Where he rings the bell and gives them something to eat, and then they connect the food to the bell. That’s part of what happens,” he says. “The gambler sees things and connects it to money.”
Svava can relate to the experience.
“I was just watching a film the other day with my husband and it was set in a casino. I heard the noise of slot machines in the background; he didn’t. I noticed the slot machines; he didn’t—he just saw the people.” Her voice drops an octave. “That’s how the sickness is, you never get over it, but you have to control it.”
I ask whether she still feels the temptation to gamble.
“I have thought about it, not every day, but at least three or four times a week. I’m always just one step from the slot machines, the same as I was two and a half years ago.”
Back at SÁÁ, I am invited to wheel myself over to Ási’s desk for a science lesson. He pulls out a sheet of paper, and starts explaining the process of gambling addiction.
“You see, in the beginning when a gambler starts, he’s just having fun. He might start by putting 100 ISK in and just walking away. But then one day the machine gives him 1,000 ISK, and he starts to see the machine more often, and to put more money in. And the purpose of the machine is to tell you that you had something to do with this game.”
Ási draws some symbols on the page representing the icons on the slot machine. “Slowly the gambler starts to recognise things. Say there are three ‘X’s in a row like this,” he says scribbling, “and then the fourth one is a ‘0’. The gambler sees this as a near win. So he starts to think he’s doing something right, that he’s close. But the reality is he lost.”
Part of the treatment at SÁÁ involves educating the gamblers about why they’re addicted to gambling. “They are usually very defensive in the beginning, but when they understand that I am on their side, it’s easy to talk to them,” he says.
While most in treatment grasp the concept very quickly, less are successful in completely quitting on their first attempt. Ási says for the gambler to continue gambling they need to have something to hold on to.
“Some start to get hooked on numbers, special numbers, special dates. Some amounts of winnings. On the bus going downtown, they might see a car with the license number RE213, and they are maybe reminded of winning 213 ISK, and think ‘we should gamble now,’” he explains. “We call it magical thinking.”
Over the phone, Svava tells me for many years she thought she was the only one in Iceland who had a problem. “Then when I went to rehab I learned that this thinking was a sickness.”
SWITCHING OFF THE MACHINES
Even though SÁÁ receives much of its funding from Íslandsspil, one of the largest gaming groups in Iceland, Ási would still ban all gambling in Iceland if it were up to him.
“In my opinion they are engineered for the gambling addicts. The machine wants the gambler to gamble,” he says.
In recent years SÁÁ has seen the problem moving from the slot machines to the internet, which Ási says is a desired environment for the gambler, to be able to gamble alone in the comfort of his or her own home.
Last year, then Minister of the Interior Ögmundur Jónasson announced his intention to submit a bill to parliament that would, among other things, place a ban on internet gambling in Iceland.
Part of the problem with internet gambling in Ási’s opinion is the easy access it allows young people who, due to age restrictions, are not able to operate slot machines. Year after year, he says he sees younger and younger people coming in for treatment.
“The youngest one I’ve ever talked to was 14-years-old, and he’d had this problem for some time. He was so ashamed that he was losing so much money gambling that he told his parents he was using drugs. He wasn’t, but it was easier for him to be able to explain where all the money went.”
Svava says she receives more calls from young people each year and believes that since Iceland’s economic collapse things have worsened.
The first thing Svava tells such gamblers when they call is not to think about what they have done, but instead about what they want to do. “You can’t get back what you have put into the slot machine, but you can live on,” she says.
“But first they have to admit to themselves they’re a gambler and that they want help. It’s not enough that I want to help them. They also have to help themselves.”