Low Life, Racing,

The dotcom delusion, dreams of eurovision and a life on the tiles

I recently had the good fortune of meeting Fitzdares’ founder, Balthazar Fabricius, and was struck by something he said: that one of the reasons for starting his business was that gamblers were more interesting than your average person. I agree. We might be impatient, dysfunctional and reckless but I like to think this manifests itself in positive, sociable and entertaining ways. Except when we’re losing, of course.

Hence this article. Balthazar suggested I write about my most traumatic year ever. Funnily enough it was arguably also my most successful, professionally, for reasons which will become apparent.

It started (and I’m sure the date had something to do with it) on 1 January 2000. I was on a train reading about the dotcom boom when an idea for a book flew into my brain. I would mortgage my house for £50,000 and try to turn it into a million by day-trading on the stock market. The book would be a diary of my efforts.

It started well. Even though it was the tail-end of the boom (if only I’d known that), some stocks were performing like Jack’s beanstalk on steroids. One day a company called Autonomy — run by the so-called “British Bill Gates”, a bearded, sax-playing software entrepreneur called Mike Lynch – doubled overnight. I’d bought £30,000 worth of shares, so made that amount, again, in a flash.

It couldn’t last, of course. I had the none-too-bright-idea of betting on the FTSE 100 to go up just as it started to plummet. Then I made the fatal mistake of chasing my losses. End result: badly mangled fingernails and a £70,000 bill from IG Index.

There were silver linings. How to Make Your Million from the Internet (And What to Do if You Don’t) topped the financial bestsellers list for several weeks and I made a handful of entertaining and successful TV shows about my experiences. And my enterprising accountant realised that my huge loss was sustained in the course of a professional engagement, and thus tax-deductible. Deep joy. In the circumstances.

It also made me realise what was sensible and what was not: nowadays I limit myself to punting no more than £100 a week. And if Mark Hughes has been made manager of Manchester United (odds: 66/1, thank you Fitzdares) by the time you read this, you will also conclude that, thanks to my misfortunes, I have developed a modicum of good judgment as well.

Nowadays I get my kicks from writing plays and (don’t laugh) Scrabble. I’m nationally rated: currently ranked around No 250 in the UK. And I’ve met some interesting – OK, weird – people on my travels. Such as the old lady who asked me what ‘ORGASM’ meant when I played it during the course of a game. Once I’d defined it, her expression turned from bemusement to the verbal version of post-coital satisfaction. “Goodness,” she said. “I must tell my husband when I get home.” Later she asked if the word took an “S” at the end. “Yes,” I said, thinking of the jokes I could have cracked but didn’t.   

The thirst for adventure which led me into my spread betting nightmare also propelled me to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest of 2002 with my heroically average covers band, Surf ’n’ Turf, with a song written by my brother called I Give In. The tune was sprightly. We weren’t. (I was 41 at the time.) We did, however, reach the finals of the televised Song for Europe contest on BBC1, which was fun. But then we came fourth out of the four acts, trailing the third-placed song by a distressingly large margin.

Still, that’s what gambling’s about, right? Learning how to lose. Pity I’ve had so much practice. At least it makes me interesting.

Jonathan Maitland is a British playwright, broadcaster and author.

Please play responsibly