Sports betting is exploding. This ex-gambler has a $15,000 cautionary tale

John Briley
Special to the Washington Post

"Keep playing," my bookie advised me as he handed me $2,200 in cash on a Washington D.C. street corner in the spring of 2002. It was my third meeting with him since I had begun online sports betting a month earlier, and each time he had handed me north of $2,000; by his rules, we would exchange money whenever the ledger crossed that number, whether in my favor or his. I was, as you might imagine, elated with this new source of income. But the bookie knew my luck couldn't last.

My run of winning bets was due to a sequence of picks, mostly on college basketball, that I was culling from a service that followed betting patterns and sent text blasts - often moments before tip-off - on where the "smart money" was moving. What I couldn't see at the time was that I was developing a gambling problem, a disorder that would take me two years to vanquish.

Men ages 18 to 24 are most likely to gamble, followed by men ages 25 to 35.

And so, some 20 years later, I'm watching with a sense of unease as sports wagering goes mainstream. Betting sites, once anchored offshore and operating in the hazy space between legal and not, now advertise loudly, including before, during and after sports events. Sports commentators remark on betting lines as casually as they do the weather, including during a televised tribute to Jackie Robinson I was watching on April 15 before a Los Angeles Dodgers-Cincinnati Reds game, at which the announcers digressed into a lengthy discussion of various betting lines.

The surge in marketing for sports betting began with a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Murphy vs. National Collegiate Athletic Association) that overturned a 1992 law barring states from legalizing sports gambling. (Nevada was exempt from that law because it had legalized gambling - including on sports - decades prior.) Since the 2018 Supreme Court decision, 32 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized sports gambling, creating "the largest and fastest expansion in gambling in U.S. history," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.. In 2021, some 15 million more Americans reported having bet on sports than in 2018, the council found, and the risk of anyone - even nongamblers - developing a disorder rose roughly 50% during that span.

Still, Whyte said, "The vast majority of gamblers are not problem gamblers," that is, people for whom gambling compromises, disrupts or damages personal, family or vocational pursuits. In its review of independent research, the council found that 2% of Americans qualify as problem gamblers, and of those who gambled in the past year, 5fit that definition. Men ages 18 to 24 are most likely to gamble, followed by men ages 25 to 35.

John Briley

Emily Einstein, chief of the Science Policy Branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said, "Problem gambling is similar to the full spectrum of psychological disorders where something that can be normal and controllable suddenly becomes uncontrollable, and interferes with someone's day-to-day life." But it wasn't until 2013 that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the American Psychiatric Association's guide to psychiatric disorders, acknowledged that similarity and listed problem gambling as a "substance-related and addictive disorder" rather than an impulse-control disorder along the lines of kleptomania.

Brain-imaging studies of problem gamblers show that they tend to derive less excitement and joy from simple pleasures - such as a sunny day or a piece of pie - than others, said Jon Grant, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago and an expert on gambling and other addictions. "The suggestion is that gambling allows people to feel a more intense reward," Grant said.

Further, he said, gamblers tend to be more impulsive and less concerned about long-term consequences, traits that can be hereditary or formed from early-life experiences. Like most addictions, gambling then preys upon that predisposition, Grant said. "I can now bet on 50 different sporting events simultaneously - boom, boom, boom! - and I'm not thinking through how this will affect me later."

Over time, the repeated behavior can change your brain, Einstein said. "Basically, everything that feels 'rewarding,' like gambling and addictive drugs, causes greater release of dopamine into the ventral striatum of the brain, which leads to learning that that behavior should be repeated," she explained. "The circuitry changes so that people experience more rewards in response to the drug or in response to gambling . . . [and] the areas of the brain that are able to inhibit behaviors - your prefrontal cortex - that circuitry gets weaker in response."

A meta-analysis published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2017 also provided evidence that "gambling and substance-use disorders share common brain mechanisms," said Marc Potenza, a professor of psychiatry, neuroscience and child study at the Yale University School of Medicine and the director of the Yale Center of Excellence in Gambling Research. In fact, to a susceptible brain, there might not be much difference between, say, the promise of a line of cocaine and the Boston Celtics getting two points on the road against the Brooklyn Nets. Both trigger a craving that in some people could be almost irrepressible - and irresistible.

To determine if someone has a gambling disorder, the American Psychological Association uses these nine criteria:

- Needs to gamble with increasing amounts of money to achieve this desired excitement.

- Gets restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop gambling.

- Has made repeated and unsuccessful efforts to stop gambling.

- Is frequently preoccupied with gambling, such as thinking about past gambling experiences or planning for future gambling experiences.

- Often gambles when feeling distressed.

- After losing money gambling, often returns another day to get even or cut their losses.

- Lies to conceal the extent involvement of gambling.

- Has jeopardized or lost significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunities because of gambling.

- Relies on others to provide money to relieve financial situation caused by gambling.

Those who answer "yes" to four to five of those criteria have mild gambling disorder, those who acknowledge six to seven have a moderate condition and those who hit eight to nine are considered severe.

Studies show that about 65% of problem gamblers who commit to a self-help program or cognitive behavioral therapy - or, even better, both - successfully kick their gambling habits. However, Grant, from the University of Chicago, said more large, long-term studies are needed to determine how many people relapse, and how quickly they do.

By the measure above, I had a mild problem, but it often felt much worse than that. On occasion, I would bet far more than I could pay back, and any time I had a bet in play, no matter where I was, whom I was with or what I was doing, part of my brain was preoccupied with the wager.

My deliverance came when I'd had enough of watching hundreds of dollars evaporate with a missed free throw, fly out or last-second field goal - and of cobbling together payments I couldn't afford. I finally accepted that not only would I never win back my losses, but that I'd only continue to compound them. I met the bookie one last time, handed him $2,400, and told him I was done.

"Great decision," he said, catching me off-guard. "This is a no-win proposition."

It took me two years and more than $15,000 in losses to realize that. I hope anyone lured deep into this potentially damaging expansion of sports wagering wakes up much quicker than I did.