The following is a conversation between SportsHandle’s Jeff Edelstein and Keith Whyte, the longtime executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. It occurred during the NFL playoffs. It has been lightly edited for ease of reading.
I will admit, I was caught slightly off-guard when my phone informed me a few weeks back that I had spent 12 hours and 13 minutes looking at the Underdog app in the week leading up to the NFL wild card round. I’m quite confident the 12 hours is a personal record for viewing any one single app.
This does, however, kind of track, as I drafted 172 teams, mostly $5 a pop into their “Mitten” best ball playoff contests.
Let me say this: There is little in this world that gives me more joy than drafting best ball fantasy teams or building daily fantasy lineups. To immediately clear the air, here is a list of items that do give me more joy: time spent with wife, time spent with children, time spent with friends.
But uh … sometimes, not. Sometimes I’d rather spend time picking players for my various fantasy forays. Maybe it’s midday, maybe it’s midnight, maybe it’s … after the kids eat breakfast, but before I take them to school. And after bath, but before bed. And a few “I’ll be right down!” moments thrown in for good measure with my wife, as I’m in the middle of this thing and … I need a minute!!!
When it comes to betting on sports, it’s fantasy for me. I absolutely love it. It’s a hobby, and — I know, I know, everyone says so — but it’s been a profitable one for me. Those playoff best ball teams? About 1.5% of my bankroll, which I keep meticulous-ish notes on. What I mean is I know how much money I’ve made gambling since I started playing DFS seriously in 2014.
And while I’ve loved every minute of it, I suppose I do sometimes wonder how many minutes of it I’ve given. I mean, if I spent 12 hours last week on Underdog … maybe best not to think about it.
Here’s the deal: I never have bet — and don’t plan on betting — over my head. I keep tabs on what goes in and what comes out. And while I’ve probably put DFS and other fantasy momentarily ahead of my family life, and while I’m notorious for checking my phone on Sunday afternoons in the fall, I’m not a “watch sports” guy, so I’m usually present and accounted for whenever need be.
During an NFL week, I’ll probably have that same 1.5% of my bankroll rolling around the DFS waters and NFL betting waters, and, to be clear, I also gamble on NBA and MLB religiously, and just about everything else on the DraftKings menu … well, secularly. I figure that 1.5% of bankroll holds for my weekly MLB and NBA action.
Am I addicted to DFS and fantasy? Well … I don’t want to stop doing it. I legitimately would not move to a state where I couldn’t play.
Do I have a gambling problem? That’s really the point of this exercise. And if I don’t, what should I be looking out for in the future? What questions do I need to ask myself?
Harm is subjective
When I tell people I work to prevent gambling problems, many people who gamble get kind of sheepish. I think they fear they are going to be shamed or judged. And while it is true that our work often focuses on the downside, one of the things that reassures me is that most people who gamble are able to do so without harm.
So I’m not here to judge you. My point of view is not as a counselor or psychiatrist, a recovering gambler, or a sportsbook operator. I’ve listened and learned from all of them over the almost 30 years I’ve spent working on gambling issues.
Harm is also a pretty subjective concept, and certainly it is specific to each individual. Are you harmed by losing a $5 bet? Well, you lost money, but it is likely money you can afford and something most people probably wouldn’t think twice about.
Rather than start with any warning signs of problems, let’s flip the script and talk about protective factors. There are things like establishing a bankroll and staying within that limit. Here we see that modern gambling apps make keeping tabs on your gambling easier than ever (though they certainly also bring additional risk factors). That you were mindful of the amount of time spent is a good sign. The opportunity is there for people who gamble to actively, consciously build up protective factors.
Keep asking questions, and use the data to try and find if there are any other warning signs (or leakage) in your gambling patterns. For example, do you often bet more or lose more on certain sports or at particular times? Does alcohol consumption have an effect?
Mo’ profit, mo’ problems?
To your points near the end, I definitely will find myself chasing DFS losses, especially in football. I lose Sunday, I’ll probably go a little heavier Sunday night, things like that.
And yeah, I have noticed I get a little looser with entering contests if I’ve had a few drinks.
But the one question that nags at me is this: Where would I be if I wasn’t profitable? I built a good bankroll, mostly based on three big wins. If I didn’t have the bankroll — in short, if I were losing — where would I be?
I’d like to think I’d be OK, but that’s a guess. I hope I never have to find out.
My other big question: If I wasn’t playing DFS, would I be a better spouse/parent? It does suck up a lot of my free time, and I definitely will find myself wondering about DFS lineups during non-DFS times.
If I were a pro gambler, if this was my livelihood, I could chalk it up to just that: This is my job. But for me, and many others, this is just a hobby, one that is, sometimes, all-encompassing.
Is that, in and of itself, a marker of a gambling disorder — that oftentimes my DFS play will take precedence over my family life?
Time is not on my side
I hear this a lot from gamblers and the general public, some variation on “it’s only a problem if you lose,” which makes sense on some levels but also is something to explore further. Almost all gamblers will lose over time since the odds are against them, but most gamblers also never have a problem. If you are indeed in the black, that is great. It sounds like you have good bankroll management and realistic expectations, hallmarks of a low-risk approach to gambling.
