Around 5:30 p.m. on a mild October night in Seattle, about 50 young men assembled in the foyer of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity near the University of Washington’s campus, scooping basmati rice, chicken tikka masala, and naan onto their dinner plates.
This was no ordinary Wednesday night. The mood in the dining room was electric. Some of the guys ate shirtless, while others had costumes on, representing the full spectrum of preparation for a multi-house Halloween soiree the Alpha Delts were set to host in a couple hours.
In their midst sat two middle-aged men. One of them was me. This was the fraternity I’d joined as a far skinnier lad some 30 years ago, the first place I’d moved to after leaving home. My 70-some housemates, especially the upperclassmen, were like (cliche alert!) big brothers to me as I navigated my way through the social and academic strata at a large, public university.
The Alpha Delt house was a place where I made a lot of decisions without parental guidance for the first time. Some were good, others not so much, but I like to think I learned something from all of them. I came to view my time in the fraternity as sort of a pre-adulthood sequel to the formative years one endures as a small child.
In the dining room, to my left, sat Patrick Chester, age 50. Unlike me, Chester never joined a fraternity — although he spent a fair amount of time partying in them. Like me, he grew up in the north Seattle area and graduated from the University of Washington in 1996.
An hour earlier, we’d met for pints of IPA at a nearby brewpub. I’d talked to Chester before but had never encountered him in person. I’m glad I finally did. He’s laid-back and easy to talk to, a fun guy with whom to swap stories about misbegotten days of yore.
Dinner drew to a close, and about half the guys dispersed to various corners of the house to prepare for the party. The other half filed into a room adjacent to the party deck and took a seat. At the front of the room was a podium with the fraternity’s crest on it. I got up to introduce Chester, who would be discussing the topic of sports betting, an activity that had been live and legal in Washington state for a little over a year.
Specifically, Chester would be discussing how his decade-long addiction to sports betting derailed his life, almost cost him his family, and landed him in jail, a million dollars in debt.
Bad beats and a brush with death
In 2015, Chester was sitting in the stands with his wife and brother-in-law in Glendale, Arizona, rooting for his hometown Seattle Seahawks to repeat as Super Bowl champions against the New England Patriots.
Late in the fourth quarter, Seattle had the ball deep in New England territory, a handoff to Marshawn Lynch away from icing the title. Everyone knows what happened next: Seattle inexplicably called a pass play, Russell Wilson threw a goal-line interception, and the Pats prevailed.
It was a horrifying moment for any Seahawk fan, but Chester had reason to be doubly dejected: Prior to the game, he had wagered $45,000 on Seattle’s moneyline. It would be the last bet he’d ever place.
This bad beat — arguably the worst of all time — was among several anecdotes that Chester, fresh off delivering a TED Talk in Spokane, shared with the Alpha Delts. The $45,000 he lost actually belonged to his brother-in-law, who had no idea Chester had even placed the wager, much less with his money. He’d loaned Chester the money so he could pay back a rental company for some construction equipment he’d rented and illegally resold in order to keep betting.
Here’s how that went down: Chester signed an agreement to rent some $100,000 in heavy machinery and then turned around and sold it at a discount ($45,000). The guy he sold it to lived next door to a local sheriff, who was shocked to learn what a stellar deal his neighbor had gotten. Suspicious, the sheriff ran the serial numbers, learned that his neighbor had bought stolen equipment, and got in touch with Chester, giving him a few days to come up with the money before he charged him with a crime.
As it turns out, Chester was two years removed from being charged with two counts of first-degree theft for stealing money from clients — crimes he was set to be sentenced for a few weeks after he returned from Arizona. A general contractor, Chester would kite checks between his business and personal accounts in order to keep betting, which not only put him $250,000 in the hole but also led to a stranger knocking on his door after a client he’d stolen money from threatened to have him killed.
Chester was home one evening with his son, then 3 years old, when an unfamiliar vehicle carrying three men pulled up to the curb in front of his house. One man got out, and Chester could see he was carrying a gun. After Chester answered the door, the man asked him if he was Patrick Chester. Chester lied, telling him he was his brother and that Chester no longer lived there. Somehow, the pistol-packer bought this story and ambled off into the night.
‘We should talk to these students like adults’
While I hardly expected my younger Alpha Delt brethren to be rude or overtly inattentive during Chester’s talk, I didn’t anticipate them to sit rapt, ignoring their phones, abstaining from alcohol, and peppering Chester with thoughtful questions once he concluded his prepared remarks.
