Understanding gambling addiction for the first time, from Lucian Freud

Britain has more than 400 000 problem gamblers, and some two million people are described as at risk. I knew this, but in my naivety I imagined that the thrill, the rush, lay in winning. Now, through listening to a Radio 4 programme that argues that risk and creativity go together using the example of Lucian Freud, I know differently. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b098jp3w

Martin Gaylord, a friend of Freud, told the story of arriving at Freud’s studio to be painted and finding Freud on the phone to his bookmaker, arranging a complicated series of bets on horses. They went out to lunch, which Freud interrupted every so often by going to learn how his bets were doing. He came back towards the end of lunch and said “I’ve lost £900 000, perhaps I’d better stop.”

“Winning must feel good,” said Gaylord, perhaps hoping to comfort Freud.

“Losing feels pretty good too,” answered Freud.

There was the learning. Gambling addiction is not about winning: it’s about the rush, losing provides it as strongly, perhaps more strongly, than winning. Indeed, for Freud gambling was more about losing than winning.

Gaylord told another story of Freud gambling heavily and losing everything. Freud then went home, sold his Bentley, went back to the gambling, and lost it all. Once he’d lost it all he could begin to paint. The gambling, and particularly the losing, got Freud into the magical state where he could paint.

It was possible for Freud to lose £900 000 because towards the end of his career his paintings could sell for over £20m. It makes me wonder if the drug of gambling would no longer work when he had so much money.

Freud took many other risks: driving badly, making love to women while their husbands were in the next room, mixing with gangsters.

Indeed, Gaylord’s argument is that all of Freud’s life and art was a risk. He was a figurative painter when everybody thought figurative painting was finished. Later he switched to using thick paint, appalling Kenneth Clarke, his leading supporter.

Painting is risk. Life is risk. To succeed dramatically you need to take big risks, but to be comfortable, the route most of us chose, minimise risk—become a doctor not a poet.

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