02/29/2008 12:00AM

Gambler's Plan B: Blame the bookie


NEW YORK - A couple of years ago, we had a good laugh when a woman sued McDonald's, claiming that they had sold her so many hamburgers that she had become obese from eating them, and that her obesity had caused her many health problems.

The same kind of twisted thinking now strikes closer to home. In England, a judge has granted Graham Calvert, a former greyhound owner and admitted problem gambler, the right to seek personal injury damages from the British bookmaking firm William Hill for having accepted losing wagers from him. On top of that, Calvert also is being permitted to make an effort to recover his gambling losses.

It seems that Calvert, 28, dropped more than 2 million pounds, or nearly $4 million, in a five-month period in 2006 at the congenial offices of William Hill, and he is peeved with them for allowing him to do so. Calvert claims that he asked the bookmakers to close his account to protect him and to ban him from all William Hill premises, but that in their willfullness, they failed to do so. He also says the introduction of telephone wagering made betting - and losing - even easier. The poor fellow is further distraught because he not only lost his money in the good offices of William Hill, but his wife, his health, and his livelihood as well. Subsequent searches of all William Hill betting shops in England failed to uncover any of the three.

Calvert's lawyer, Annaliese Day, claims that her client is suffering from a medical disorder known as "problem gambling," which I think is similar to "problem drinking," which can be defined as imbibing too many alcoholic beverages too frequently. The symptoms of such behavior include nausea, anger, and disorientation, not to mention strained relations with your friends, family, and co-workers. The specific causes of problem drinking include the overindulgence and mixing of beverages such as scotch, rye, bourbon, gin, vodka, wine, and beer.

Problem gambling, which is really losing by a different name, might be defined as placing too many bad bets too frequently. Coincidentally, it gives rise to a set of symptoms almost identical to those produced by problem drinking - nausea, anger, and disorientation - although these are caused not by too many scotch and sodas or gin and tonics, but by losing wagers placed on horse races, dog races, football games, boxing matches, or even golf matches, as Calvert learned when he dropped 347,000 pounds ($790,000) on the United States team to win the 2006 Ryder Cup. The United States lost, and so did Calvert, causing him to become very angry and disoriented. It may be assumed that severe arguments with his wife and business associates followed, prompting those persons to take measures to distance themselves from Calvert, who, in a fit of nausea, blamed it all on William Hill.

Because he was a self-identified problem gambler, Calvert claims that William Hill had a responsibility to protect him from himself. The learned Ms. Day says William Hill is at fault for his losses because they have a policy for dealing with people like Calvert - cancelling their accounts - but failed to activiate that policy with regard to her client.

For their part, William Hill claims that every bet Calvert placed with them was voluntary. And indeed, having traveled in England frequently over the last 25 years and passed by and even entered many of Mr. Hill's establishments, not once have I been abducted by one of their agents and been forced by any means whatsoever to risk my money on one of the sporting contests upon which they were making book.

Counsel for William Hill also made the salient point that if they had closed Calvert's account, he would have gone to another bookie, perhaps one of their rivals at Ladbrokes or Coral. Perish the thought! Had that been the case, the judges might have been dealing with suits against every bookie in the United Kingdom.

While not demeaning the problem of problem gambling, it looks like Calvert has brought all of his troubles upon himself. There is such a thing as free will, and Calvert's loss of that treasured quality is really the issue here. Once a man loses it, he is little better than an ape, a creature who bears a certain similarity to chronic losers at the tables and windows.

Treat the man for his problem by all means, but William Hill is completely innocent of any wrongdoing in this case. Bookmaking is legal in Britain, and any attempt by the judicial system to hold a bookie responsible for mutually acceptable wagers which the bettor has lost, whether totaling one pound or 2 million pounds, would open a Pandora's Box of litigation, the like of which would produce a severe case of nausea throughout the global betting industry.