As a keen sports fan, Craig Walding saw nothing wrong with placing an occasional bet when watching the football at the weekend.
After all his friends were all doing the same, and while they were rarely making a profit, it just seemed like a little bit of fun.
But just a few years later, what was then an occasional flutter had become an online gambling addiction that left the NHS worker contemplating taking his own life.
After becoming addicted to online casino games when the coronavirus pandemic started in March last year, he lost £40,000 in the space of a month, losing half of that in just one night.
With his support networks cut off as the country went into lockdown, Craig spiralled, with his losses leading him to take out payday loans and borrow money from friends and family.
After losing that money too, he found himself in massive debt, and contemplated taking his own life.
Thankfully, he reached out for help, and has begun to now overcome his addiction after being treated by Cardiff-based support service Footsteps to Recovery.
As he now prepares for a charity boxing match to raise money for those who saved him, Craig, 36, of Whitchurch, has reflected on what was the lowest period of his life.
“I was no different to anybody else when I first started out,” he said. “It was very much an occasional thing - a few little bets on the Premier League, the odd accumulator at the weekend.
“I never really felt like it was ever going to be a problem.”
More than half of adults in Wales participate in gambling, according to a 2018 survey by the Gambling Commission, with 3% identified as ‘at risk’ and 1% as ‘problem gamblers’.
The same survey found that almost one in five adults in Britain gamble online, with half using laptops and 39% using mobile phones.
Craig still didn’t consider his gambling to be an issue as he began to bet more regularly, playing blackjack, roulette and slot machine games on his phone two or three times a week.
“I was probably gambling between £50 and £100 a week, but it was money that I felt like I could afford to lose.
“I got drawn in by all the offers that online betting sites have - free spins, free bets - and I suppose I began to lose myself in it, it was a little escape and I enjoyed the thrill of winning.
“But, despite that, I still felt like I had a certain element of control.”
However, in March 2020, Craig lost all control over his gambling, as the nationwide lockdown pushed him into spending more time playing online casino games.
“Things got really, really bad,” recalled Craig. “I live on my own, and all my coping mechanisms - going to the gym, seeing friends, having plans - were taken away and I was constantly on screens instead.
“There were lots of adverts everywhere, especially on social media, and companies were sending out promotional emails when lockdown started.
“I remember one company was offering a free £5 bet because of the pandemic - at the time I obviously thought that was great, but looking back now I can’t believe how awful that is.
“I had never really struggled with my mental health before, but then I felt unstable and everything got completely out of control.”
Having sold his flat in January 2020 and moved into temporary shared accommodation while he looked for a new house, Craig had put money into a savings account and he “felt like he had a plan”.
But as his addiction consumed his life, these plans began to disappear, along with the eye-watering amounts of money he was staking.
In the space of a month, Craig lost around £40,000 - all of his savings - as he spent all day playing on multiple online casino platforms - with his most costly night seeing him lose £20,000 on a casino game.
Not knowing what to do next, he began borrowing money from his friends and family - none of whom knew anything about his addiction - and took out some “awful” payday loans in the hope of making the money back.
But after gambling and losing this money as well, a devastated Craig “hit the depths of depression”, as he fell into £10,000 worth of debt across his overdraft, credit cards and loans.
“I was a train wreck,” he said. “I was shut off, I was drinking more, I felt so down, so hopeless and so ashamed - I didn’t want to tell anyone, not even my family.
“I never thought I’d ever even consider suicide, but I was so deep in this hole that I just didn’t know what else to do, I couldn’t see a way out.
“Getting into all that debt, I couldn’t pay my rent or my bills, and my plans were ruined. I knew at that point, I was either going to end things or I had to reach out for help. I decided to do the latter, thank God.”
In 2019, research commissioned by UK gambling charity GambleAware, found that problem gamblers like Craig were six times more likely to have suicidal thoughts or try to take their own life, and could be 15 times more likely to do so.
After deciding enough was enough, Craig confessed all to his family and friends, which he described as “the lowest moment of all.”
“I spoke to my dad about it, which was the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’d never seen him cry before, but we both were. He couldn’t believe what had happened.
“I also told everything to my brother and a few of my friends, and that’s when things started to improve.”
Having heard about his struggle, a good friend of Craig’s told him that he should contact Footsteps to Recovery, a Cardiff-based support service provided by Pobl, which offers treatment and support for those suffering from addiction.
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After joining a treatment programme over Zoom, Craig began to realise that he was not alone in his struggle, and understand the underlying reasons for his addiction.
“Prior to starting the programme, I’d always thought there was something wrong with me - I couldn’t comprehend what I’d done or get a hold on it at all.
“But when I went to that group, I suddenly saw that there were people out there who had similar experiences to me. I didn’t feel alone any more and that was absolutely huge for me.”
After attending the groups twice a week, Craig found them so useful that he recently joined the programme for a second time, as well as seeing a psychologist.
“I truly believe it saved my life,” he said. “I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel before, but I’m making progress each day.
“I haven’t totally forgiven myself yet, but I’m definitely getting there.”
Now, as a way of thanking those who saved his life, as well as raising awareness of gambling addictions and the support available, Craig and his friend Robbie Holden are preparing to enter the boxing ring.
The pair are taking part in a charity match at Cardiff’s Pryzm nightclub on December 4 this year, despite the fact that neither of the men have ever fought in their lives.
Organised by Champions for Charity at the Ultimate Fitness Centre gym in Cardiff, proceeds from the event will be split between the gym’s charity and Footsteps for Recovery.
A JustGiving page set up by Craig has also reached over £850 of his £1,000 target.
“I wanted to get a little bit more active and set a goal for myself,” he said. “But also I wanted to make people aware of Footsteps to Recovery and the service they provide - after all, I didn’t know that this help was out there before all of this.”
He said: “Robbie and I have never had a fight, I’ve never thrown a punch in my life. But he agreed to it and now lots of people have got on board with it - we’ve got over 300 people who want to come.
“My friends are the best, and they have always been so supportive, so I feel like I owe it to them too to do something like this. I feel like I lost a lot of trust because I was borrowing money off of them and then losing it - this just seems like the right thing to do.”
But while Craig is now looking to a brighter future having quit gambling, he still wants to see far more being done to prevent others from becoming addicted to online betting.
“I wouldn’t like to see it banned altogether,” he said. “But betting companies need to start showing some accountability and responsibility, because right now they’re not doing the right thing - they’re making money off vulnerable people like me.
“The advertisements are crazy - they need to be stopped or at least cut down significantly. It was the welcome bonuses and sign-up offers that lured me in, and from there I spent all day completely transfixed on different online casinos.
“When I lost that £20,000 in one night, the online casino called me the next day and asked how I was feeling. When I was honest with them and said I wanted to kill myself, they called the police, who then visited me - but is that the answer?
“Maybe they could have called me at the time, before I placed the bet, to stop me from betting so much. It just seemed like they were happy to take my money and then ask questions later, and that feels really wrong.
“I know there are self-exclusion schemes in place, but they don’t always work, there are ways around them. There needs to be a change in attitudes - I take responsibility for my actions, but now the betting companies need to as well."
You can find out more about Craig's journey and donate to his fundraiser here. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction and you want to reach out for support, you can learn more about the services provided by Pobl and Footsteps to Recovery here.