Chester had asked earlier how many of the assembled Alpha Delts bet on sports, and most said they did, despite the fact that Washington has no legal mobile wagering and the closest retail sportsbook is about a 45-minute drive from the house. With gambling, as Chester knows all too well, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
The Alpha Delts asked Chester if he ever exhibited any physical signs of his addiction. While he said he often experienced mood swings as a result of his betting, he noted that, unlike with alcohol and drug abuse, gambling addiction is an illness that includes few, if any, physical tells. Also unlike alcohol and drug abuse, gambling addiction was something his elders never discussed with him as a boy or when he was in college. That absence of information and education, in a nutshell, was why Chester was here.
Mike Buzzelli, associate director of the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio, told me in an interview that at the university level, “They’ve always had the responsibility to talk about alcohol, drugs, sexual violence. It’s time for them to feel a sense of responsibility around gambling addiction.”
Thankfully, this seems to be happening, at least in spots. EPIC Risk Management has a formal partnership with the NCAA to deliver problem gambling education to student-athletes all over the country (thus far, they’ve reached 46 colleges in 22 states), while Buzzelli has led efforts to bring similar curricula into collegiate Greek systems in Ohio and beyond.
Back in August, Buzzelli told me that his group had chosen to target fraternities and sororities because that population is engaged “in other risky behaviors.” Hence, he presents problem gambling alongside other potentially problematic activities, while Chester favors a singular focus.
“There’s a famous quote in our field — no data without stories and no stories without data,” said Buzzelli, who greatly admires the work Chester is doing. “It’s easy for a college student to listen to me speak and say that 10 percent of college students have a problem. Or they could listen to somebody with a personal story. A kid can say, ‘That won’t be me.’ But if you have both — if you provide information and have somebody giving a personal story or experience — it’s really hard to ignore that altogether.”
As I described the Alpha Delt members’ response to Chester’s talk — in which he made it clear that he is not against legal gambling, but simply wanted to make young people aware that things can get out of hand — and how hungry the attendees were for more information, Buzzelli said he wasn’t surprised.
“There’s a big interest in [sports gambling],” he said. “We should talk to these students like adults. They’re not kids. Even if they haven’t had an addiction, they have their own lived experiences. When you convey that message of equality versus an expert lecturing you, they’re gonna open up. When I’ve done these talks, there’s always a stay-after. When you convey that message peer-to-peer but also not anti — let’s do it in a responsible way — they’re gonna be so much more responsive to that message.”
A natural extension of bro-ing down
Using stereotypes to blanket entire groups of people is categorically unfair. Pick a given fraternity at random, and I guarantee you’ll find people from as many walks of life as there are lives to be walked.
But stereotypes, while overly broad, are typically grounded in some sort of demographic reality. So just as not all frat guys are into watching football, one-night stands, crass language, getting blind drunk, and wearing baseball caps in any and all situations, there are some who enjoy such muy macho activities. Barstool Sports would not exist if such creatures did not walk the Earth in significant numbers.
Sports betting, then, seems a natural extension of bro-ing down.
“With a frat, people come over to your house all the time,” a University of Oregon fraternity member named Liam Dauphinee told me last month while discussing his affinity for micro-betting. “In our fraternity, sports is by far the biggest thing that brings people together.”
The frat-dude demo is important enough that marketing executive Siska Concannon, who once worked on the Barstool Sportsbook brand while at PENN Entertainment, hedged a bit during an all-female panel discussion at last month’s Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas when asserting that the industry had to broaden its appeal to women and minorities.
“As an industry, we don’t necessarily need to move away from the frat-boy culture, but we need more diversity, we need more change,” she said.
After Chester fielded his last question, several Alpha Delts delayed their pre-function plans even further by warmly thanking him and shaking his hand. He and I walked out to the north parking lot, enjoying a dopamine rush not dissimilar to cashing a six-leg parlay. Chester didn’t say it, but I could tell as I bid him good night that he had gotten as much out of the talk as the guys he talked to — the road to true recovery is never-ending and in perpetual need of positive petroleum.
As Chester backed his Chevy Yukon onto 21st Avenue, I marveled at how the fraternity, having recently undergone a multimillion-dollar structural renovation, still hadn’t managed to fully fix a little cliff on the parking strip that once allowed an unknown individual who commandeered the keys to my Mercury Monarch to high-center the vehicle. I needed help getting it back on flat land. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last.