It was a hot summer day and a young man named Arnie Wexler was feeling good as he was about to go on a second date with his now-wife, Sheila, at the Monticello Raceway, in the Hudson Valley.
Wexler, 21 at the time, was a regular and would often place bets on the horses. But when they arrived at the gate on this day, they were immediately turned away. Sheila was 17, which was under the age limit to enter the track. Her long ponytails were a clear giveaway.
Wexler wasn’t about to give up though. He decided to try other gates but had a similar outcome as the first. At this point, Wexler was willing to ditch Sheila just to bet on the horses that day.
“I would have left her in the car for a couple of hours to get in there,” Wexler said.
At the last gate, the supervisor let them in and they, especially Wexler, enjoyed many more dates at the track.
Arnie Wexler had a gambling addiction.
This was in 1958. Fast forward 60 years and the problem of gambling addiction hasn’t changed.
But placing bets today is much easier. Unlike Wexler, who had to go to the track, or later gamble illegally using a bookie, New Yorkers will now be able to place bets on myriad sporting events using their phones, with the state Legislature approving legalized mobile sports betting in April as part of the 2021-2022 budget.
For someone like Hank Cone, whose name was changed for this story, this form of all-too-easy access is a genuine danger. Cone had a gambling problem and he knows it, and he’s a lot more tech savvy than Wexler. Their joint struggle, both 50 years ago and in the present day, is that gambling is ferociously addictive to some people.
According to the North American Foundation for Gambling Addiction Help, approximately 2.6 percent of the U.S. population has some type of gambling issue. That’s almost 10 million people. To put that in perspective, American Addiction Centers, a national network of addiction rehab facilities, reported in 2017 that 14.5 million Americans aged 12 and older battled an alcohol use disorder. Unlike in Wexler’s day, there are now many more programs in place to address it.
Wexler, a former problem gambler and now a compulsive betting counselor, helped institute the Problem Gambling Helpline — “1-800 Gambler” — in casinos across the country that refers people to treatment. Wexler has also written a book called “All Bets Are Off,” which details his problems with gambling and his road to recovery.
Jaime Costello, program manager at the New York Council on Problem Gambling, stressed the importance of these signs as a reminder for people who may know a problem gambler, or who may develop a gambling problem themselves.
“If people see that number everywhere, they’re going to file it in the back of their mind, and maybe ignore it, until somebody says I have a gambling problem and I need help,” Costello said, adding that having the phone number already in their head can push them to reach out and get help.
However, with new technology comes new risks, including the movement towards mobile sports betting, which is quickly being legalized in many states.
The technology lets you bet on games and events on the go. The practice is legal in 15 states as of right now and within those states, people can place bets on games right on their phone without having to go to the casino. Currently, 80 percent of legal sports betting in the US is done online according to Casino.org. Sports that are commonly bet on include baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer, UFC and many others. To sign up with a mobile sportsbook, all you have to do is provide your banking information and you can add any amount of money you want to your account. Some states, however, require you to go to a certified casino in order to sign up.
Either way, once enrolled, it creates a more convenient service where people don’t even have to leave their house to bet on games that are going on that day. Coupled with a pandemic, people now more than ever are vulnerable to taking chances with their money.
Just this January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo brought up the possibilities that could come from this move. In his 2021 State of the State, Cuomo said that New York “has the potential to be the largest sports wagering market in the United States.”
That isn’t a far-fetched idea according to Gary Greenberg. As a current shareholder at Vernon Downs Casino and Hotel, and a write-in candidate for New York’s 46th State Senate District in this past election, Greenberg has been a longtime supporter of legalized mobile sportsbooks in New York and shares the same feelings as Cuomo.
“New York City and the rest of the state definitely is the prime market right now. That’s the state that wants in the industry so he’s 100 percent right,” said Greenberg. While he does back mobile sports betting, Greenberg also recognizes that more emphasis should be put on funding towards problem gambling when it launches in early 2022.
One state that currently does have mobile sportsbooks is right next door. According to the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania, the calls from individuals reporting problems primarily from internet forms of gambling increased 285 percent from 65 in 2019 to 250 in 2020.
Another state that legalized mobile sports betting in August 2018 and is feeling the ramifications is New Jersey. Below is a chart from the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey that looks at the increasing trend in handle (the amount of money in wagers accepted in millions) located on the left and the corresponding increasing trend of the percentage of helpline calls where sports betting is the primary issue on the right. The chart shows an increase in the number of calls since the mobile option of the practice went into effect in the state and a large percentage of those calls were sports related.
Sports gambling in New York has come a long way to where it is now and the fight for legalization has ramped up in the last decade. Less than 10 years ago, only horse track betting and OTBs (Off-Track Betting) were allowed by the state. OTBs allow people to bet on horse racing at establishments outside a racetrack.
