- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2022

Two percent. That’s the figure everyone talks about in the sports gambling world. 

No, that isn’t the chance that you’ll hit that six-team parlay. 

That number — 2% — is the one most experts use when citing the percentage of problem gamblers. 

It’s a small number, but that’s the tricky thing with percentages. Even small ones can wreak havoc. 

With sports gambling now legal in 33 states and the District of Columbia, the number of problem gamblers will inevitably increase. Marc Lefkowitz, a certified gambling counselor for more than 20 years and a recovering gambler for nearly 40, is especially concerned about this week leading up to the Super Bowl. He expects a heavy dose of advertisements from sportsbooks — you know, the ones in which they offer a “risk-free bet” — to entice people to wager on the big game. 

“I worry about the Super Bowl being a gateway for first-time gamblers,” Mr. Lefkowitz said. “They should know what they’re getting into before they place that first bet.”

Rock bottom

Billy Hoffman placed his last bet on Feb. 5, 2001. The date means a lot to him, as it does for all other recovering gamblers. 

Mr. Hoffman started when he was a teenager. By his 20s, he bet on horse racing, cards, sports — everything. He was married twice, divorced twice and filed for bankruptcy twice. 

When he was 30, a year after his second wife left him, Mr. Hoffman hit a wall. He was in another relationship and was about to take her money to gamble.

“I realized then it didn’t matter who the woman was or where I lived,” Mr. Hoffman said. “I was always going to be this miserable, lying, manipulative person that was gambling all the time and feeling like crap.”

He finally called Virginia’s gambling help line. Twenty-one years later, he is a certified gambling counselor at Williamsville Wellness, a residential addiction treatment center in Hanover, Virginia. 

The shame Mr. Hoffman felt is common for problem gamblers. 

It exists with all addictions, but it’s even more pervasive with gambling disorder than with addictions to alcohol or nicotine, said Mr. Lefkowitz, whose clean date is Feb. 9, 1983. Drug or alcohol addictions, Mr. Lefkowitz said, are more “normalized” in society, but gambling addicts don’t have that same level of understanding.

That’s because gambling disorder is about money — something that’s vital to survival and a tangible representation of a person’s worth. 

“There is a lot of shame when it comes to money,” said Mr. Lefkowitz, who has worked as a counselor in California and Arizona for the past two decades. “It’s one thing to tell somebody you can’t stop drinking. They can understand that. But people are afraid to tell somebody that they can’t handle their money.”

Another aspect that stigmatizes gambling disorder, the counselors said, is that it doesn’t show the physical signs that other addictions do. Will Hinman, a certified peer recovery specialist for the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling, calls it an “invisible addiction.” 

“Once it’s spiraled out of control is when we realize it’s a problem,” said Mr. Hinman, who started gambling in college and began his recovery journey on Nov. 2, 2013.

“You can’t smell blackjack on somebody’s breath,” Mr. Lefkowitz said. 

In the brain, the effect of addictive sports betting is similar to that of cocaine, said Lyndon Aguiar, a clinical director of Williamsville Wellness Center.

“The immediacy of it is so intoxicating,” said Mr. Aguiar, who is also a licensed clinical psychologist and a gambling specialist. “There’s no drug involved, but there’s that immediate dopamine hit. There’s anticipation, excitement, and if they win there’s euphoria. But it’s short-lived.”

On top of the shame gamblers feel is the belief that if they go into recovery they lose the opportunity to win back their losses. 

For problem gamblers, the yin and yang of the game means they keep playing until they win, trapping them in a vicious cycle. If you bounce out when you go on a cold streak or after you lose your entire paycheck or after you empty your retirement accounts, then you forgo the opportunity to get on a hot streak, win the money back, fix your problems and, most important, feel the high.

“People with gambling disorder are treatment-resistant,” Mr. Hoffman said. “The addiction offers false hope. Alcohol and drugs are both very serious addictions, but people don’t get drunk or high and think that when they wake up from this stupor that their problems are going to be solved.”

