Right out of the gate, in its first two months of legalized sports betting, New York blew past Las Vegas and Atlantic City to become the No. 1 place in America for gamblers to throw away their hard-earned money. New Yorkers have wagered more than $2 billion since the beginning of the year, with $80 million going to the state treasury. New York television and computer screens have been swamped by cheesy ads urging us to bet all day and night, in public casinos and on private cell phones.
The seldom-mentioned casualties of this brave new world are the New Yorkers afflicted with gambling disorder, a condition that has been recognized by the medical profession in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders since 1980.
As day follows night, the current explosion in betting will be followed by a less-heralded wave of debt, bankruptcy, divorce, and suicide. That’s not just an unfortunate side effect; bleeding problem gamblers dry is the business model. And New York has now blessed this unhappy arrangement and is a full partner in the fleecing, taking a major cut of gambling proceeds.
The casual bettor who fills out brackets and kicks $20 into an office pool once a year is not the customer the big gambling outfits are looking for. They are bombarding us with ads in order to get the reliable flow of revenue that comes from people who bet too much, too often and are doomed to lose in the long run.
“With substance abuse, alcohol or drugs, you’re putting something in your body. This is a total psychological addiction,” as Arnie Wexler, a problem gambler-turned-rehab specialist, put it in 2018. “You put nothing in your body. There’s no track marks, there’s no dilated pupils, there’s no smell — it’s hidden and invisible. If you know somebody has a drug problem or an alcohol problem, eventually you will see it. You will smell it, you will see it, you will know it.”
Problem gamblers lose repeatedly, deeply, and uncontrollably. Thanks to the new ease of sports betting, they can quietly punch numbers into a phone and wreck their economic lives. According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 2.9 percent of American adults suffer from pathological gambling. With 13.6 million New Yorkers over age 18, that translates into more than 414,000 people who are at risk of financial disaster.
State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has warned that New York needs to beef up resources to track and prevent problem gambling, but his cash-hungry colleagues in the state legislature and former governor Andrew Cuomo, eager to get a new source of tax revenue, pushed legalization through.
“We’ve been engaged in a massive cultural experiment with gambling, and we’re delivering gambling to America in ways that are unprecedented worldwide,” says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “No one, at least from an addiction standpoint, has been able to look at what the impact will be on problem gambling.”
But we don’t have to look far to see the wreckage.
“I’m so ashamed of myself,” one anonymous 29-year-old corporate employee recently told NBC News, confessing that he’d blown through his 401(k) retirement money and four high-interest loans, racking up a total of $200,000 in losses. “I cry at night,” he said. “I can barely look at my daughter. I can barely look at my wife.”
Here in New York, the evidence of gambling’s downside has been around us for years. Read the details of some high-profile embezzlement cases, and it often turns out that a gambling disorder fueled the stealing.
In 2017, radio talk-show host Craig Carton was arrested and later sentenced to 42 months in prison for running a Ponzi scheme involving ticket reselling — in part to cover his gambling debts.
That same year, professional poker player Travell Thomas from Buffalo was sentenced to eight years in prison for running a debt-collection scam. “I didn’t spend much time at the office. I spent most of my time gambling,” Thomas said as he wept at his sentencing. “I would spend days at the casinos. I wouldn’t even change my clothes.”
A decade ago, the dean of St. John’s University, Cecilia Chang, hanged herself a day after taking the stand in a trial for allegedly embezzling $1 million from the school. She’d often taken advances of as much as $30,000 from the university to gamble at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.
And there’s Andrew Caspersen, the Ivy League financier and Ponzi scheme operator who ended up in prison for stealing $38 million from victims. “For almost 20 years, I alone gambled away everything I ever loved and treasured,” he said at sentencing.
Alongside those high-profile cases are quiet tragedies like the 2011 case of Sis. Marie Thornton, a nun who over the course of a decade stole $850,000 from Iona College in New Rochelle, where she was vice president of finance, to pay for gambling debts. “Gambling gave her a freedom, a freedom of feeling like it was about her for a change,” her attorney told the court at sentencing.
Christopher Canale of Poughkeepsie, a former payments manager at Bank of New York Mellon Corp, was sentenced to three years in prison in 2018 for stealing more than $7 million from the bank where he worked. The motive was “to save his life because of a gambling addiction,” in the words of the FBI complaint against him.
Gambling doesn’t cause fraud and other criminal activity, but New York leaders of an earlier generation were wise to restrict it. The 1894 State Constitution flatly forbade “any lottery or the sale of lottery tickets pool-selling, book-making, or any other kind of gambling,” but that has been re-written with more and more exceptions, including seven racetracks, a lottery run by the state itself — and now, sports betting.
“It was a really sad, destructive 13 years of my life,” Scott Meyer told Spectrum News. His gambling addiction led him down the path of fraud, embezzlement, and prison. “It took over my thought processes of the need to have gambling in my day,” he said.
Meyer is now a peer counselor for the New York Council on Problem Gambling, which is expecting a surge of calls as the gambling wave crashes through our state. “Pick up the phone,” he says to those falling into the trap. “Don’t be ashamed. We are not judging you. We are here to help you.”
The number of people needing that help is about to skyrocket, and will likely swamp the handful of hotlines and counseling services available. The level of personal pain, shame, and financial ruin will be astounding, but also predictable.