A former sports gambler about its dangers

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“Keep playing,” my bookie advised me when he gave me $ 2,200 in cash on a DC street corner in the spring of 2002. It was my third meeting with him since I started playing online sports betting a month earlier, and each once he had handed me north for $ 2,000; according to his rules, we would exchange money when the general ledger crossed that number, whether it was to my or his advantage. I was, as you might imagine, elated at this new source of income. But the bookmaker knew my luck could not last.

My race with winning bets was due to a series of choices, mostly on college basketball, which I picked up from a service that followed betting patterns and sent text blasts – often moments before the tip-off – about where the “smart money” was moving. What I could not see at the time was that I was developing a gambling problem, a disorder that it would take me two years to overcome.

And then, about 20 years later, I watch with a sense of uneasiness as sports betting becomes mainstream. Betting sites that were once anchored offshore and operated in the haze between legal and illegal, now advertise loudly, including before, during and after sporting events. Sports commentators note betting lines are as relaxed as the weather, including during a televised tribute to Jackie Robinson, which I saw on April 15 before a Los Angeles Dodgers-Cincinnati Reds game in which announcers went into a lengthy discussion of various bet. lines.

The rise in the marketing of sports betting began with a 2018 ruling by the US Supreme Court (Murphy vs. National Collegiate Athletic Association), which overturned a 1992 law that prevented states from legalizing sports betting. (Nevada was exempt from that law because it had legalized gambling – including on sports – decades earlier.) Since the 2018 Supreme Court ruling, 32 states and Washington, DC, have legalized sports betting, creating “the largest and fastest expansion of gambling in the United States. history, “said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. In 2021, about 15 million more Americans reported having bet on sports than in 2018, the council found, and the risk of someone – even non-gamblers – developing a disorder increased by about 50 percent during that time period.

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

Emily Einstein, head of the Science Policy Branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said: “Problem gambling is similar to the whole spectrum of psychological disorders, where something that can be normal and controllable suddenly becomes uncontrollable and disrupts a person’s daily life. ” But it was not until 2013 that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the American Psychiatric Association’s guide to psychiatric disorders, recognized this similarity and listed problem gambling as a “drug-related and addictive disorder” rather than an impulse. -control disorder in the style of kleptomania.

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Brain imaging studies of gamblers show that they tend to have less excitement and enjoyment of simple pleasures – such as a sunny day or a piece of cake – than others, said Jon Grant, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago and an expert in gambling and other dependence. “The suggestion is that gambling allows people to feel a more intense reward,” Grant said.

Further, he said, players tend to be more impulsive and less concerned about long-term consequences, traits that may be hereditary or formed from early life experiences. Like most addictions, gambling then seizes this predisposition, Grant said. “I can now bet on 50 different sporting events at the same time – boom, boom, boom! – and I do not think through how this will affect me later.”

Over time, the repetitive behaviors can change your brain, Einstein said. “Basically, anything that feels ‘rewarding,’ like gambling and addictive drugs, causes greater release of dopamine in the ventral striatum of the brain, leading to learning that that behavior needs to be repeated,” she explained. “The cycle 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 capable of inhibiting behavior – your prefrontal cortex – that circuit becomes weaker in response. “

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A meta-analysis published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2017 also provided evidence that “gambling and substance abuse share common brain mechanisms,” said Marc Potenza, professor of psychiatry, neuroscience and pediatrics at Yale University School of Medicine and director. from the Yale Center of Excellence in Gambling Research. In fact, for a receptive brain, there may not be much difference between, for example, the promise of a series of cocaine and the Boston Celtics getting two points away from home against the Brooklyn Nets. Both trigger an urge, which in some people can be almost indomitable – and irresistible.

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

  • Need to play with increasing amounts of money to achieve this desired excitement.
  • Becomes restless or irritable when trying to cut down or stop playing.
  • Has made repeated and unsuccessful efforts to stop gambling.
  • Is often preoccupied with gambling, such as thinking about past gambling experiences or planning future gambling experiences.
  • Gambles often when feeling distressed.
  • After losing money gambling, often return another day to get straight or reduce their losses.
  • Lies to hide the extent of gambling involvement.
  • Has threatened or lost significant relationships, jobs or educational or career opportunities due to gambling.
  • Trust that others provide money to alleviate the financial situation caused by gambling.

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

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

By the above goals, I had a mild problem, but it often felt much worse than that. Sometimes I bet far more than I could pay back, and every time I had a bet in play, no matter where I was, who I was with, or what I was doing, part of my brain was occupied with the bet.

My deliverance came when I had had enough of watching hundreds of dollars disappear with a missed free kick, flying out or last-minute field goal – and of collecting payments I could not afford. I finally accepted that not only would I never win back my losses, but that I would only continue to amplify them. I met the bookmaker one last time, handed him $ 2,400 and told him I was done.

“Great decision,” he said, surprising me. “This is a no-win proposal.”

It took me two years and more than $ 15,000 in losses to realize it. I hope someone who is lured deep into this potentially harmful expansion of sports betting wakes up much faster than I did.

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