The shame, the hidden nature, the lying and the financial hardship are among the reasons gambling disorder has the highest suicide rate of any addiction. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, 20% of people with “severe gambling problems” attempt suicide. The NCPG estimates that 2 million people in the U.S. meet the criteria for gambling disorder and another 4 million to 6 million show signs of problem gambling. 

“When someone is losing everything and chasing their losses, it can lead to a really ugly situation,” Mr. Hinman said. 

Explosive growth

Before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in 2018, opening the way for states to legalize sports betting, people who didn’t live in Nevada either used bookies or offshore websites to place wagers. Now, with 30 states up and running, and about half of them legalizing sports gambling in the past two years, the system is overall safer for bettors, said Casey Clark, senior vice president of strategic communications at the American Gaming Association.

“I think because of the growth of the sports betting market, players are better protected and problem gambling resources are better funded than ever before,” Mr. Clark said. “What you see in every advertisement are help lines and resources available that are not present in the pervasive, predatory, illegal market that was driving this country for a long time.”

While some believe the gambling industry can operate in a way that encourages problem gambling, Mr. Clark disagrees.

“Responsible gaming is inherent to how we operate,” he said. “It’s bad for business for a lot of reasons. We offer a form of entertainment for adults, and that’s the way it should be treated.”

Aside from more states legalizing in recent years, another reason sports betting is booming is simple. 

It’s fun.

For many people, putting a few bucks on a game increases the enjoyment, and the vast majority of people who gamble can do so responsibly. It gives them a reason to watch, something to cheer for and a topic of conversation with friends and family.

“I’m not against gambling. Most people can gamble and be perfectly fine. I’m not saying it’s always a problem,” Mr. Lefkowitz said. “But it can be a problem, and it moves really fast.” 

Through November, sports gambling revenue in 2021 was up 205% from 2020 and 382% from 2019, according to the AGA. The $666 million the industry raked in from sports gambling in November is the most ever in a single month. October’s $7.55 billion handle, the total amount of money wagered on sports bets, was also a record. 

In at least one state, though, sports bettors are losing more than ever. 

According to data compiled by David Schwartz of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada sportsbooks are keeping a much higher percentage of bets now than they did in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1984, the year Mr. Schwartz’s data begins, the state’s sportsbooks kept 2.34% of the total amount bet. In 2020, that number was 6.05%. From 2018 to 2020 was the first time in the 37-year sample with three straight years of Nevada sportsbook win percentages over 6%.

Despite this trend — and the fact that sports wagering has a built-in imbalance with the odds that sportsbooks set — many action gamblers, including those who play blackjack, poker and other games that require skill or knowledge, believe they are smart enough to beat the odds. In fact, sports bettors may be at a greater risk than other gamblers. According to an NCPG survey last year, sports bettors are more likely to engage in “problematic play,” and younger players are at an even higher risk of developing gambling problems. 

This boom in the sports betting industry has led to a significant increase in those seeking out problem gambling services. Despite the pandemic, Mr. Aguiar said, Williamsville Wellness has had a 25% increase in the past two years. 

Nationally, the NCPG’s help line received 45% more calls last year than in 2020, said spokesperson Cait Huble. Texts increased by 85% and chat messages were up 117%, Ms. Huble said.

In Maryland, Mr. Hinman, one of five peer recovery specialists who work the state’s 1-800-GAMBLER help line, said he is getting more calls from young adults and college students.

The increase in people seeking out problem gambling services causes some to wonder whether there will be enough staff to meet the increased demand. Carolyn Hawley, president of the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling, said there aren’t enough treatment professionals to work the state-mandated help line.

“We don’t have the workforce capacity yet,” Ms. Hawley said. “We train clinicians on how to treat gambling disorder, but we don’t even have the treatment professionals at this point available to manage the callers we get from the help line.”

Uncharted territory

The year Brianne Doura-Schawohl started working as a problem gambling advocate is the same year the American Psychiatric Association first recognized gambling addiction as a “disorder.” For the 33 years before 2013, the APA defined it as “pathological gambling” — a classification that many believed stigmatized problem gamblers.

“This is still considered, as a public health issue, to be relatively new,” she said.