This changed in 2013, when a law was put in place to allow four commercial casinos located in the upstate New York region to be constructed. Those casinos include Resorts World Catskill, del Lago Resort & Casino, Rivers Casino & Resort Schenectady and Tioga Downs Casino.
The law remained dormant for years and the casinos were built initially without a sportsbook attached to them. That changed in 2018, when there was a Supreme Court ruling to repeal the nationwide ban on commercial sports betting in most states. After six years of waiting, sports betting at four commercial casinos took effect in July, 2019 when the first bet was officially placed.
Unfortunately for Arnie Wexler’s previous betting addiction, he didn’t have the luxury of placing sports bets locally and doing it the legal way. He had to find other avenues to fuel his cravings. That is where bookmakers came into his life.
A bookmaker, commonly referred to as a bookie, is a person who facilitates gambling by setting the odds and placing bets on your behalf when you live in a state where sports betting is illegal. They would sometimes lend money to their customers and this practice was frowned upon as it can also be linked to other illegal activities.
At one point, Wexler was at a rough point in his life and owed as much as $16,000 to a bookie in 1967 — the equivalent of more than $128,000 today. At the time, $16,000 was three times his annual salary. He took side jobs from the bookie, but it did little to cure his problems.
It got so bad that Wexler contemplated suicide to escape the torture.
“I had life insurance and I thought, ‘If I killed myself, my wife at least would get the $5,000 worth of life insurance,’” said Arnie Wexler.
Wexler knew it was time to change his life for the better. So in February, 1968, he sought help through the 12-step program for the first time with his wife by his side. He had nightmares of gambling through the recovery and it would often keep him up at night thinking about the possibility of betting. He finally put the urges aside and placed the last bet of his life on April 10, 1968. It was the opening day of the baseball season and he placed a bet on the Mets. In the bottom of the ninth, the opposing team scored four runs which resulted in Wexler losing.
Another popular form of sports wagering is daily fantasy sports. Led by companies like DraftKings and Fanduel, daily fantasy sports classified itself as a “game of skill,” which allowed it to become legal in 2006 since it wasn’t considered gambling. The practice hit a boom period in 2014-15 when it started to invest with major sports leagues such as the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB.
To play daily fantasy sports, you have to set a lineup of players online and you earn points based on the performance of those individuals. There are different contests with an entry fee and a prize is given to the winner who has the most points at the end of the contest. A higher entry fee usually yields higher prize money in a given contest.
For those who follow sports and think they are experts, it can seem like a fun and easy way to make some money. For one individual though, it led to years of problems until he faced it in the mirror.
Starting when he was in his early 20s, Hank Cone began to play on DraftKings and saw it as an easy way to make a lot of money. “In my mind, it was just an easy way to deposit $20 and enter a contest to maybe win a million dollars or $100,000,” Cone said.
Cone did get first place two times over the three-four year period he played in the DraftKings contests. However, since he tied with a large number of people in those contests and had to split the money, the most he ever won was $400.
Even through his struggles to win big on the platform, Cone kept telling himself that he would win the big prize and continued to invest money. During one calendar year, Cone said that he invested more than 5 figures into DraftKings. Now in his late 20s, he recognizes the flaws in daily fantasy sports.
“They made it seem like it really wasn’t gambling and all strategy. It’s not real gambling but it really was. It felt like I was playing the lottery,” said Cone. The way DraftKings advertised their contests and the commercials they put out that spotlighted the big money prizes drew Cone in. He compared it to slot machines and the big flashing colors that entice you to play more.
Realizing he had a problem, Cone sought help around Christmas of 2020 with the help of his wife and family.
After leaving one recovery center due to a scheduling conflict, he found help with the Northeast Problem Gambling Resource Center who connected him with a counselor. Cone started to block out and disassociate himself with everything that involved gambling in his life which helped him a lot.
“I told myself, it’s either cold turkey or that’s it. Once a couple of months went by, it’s been super easy not to do any gambling at all,” said Cone. He knew that he couldn’t be lazy with this. He had to put all of his energy into getting help and he’s done that with the assistance of the Problem Gambling Resource Center.
Similar to cases like Cone’s, the NPGRC focuses on supporting those individuals and reducing barriers to get help. According to Program Manager Robin Fetterman at the Problem Gambling Resource Center, some common obstacles include financial problems, transportation and even a lack of information on the types of treatment.
“We try to reduce these barriers any way we can, whether that’s helping with cost of treatment, even up to the full cost if we can make an insurance match, and providing phone sessions to those who can’t travel,” Fetterman said.
With the legalization of mobile sportsbooks in New York, it will become much easier for people to gamble on sports since it will be available right on their phones.
“If we increase accessibility to gambling, then there’s going to be an increase in problems,” Fetterman said. “The two just kind of go together when there are more chances and opportunities to gamble.”