Chris Wood looks into the eyes of young athletes and sees his own reflection, chilling refractions of a life lost to gambling that he could never win back.
An 11-year addiction left the Hampshire cricketer in the hole to the tune of £200,000. He ended one day £5,000 down but his biggest losses can never be recouped.
That came in relationships ruined, weeks spent bed-ridden and sporting memories that totally passed him by.
“I’ve won trophies and bowled the last over in big matches but still, to this day, I haven’t found anything that gives me the buzz gambling did,” he said.
“I’ve not found anything close and I probably never will.”
Wood’s mother left the marital home suddenly when he was eight, leaving a scar only reopened and explored during gambling therapy 20 years later.
He never brought down the front he put up to protect himself from that painful time. It enabled his gambling and helped him hide it for years on end.
The left-arm bowler got his first professional contract aged 18, by which time he’d already started illegally placing bets on football with mates.
“As soon as I moved down to Southampton, it all went to my head and the ego came out,” he said.
“I genuinely thought back then that I was going to could spend my money and act the way I did, because I’d retire at 35 having played for England.
“I have absolutely no idea when it came from. It’s scary that was something ingrained in me.”
It is alarming but perhaps not surprising that there was a culture of gambling in the successful Hampshire dressing-room that Wood joined.
“There were guys who gambled in our changing room,” he said. “I was a sheep in the early stages and I followed the crowd.
“I was very vocal in the dressing room on what horses to bet on, I told people when I’d won and never when I lost. I sat the team down in 2013 to tell them but that didn’t stop me gambling.”
It started with football and horse racing, then progressed to volleyball and ice hockey in the middle of the night and the amounts kept getting bigger.
Wood’s side won three trophies in as many seasons from 2010 to 2012 but their star death bowler was wrecked by exhausted debt options, credit cards and frazzled relationships.
He went down with a knee injury in 2016, leaving him bed-ridden for six weeks, suffering from anxiety, depression, and insomnia in one of the toughest periods of his life.
“It went as far as asking whether life was worth living with the amount of pain I was in and my loved ones were in,” said Wood.
“I felt like a failure and that I couldn’t physically stop placing bets. There were times in that six weeks when I wondered whether it was worth putting myself through that pain.”
Wood reached out to Tony Adams’s Sporting Chance charity after the Arsenal legend gave a talk about addiction at Hampshire’s Ageas Bowl.
“Tony was telling his story and I had no idea how bad it got for him,” Wood remembered.
“My ears pricked up, I looked at him and thought: ‘you can’t be like me, you can’t have done the things I did and treat people like I did.’
“Until then, I genuinely thought for ten years that I was the only person in the world who had an addiction problem, I was the only person in sport who struggled.
“Tony gave me a card and said: ‘if you only do one thing today, ring this number.’ That’s exactly what I did and it changed my life.”
3 December 2018 was the last time that Wood placed a bet. He believes – nay, knows – that betting is endemic in sport.
“It’s an enormous problem,” he said. “With the accessibility and the adverts now, it offers everything that athletes look for and thrive upon.
“I know for a fact that there are lots of people out there struggling in sport. A handful of people reached out within cricket on the back of my story.
“In my changing room at Hampshire alone, there are 20 staff and probably 15 or 16 of them gamble in some way.
“A lot of them do what I did when I first started, they put ten quid on football at the weekend and have no other feeling or emotion with it.
“I’m sure behind closed doors, there’s a lot more that’s going on.”
Wood is now taking on an additional role with the organisation behind the world’s first expert panel, investigating and acting on the risk of gambling harm in professional stars.
It has been brought together by leading gambling harm minimisation consultancy EPIC Risk Management, in response to the risk being recorded as four times higher than among those who aren’t involved in elite sports.
Wood now visits professional teams regularly to talk to athletes about his own experiences. When he considers what to tell them, he takes it as a chance to talk to his younger self.
“When those people stood in front of me, I wasn’t listening,” he said.
“I went to Gambling Anonymous and thought it would be me and a bunch of lowlifes. But it was lawyers, policemen, and people from all walks of life.
“Now I tell them one thing which is ‘don’t think it can’t happen to you.’ This issue isn’t going away.”
EPIC Risk Management Pro Sport Advisory Board . The World’s first panel looking into gaming and gambling harm minimisation for elite sport.