It is nine o'clock on a Saturday night and I should be at an old friend's party. There are likely to be nice people there, artistic, talented; and the hostess is a wizard cook. It was seven for seven thirty, dress smart but "not too smart"...
I am not at the party however. Nor is my dress remotely smart, consisting as it does of a fisherman's sweater, more holes than wool, and a pair of frayed tracksuit pants smelling faintly of urine. This is my usual garb – my uniform, if you will – when I visit my betting shop of choice in north London.
There is one other punter in the place – a nicotine-stained old guy in a raincoat who is operating a strange roulette system consisting of a plethora of tiny stakes that more or less cancel each another out.
I used to watch small-scale punters like this with contempt. I've always been a big-bet man myself, usually staking the maximum allowable sum in all the major chains (£100) on my preferred game – blackjack. Then one day I found myself in a Ladbrokes shop on a Saturday afternoon with every station occupied. I waited a quarter of an hour for a seat to come vacant. It was then that I realised that the size of the bet didn't count for anything: I was just as desperate and sleazy as the rest of them.
That convinced me of the true nature of my predicament, though sadly it didn't do anything to curtail it. So I would find myself, at 9.50am, hovering on the threshold of William Hill in South End Green, waiting for the joint to open. Hard to retain much self-respect after that. No less pitiful, you might say, than an alcoholic outside the off licence at 9.50am on a winter morning, slapping his cirrhotic sides against the cold.
After wishing my confrere an unacknowledged "Good luck", I make my way to a terminal and park my backside on the sticky black leather seat.
I've gambled online, and in live casinos, but neither has the same, uniquely sordid appeal as the betting shop. It's the tackiness of the betting shop that, for me, puts it without peer as a means of wrecking your life. And among the charms of the betting shop, blackjack has the greatest appeal.
This has something to do, I assume, with the structure of the game: the ability to stand or take another card creates an irresistible illusion of control. With roulette, you spin the wheel, and that's it; horses: once they're off, ditto. Whereas with blackjack, few things can match the adrenaline rush you get when that third card takes you to 20 or, incredibly, to 21.
If you're not familiar with gaming machines, they are, in appearance and construction, not unlike the automatic ticket vendors at railway stations. Though, in this case, in return for the money you feed in, you mostly get nothing back.
The soulless strip lighting of the shop creates a curiously appealing, dismal ambience – a kind of physical equivalent to my own spiritual landscape. I'm starting to think the north London artistes I ought to be rubbing shoulders with at this moment don't know what they're missing as they chew on their boeuf bourguignon and mashed potato canapés and sip Rioja. So, why am I here? Well, clearly because I'm a schmuck, but that's not what I mean; I mean biographically speaking …
For many years an old friend of mine and I have been devotees of poker. It began with evenings of spontaneous, anarchic, life-enhancing mayhem at his flat, escalating from there, by insidious steps, into a serious fortnightly home game complete with league table and annual trophy. Now, if all poker – all gambling games, in fact – are potentially addictive and obsessional, Texas Holdem is both of those things to the power of 10.
Being endowed with just the right, catastrophic psychic make-up, I was pretty soon hooked. One day in February 2005 I asked the old pal in question if there was anywhere you could play Holdem online. He chortled and gave me the name of a "reputable" site. That night I opened an account and began to play.
I started in a restrained way – five or six hours a day – maybe a bit more if I had no work on. Soon I was convinced I'd struck gold. Here, at last, was the steady, reliable source of income I'd been dreaming of ever since giving up a well-paid job in the City to concentrate on, of all things, translating 17th-century French verse comedies.
I couldn't keep this goldmine I'd hit on to myself. I announced arrogantly at dinner parties that I had discovered a new string to my bow, a sure-fire revenue stream. The "fish" (poker speak for bad players) out there had to be seen to be believed. I even managed to convince myself that I was earning a living from the game. It took many weeks of steady, daily losses before a nagging suspicion was born that something might be amiss. A subsequent check of bank and credit card statements revealed a £4,000 net loss in a matter of weeks. How?
I was an addict by now, of course, and that kind of self-delusion is standard addict practice. Worse still, because of the peculiar nature of gambling addiction – many experts reckon it's the hardest of all addictions to cure – once it dawned on me that I was in fact losing, I figured the only way to recoup the money was to play more and then yet more.
One time, after playing non-stop for three days, so that the index finger of my right hand had started to tingle from repeatedly clicking the mouse to bet on or fold a hand, I woke to find that somebody had broken into my flat during the night and festooned it with playing cards. They were all over the walls, they were dangling from the curtains. Wherever I went – bathroom to wash, kitchen to make breakfast – they kept popping up.
I dismissed this (despite having once suffered from a bout of manic depression that included delusions) as some sort of short-term optical glitch that was only to be expected in the circumstances, and soon hurried back to my laptop to resume playing.
Then, around lunchtime, I was in the loo, when I looked down and saw that there was a playing card lying in the bottom of the bowl. This was no vague optical effect, either, but a perfectly formed, shiny new king of hearts.
I called my GP, fixed an emergency appointment and got myself straight down there. "You're mad," she said, perhaps more accurately than she'd intended, when I had described the situation. "You have a history of mental problems. You should not be doing this. Go home, switch off your computer, or better still, chuck it in the bin and take this pill and get some sleep."
She placed a large white tablet in my hand. Feeling a whole lot better, I reckoned I would just get a couple more hours' play in, take the tablet and turn in. Unfortunately, I drifted off in the middle of a hand, without having taken the pill, and when I woke up a couple of hours later I was dying...
