Illinois mental health experts see varied impacts of sports gambling a year into state's legalization

Woodstock resident Jose Tapia had a feeling Tom Brady was going to look for a familiar receiver as the quarterback led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into the Super Bowl this year.

So ahead of the big game, Tapia pulled out his cellphone, opened an application and bet $100 bet on Tampa Bay tight end Rob Gronkowski having two or more receiving touchdowns and the Buccaneers winning, a series of events the sportsbook had at 20-to-1 odds.

The gamble paid off, and Tapia was $2,000 richer.

But his luck wasn't as strong more recently. He missed out on winning $4,350 on a $100 wager this month, because of NBA's Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic coming up just one assist shy of a triple-double stat line, as the center led the Denver Nuggets to victory in a double-overtime playoff basketball thriller against the Portland Trailblazers.

On Friday, wagering on athletics through online sportsbooks will have been live and legal in Illinois for a year, and for every 100 bettors like Tapia who put up only what they can afford to lose in hopes strings of events facing long odds occur for big payouts, about three will develop unhealthy gambling problems, said Faye Freeman-Smith, a member of the board of directors for the group Illinois Council on Problem Gambling and a gambling counselor.

"There are a few, that 2% to 3% of bettors, that will have difficulty," Freeman-Smith said. "We need to educate, make an awareness of what is happening now, especially since Illinois is opening up for gambling, with some programs and even private practices that Illinois has that are treatments for gambling."

While only a small minority of gamblers end up allowing their habits to become debilitating, some mental health experts in the state noticed trends over the past year they think might point to sports wagering's legalization leading to some people who have had prior betting problems wanting to get back in the game.

That includes Freeman-Smith, whose counseling service is based in Bloomington-Normal, as well as Bruce Sewick, the CEO of Hoffman Estates-based Leyden Family Service and the SHARE Program, which offers a gambling outpatient treatment service.

Both said more people inquired about getting help for betting problems over the past year, while there also was more interest from people who had prior gambling problems reversing their listing on the state's self-exclusion list.

Others, like Charles Vorderer, a counselor and mediator at the Center for Therapeutic Services & Psychodiagnostics, which has offices in McHenry, Crystal Lake and Lake in the Hills, have not noticed a jump in problematic betting habits among area clients.

"I haven't seen an increase of gambling issues related to depression, anxiety or substance abuse because usually when they come in, they don't recognize they have a gambling problem, per se. We're not Vegas, we don't have casinos, you have to drive a ways for that. For those coming in with gambling as a primary source of an issue, I haven't seen any kind of increase in that," Vorderer said.

In 2002, the Illinois Gaming Board started the Statewide Casino Voluntary Self-Exclusion Program for Problem Gamblers that let people disallow themselves from gambling at any casino in the state, and people already on the self-exclusion list were precluded from participation in sports wagering.

Getting off the list once you've put yourself on it is difficult, according to the state and Sewick. You have to wait at least five years until after you enrolled and provide an affidavit from a licensed mental health professional certified as a gambling addiction counselor that you can play responsibly.

Either COVID-19 shutting down tons of businesses, cultural events and public places the last year, or the start of legal sports betting could have driven the rise in interest in getting off the state's self-exemption list, Sewick and Freeman-Smith said.

"I'm speculating that people who have been sequestered now want to get out and try gambling again," Sewick said.

They also acknowledged the possibility the launch of sports betting also may be driving the trend, as past problem gamblers who had issues with video gaming or casino wagers may feel they can try their hand at sports gambling without putting too much at risk.

"It's interesting that more people are coming in for treatment at the same time and more people would reverse self-exclusion," Sewick said.

Problem gamblers also are becoming harder to spot and convince they need treatment because of easy accessibility of sportsbooks on smartphone apps, Freeman-Smith said, because someone sitting in the living room placing bets on their handheld device isn't as visible and in public as much as bettors losing their shirts at a video gaming parlor or casino, where a friend or family member may be able to more easily intervene.

Online sportsbooks do have some guard rails, however. Apps will display a pop-up message, sometimes presented as a "reality check," telling bettors how long they have been browsing odds and how much they have placed in wagers when they hit certain thresholds.

Not only is sports betting becoming accessible almost 24 hours a day, but retail stock market and cryptocurrency trading apps like Robinhood, which saw its popularity rise during the pandemic, are also becoming a risk for problem gamblers, Freeman-Smith said. The vast majority of sportsbooks' revenue in the state has been made from online wagering.

Freeman-Smith is awaiting survey data being collected by the state about its opening of sports gambling to decide more about what kind of further regulations might be worth exploring for the industry and to determine what kind of programs or campaigns the state might want to fund to help prevent and treat problematic gambling behavior.

"I think we're in uncharted territory on that right now. One of the things about any kind of addiction, gambling is a process addition. You get lost in that moment. That reality check like that, here's where you're at, it's not like you're at a bar, and the bartender says you've had too much to drink and cuts you off. As this thing rolls out, we'll find out more," Sewick said.

For gamblers like Woodstock's Tapia who already were sports fans before online oddsmakers started their operations last year, the chance to make a quick buck off a game he was likely to watch anyway adds to the fun.

"You can be watching two bad teams playing but still make it exciting to watch by placing a simple $5 or $100 bet," Tapia said.

While a win for your team can be even more of a thrill with a bet, a loss on a wager on top of chalking one up in the loss column for your favorite team leaves any fan even more frustrated, as Wonder Lake resident and casual gambler Nick Daum has sometimes discovered.

"I don't have many positive things to say about sports gambling. I mean sure it has won me money from time to time, but it also pushes me to be more angry while I watch sports even when I bet intelligently," Daum said.

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