There is a classic chart in the gambling addiction field that describes three phases of gambling: a winning phase, a losing phase, and a desperation phase. If you are able to stretch out the winning phase — as it seems you have — for as long as possible, you will likely be in good shape. Just as long as it doesn’t become an expectation that you will always win.
And always be aware that there are lots of both sudden and subtle risk factors that may arise. Things like aging, illness, a traumatic life event, job loss, retirement — all that may change how and why you gamble. Depending on the circumstances in your life, the same level of gambling in five years could be extremely risky if you’ve had a few negative events. Conversely, if you have another big win, then being at the same level in five years may be positive, as many people increase their spend after a win.
You clearly have an approach to your betting that is analytical and thoughtful. That you are asking these questions is an extremely good thing and may be one of the most protective factors of all. Most people with problems never ask, or ask far too late.
Getting back to time: A sports bettor who had a serious gambling problem told me the thing he regrets the most is the time he lost. He described not “being” there at his daughter’s soccer game because he was dwelling on last night’s losses, planning today’s bets, and worrying where he was going to get the money. Obviously, he was someone with a severe problem.
One thing to examine is how your family feels about the time you spend betting, and even if you had a conversation in the early days, have you checked in recently to see if anything has changed, either in what they have observed in you or in how they feel?
‘Problematic but not a problem’
As for my wife? She’s been a bit neutered on the topic, seeing that it landed me this job! But I’m going to ask her … stand by:
My wife responds …
“I think your gambling is problematic but not a problem. It consumes a majority of your free time, and the time spent has intensified over the past several years. I’m assuming that is a result of access online, the increase in ways to gamble online, and your job. You could probably use better time management around your gambling.”
Back to me …
Well, OK. But to be fair, I could probably use better time management around every facet of my life from birth to now. I’d definitely be on ADHD meds if I were a teenager today. But she’s probably not wrong. What do you make of the “problematic but not a problem” bit?
Yeah, better time management generally is an eternal goal for everyone. Still, it was very interesting to get her reaction. And I should note here again that I’m not a therapist! Just two friends talking. I love her turn of phrase “problematic but not a problem.”
One of the things that is always interesting is looking at change over time. So many of us set a standard or develop a routine or whatever when we are at one age or stage of life, but then struggle to adjust either as we age or mature or change over time. Anyway, that she noticed your gambling has intensified is important. I wonder if you agree? And if there is any way to quantify it — looking back at any records you may keep or could get from your accounts. Lifetime wins or losses by year, that kind of thing. See if it bears it out. Sometimes it is helpful to be able to quantify those perceptions.
Very interesting she talked about time, not money. Goes back to discussions we’ve had about the value of time, the differing priorities for each member of the household.
The reasons why she believes your gambling has become more intense are also interesting: accessibility, availability, and, of course, a job in gaming. Are you gambling more because it’s more accessible on your phone?
I wonder too about the impact of availability — if you have been cross-sold and participate in more verticals than you used to? Or are you betting on sports, leagues, or teams you are less familiar with because those games and bets are now much more available?
But going back to the “problematic but not a problem” comment, I think it is extremely important. The person who knows you the best has seen some changes over the past few years in your gambling. It’s important that she noticed it, whether or not you ever discussed it.
The line between heavy recreational and early stage problems is a thin one. And many of the gamblers in recovery I talk to never knew they crossed it until after they crashed, got into recovery, and took a hard look back at themselves.
You’re not there, but I do think it is fair to say that your gambling patterns now put you at higher risk to develop a problem if there is an unexpected change. And changes aren’t always negative like job loss or a family member passing away. It could be a big raise or family inheritance. Gambling with “house money” can lead to a lot of excess.
If you were going to make some changes in your gambling, what would make sense to you? Tracking time a little bit more? Reducing bankroll or scaling back a bit? Dropping limits? Turning your phone off at certain times?
Siren song of the slots
OK, in response to your many questions, here goes …
1) Yes, my gambling has intensified, and it is undoubtedly due to the ease of action. I wasn’t a sports bettor before it became legalized, and pre-DFS, I just sank all my time into season-long fantasy. So yeah, it’s intensified.
2) The cross-sell is real. iCasino has been legal in New Jersey since 2013 or thereabouts, and I never once touched it. Now I touch it nearly every day. I’ll take the 10 free spins or the “play $5 worth and get $5 in credits.” And yep, sometimes this has led me down a path that ends with me saying, “What the eff did you just do?” But I’m aware of it now, and I take great pains on the casino side to only play with house money. Usually. Most of the time. Is it getting hot in here?
3) The job doesn’t hurt, but probably doesn’t help, either. Obviously, I’m thinking about the gambling world a lot more than if I wasn’t working in it, but I’m pretty sure it hasn’t added to the amount of betting.
4) Changes? It would be tracking time. Not necessarily cutting time, but, more to the point, using the time better. In short: not on the couch at 7:30 p.m. while my daughter is trying to tell me a story about her day.
I think I’ve exhausted this conversation! Any parting thoughts?
Just that I really appreciate the opportunity to dialogue with you on this issue. I think you are far from having a problem, and that even just asking the question is a very good sign. If there are any tweaks you make, like using the available tech to help track time or just making a commitment to be a little more present at times, that will probably go a long way.