Well, perhaps not quite. In the ambulance they informed me that I was having a massive atrial fibrillation, brought on by four days and nights without sleep, sprayed something on the roof of my mouth, and asked for my next of kin. On reaching A&E I was attended to with worrying promptness and a drip was inserted in my neck. I was in there all the next day, my pulse returning to normal just 20 minutes before I was scheduled to be medically "rebooted".
All this makes gambling seem a dark and destructive business, and, of course, it can be. But that's pretty obviously not the whole story. Like all addictive activities, it offers astonishing highs – highs as high as the lows are low. If it didn't, who on earth would take it up in the first place? During a lucky streak, for instance, I get a sense of quite astonishing and implausibly sustained wellbeing. There was the time, to cite one of many, when I turned my last £2,000 in the world into £82,000 over a spell of about three weeks. (The fact that I went on to blow the lot in 10 minutes and was suicidal for a fortnight thereafter is another matter.) Regaining a recent loss brings a special pleasure of its own, as any gambler will tell you: a weird, warped sense of redemption.
Equally true, on the other hand, is an observation by Casanova, who had a sideline in gambling and noted that inside every serious gambler lurks a miser. Or, to put it another way, a greedy klutz wanting something for nothing.
But, yes, the highs. Perhaps even more exhilarating than that 80 grand streak was the day when I had gambled everything away except a £5,000 overdraft facility. By this stage I had had to remortgage my flat to the tune of £20,000. I spent the day debating with myself whether or not I should try my luck and see what I could do with that 5k. What had I got to lose? It wasn't even my money, but the bank's.
As usual, the inner demons (the shrinks, the addiction experts, call it this "permission thought") won the argument, and at midnight, came the start of a new 24-hour period, which meant that I was allowed to deposit fresh funds. I transferred the overdraft money to my William Hill account and sat down to a hand of blackjack, staking the maximum allowable amount on one hand of £5,000.
I hit 20 with that hand, won, 20 with the next, won again, won again with the third bet. In the space of two minutes I had not merely quadrupled my 5k overdraft, but could now pay off my mortgage and be, once more, to some degree at least, a free man.
I collapsed on the sofa, numb with joy, sandbagged by bliss. But the demons were of the opinion that I shouldn't stop there. In their judgment this was clearly a streak, and there was at least one more win out there – possibly even blackjack, which pays 150%. I went back to my laptop, put another 5k on and hit blackjack. In 10 minutes, from four consecutive hands, I had made £22,500, and changed my life. I remember sitting in the dark for half an hour with such joy and relief washing over me.
But, for the MOST PART, the order of the day has, inevitably, been self-destruction. I have lost, at a conservative estimate, a quarter of a million pounds over the past seven years. And I am once again remortgaged, for 30k this time.
I do not complain about any of this – not the debt, the near-death experience, not even the huge and horribly dark spells of despair and self-loathing. Nor am I especially plagued when I remember that, but for gambling, I would now be living on a comfortable income from royalties scrimped and saved over 15 years of hard showbiz slog.
There is nothing worse in this world than a sore loser, and nowhere is that more true than in gambling. The tax revenues from the big gaming companies help build schools and hospitals, pay for teachers, doctors and nurses. This is something, I tell myself.
I do sometimes wonder quietly why walking down any major street in London has to be, for me and my fellow gambling addicts, rather like negotiating Scylla and Charybdis – Paddy Power or Betfred here, William Hill or Ladbrokes there. But the resentment doesn't last. I have swallowed my pride, sought professional help, attended GA meetings. At the time of writing I haven't gambled, in any shape or form, for several months.
The other day, for instance, as I approached Finchley Road, near where I live – a thoroughfare positively festooned with betting shops – I conceived a strong urge to have a flutter on the betting machines. What harm could it do, now that I was cured? I found myself walking, like a zombie, towards the nearest of the outlets. I must have forgotten the time I once lost £6,000 trying to win £2 to cover the cost of a piece of broccoli I'd deemed overpriced.
Suddenly, like young Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as he walks down Lott's Lane in search of stimulus, then suddenly spins round and heads for home, I turned. The pull on me as I headed back toward the bus stop, and home, was astonishingly powerful. The feeling of triumph as I boarded a bus and headed for Hampstead (where any betting shop manager worth his salt will, at my own request, eject me from the premises on sight) was one that, to anybody who hasn't been there, might seem pathetic.
The gambler in me is still looking to recoup, needless to say. But now he does it in different ways. It's a truism to say that no very disastrous experience is without its compensatory positives – its winnings, in other words. What I have gained from gambling is twofold. Firstly, there is a much-needed sense of one's own fallibility that I suspect was lacking in me before the debacle began. Secondly, and perhaps more usefully, I have acquired a measure of immunity to disaster.
Misfortune of sundry kinds, and especially financial, can easily be put into perspective by the mere recollection of the mayhem one has been through. That is a perhaps not inconsiderable boon in these days of, for many of us, unwonted austerity and ongoing financial uncertainty. I am, if you like, a mini Greece, only a stop or two ahead, with a viable reconstruction package already in place, and working. Whether this is all bunkum, and I turn out to be another De Quincy – bragging about how he'd beaten his addiction to opium when he was taking the stuff till the day he died – only time will tell.
Ranjit Bolt's Cyrano de Bergerac opens at the Roundabout Theatre in New York on 11 October
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010