Even though the federal government takes in more than $7 billion per year in taxes from gambling, it isn’t putting any money toward problem gambling prevention or treatment — making it one of the only addictions without federal funding, Ms. Doura-Schawohl said. Meanwhile, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration had a $6 billion budget last fiscal year with none of the money going to gambling addiction services. 

“I’ve been in statehouses talking to members and staff who say, ‘Maybe if they just stopped’ or ‘Maybe if they just had religion, it wouldn’t be a thing,’ as if it’s a moral deficit of someone,” said Ms. Doura-Schawohl, who now runs her own government relations and gambling consultancy firm. “There’s so much misunderstanding, shame, stigma and lack of awareness for this addiction for not seeing it for what it is: a true addiction and one that needs funding.”

Maryland, Virginia and some other states provided problem gambling funds when they legalized sports gambling, but nine states set aside no additional funding for problem gambling prevention or treatment when their legislatures legalized sports betting, said Linda Graves, executive director of the National Association of Administrators for Disordered Gambling Services. She said only about 6% of gambling expansion bills introduced across the country include a provision for increased funding for problem gambling services.

“That is irresponsible,” Ms. Graves said.

Changing demographics

When Mr. Lefkowitz first entered recovery at 24, he was one of the only young people there. Now, nearly 40 years later, that has changed. Many of the people seeking gambling treatment are younger. 

“Sports betting is right in the wheelhouse of young males,” said Mr. Lefkowitz, who now works for Kindbridge, a teletherapy service for process addictions and mental health. “We’re going to see them develop more problems.”

He said the sports gambling ecosystem does a good job with some of its prevention work. The lessons of keeping gambling fun, setting limits and making a budget are all important. 

The missing link for him is the lack of “informed choice” on the part of gamblers. For the most part, he said, people are aware of the serious dangers of drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and doing drugs. But that same reality isn’t front and center with gambling. 

“Unlike drugs and alcohol, you can only do so much in one day before you pass out and die,” Mr. Lefkowitz said. “With gambling, it’s unlimited. There’s no saturation point. All of a sudden, the family wakes up one day and the car is being repossessed or the house is being foreclosed or they’re going to jail because they embezzled money.”

Although the resources being provided to today’s problem gamblers are better than ever, it’s still possible that now is the most difficult time to have a sports gambling addiction. 

Sportsbooks are everywhere. They’re not just in casinos but are also in arenas and stadiums. Caesars Sportsbook is at Capital One Arena. BetMGM last week debuted one at Nationals Park. And in almost 20 states, sportsbooks can operate online, where bettors can place wagers from their phones.  

Additionally, advertisements for sports gambling websites are ubiquitous — from radio spots to television commercials to ads online. They often offer “free” or “risk-free” bets, with the caveat that the money is refunded in a site credit. 

“GET YOUR FIRST BET RISK FREE. UP TO $1,000 BACK IF YOU DON’T WIN,” reads a promotion on FanDuel Sportsbook’s website. 


“GET 56/1 ODDS FOR FOOTBALL’S PLAYOFFS. BET $5 TO WIN $280 IN FREE BETS,” says DraftKings Sportsbook.

Advertisements like these, the counselors say, are harmful for portraying gambling as something that could be “risk-free.” 

“There’s always a risk,” Mr. Lefkowitz said. “Stop giving away ‘free’ things. You aren’t allowed to give away free cigarettes.”

Those advertisements don’t just rope new people into sports gambling. The bombardment of them — making it nearly impossible to consume sports media without hearing or seeing an enticing ad — also makes it challenging for those trying to quit. 

Remember, they’re always just a hot streak away, in their minds, from getting all that money back.

“For people who are compulsive gamblers, they already know,” Mr. Hoffman said. “I just want people to know it’s a progressive illness, and it gets nasty. You can’t gamble your way out.”

Problems with addiction? Call 1-800-GAMBLER in Maryland, 1-888-532-3500 in Virginia or visit www.ncpgambling.org/help-treatment.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misnamed the sportsbook operation at Capital One Arena. It is Caesars Sportsbook.

• Shen Wu Tan contributed to this report.

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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