Tremendous Bowl reveals how gambling dependancy is booming in Illinois with the rising sports activities betting trade

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Thousands of soccer fans will be placing their first legal Super Bowl bets in Illinois this weekend, and for most, a little action will make the big game a little more fun.

For some, however, this could open the door to regular betting and add a quick dopamine hit to the regular season experience. Maybe they need to start budgeting for a new habit. Maybe they have to borrow something for that.

And for a few, it will get worse.

It's gotten worse for hundreds of people across the state since Illinois lawmakers approved a massive expansion of gambling a year and a half ago and introduced legal sports betting in a state that already has more places to play than Las Vegas .

The COVID-19 pandemic made matters worse, according to Luke, a problem gambler from the Chicago area who got out of the game nine years ago. Economic uncertainty and the general malaise of the quarantine lifestyle make gambling all the more tempting.

“There used to be a stigma and gambling was taboo. It was shabby, ”said Luke, asking not to use his full name. “Now you can do it on your phone. The companies that do this are Fortune 500 publicly traded companies. "

A man who asked to be identified only as Anthony read the Super Bowl news on his cell phone on Friday.

Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Calls to the state gambling disorder hotline more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, when 13,258 people either looked there or online for information about an issue that experts say is out of sight for a growing number of bettors and their families is. The Illinois Department of Human Services, which aims to connect problem gamblers with advisory resources, calls this a "dramatic increase."

In 2019, around 580 people were treated for gambling disorder through government sponsored programs across Illinois. That number jumped to over 1,000 in 2020, and experts say it doesn't even cut the deck, as only an estimated 3% of problem gamblers acknowledge they have a problem and even fewer seek treatment.

Hundreds more have taken the more drastic step of banning themselves from casinos and the smartphone betting apps that got them excited. Approximately 13,500 people participated in the self-exclusion program, which was maintained by the Illinois Gaming Board regulators in mid-2019. However, since then there have been more than 14,000.

Many of these gamblers say their temptations come from the 10 state-owned casinos, three horse racing tracks, and 7,233 bars, restaurants, gas stations, and VFW halls that also feature slot machines.

Since the start of mobile sports betting last summer, the people of Illinois have been able to play around the clock from the comfort of their home – and have already lost more than $ 101 million, according to the gaming board's sales figures.

Blackhawks analyst Eddie Olczyk placed the first legal sports bet in Illinois in March 2019. Players across the state have wagered more than $ 1.4 billion since then - and lost $ 101 million.

Blackhawks analyst Eddie Olczyk placed the first legal sports bet in Illinois in March 2019. Players across the state have wagered more than $ 1.4 billion since then – and lost $ 101 million.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

As the billion dollar industry continues to grow, addiction counselors hear they hear more and more from young people glued to the sports betting apps whose ads saturate the radio waves and billboards in Illinois.

"It's on your face all the time," said Dr. Teresa Garate of the Gateway Foundation, a network of 16 addiction treatment centers across the state. "It becomes part of everyday life. Everyone accepts it, but for some it is a serious trigger."

Such is the case of Anthony, a 36-year-old gamer who is recovering from the southwest suburb of Tinley Park and who has trouble switching channels when sports talk radio hosts analyze the latest betting lines.

"It's just going to be too much, it's too close," said Anthony. "Even if I don't think it will lead me there, I know better than to let my mind think that way."

Anthony reads out his favorite passages

Anthony reads his favorite passages from "One Day at a Time", a book by Gamblers Anonymous.

Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Elizabeth Thielen, senior director at Nicasa Behavioral Health Services, said she had seen an annual increase in people seeking help with gambling disorder in the northern suburbs of Chicago, but a "real group" of customers had been seeing her over the past nine months .

"The age we see tends to be younger and I think that is directly related to sports betting," said Thielen. "At the same time, I'm hopeful because young people show a surprising level of insight to find help."

Way Back Inn General Manager Anita Pindiur is pictured outside the Maywood plant in 2019.

Way Back Inn General Manager Anita Pindiur is pictured outside the Maywood plant in 2019.

Sun Times file

While there has been an influx of new problem gamblers, the potential for a relapse for Dr. Anita Pindiur, general manager of the Way Back Inn, a Maywood treatment center, is equally worrying. Approximately 10 former patients have already returned to the Way Back Inn for counseling this football season alone.

"Sometimes we forget how quickly it can happen," said Pindiur. "These things are advertised in a way that is fun and entertaining, and they should be." But often there are no limits or recognition of limits until we receive our credit card bill or someone points it out. "

In addition to financial ruin, experts say that people with gambling addiction are more likely to experience substance abuse, turn to crime, or even attempt suicide.

"I lost everything," said Patrick, a 35-year-old Niles man who is 13 months away from his last bet. "I had a paycheck on a Friday afternoon that would be gone by Friday night. My relationships with my family and whoever I was dating, it just got out of hand. I lied, I stole, I did all these crazy things done. "

As sports betting has moved out of the shadows of everyday life, advisors say their challenge now is to remove the stigma of finding an addiction treatment – and they say they will progress through increased awareness. This was funded through the help of $ 7 million allocated under the state's Gambling Enlargement Act to grants for treatment centers, which have used much of that money to boost advertising.

The Way Back Inn is one of only a handful of addiction treatment centers in Illinois that offer a game-specific program.

The Way Back Inn is one of only a handful of addiction treatment centers in Illinois that offer a game-specific program.

Sun Times file

"One of the biggest barriers to treatment is stigma, especially when it comes to gambling," said Garate of the Gateway Foundation. "People don't see it as a real addiction. It is and help is out there."

How many people need help is unclear. Experts generally estimate that anywhere from 2% to 5% of the population is exposed to gambling disorder, which would affect about 635,000 people across Illinois, including about 136,000 in Chicago.

However, there hasn't been a comprehensive study of the problem in Illinois since 1999, long before video slots were distributed to thousands of establishments across the state and sports betting was available anywhere a cell phone signal was available.

"You have to believe that these numbers are different now," said Thielen.

The State Department of Human Services wants to find out how much the onslaught of gambling options has changed them. The agency launched a $ 500,000 study last fall that surveyed treatment providers, problem gamblers, and others to measure the prevalence of addiction, particularly among populations deemed at risk because of their race, culture, economic, or social inequality or marginalized.

"We want to know what the challenge is and what to look out for," said David Jones, who heads the department's substance prevention and recovery division. "Then you can start offering more evidence-based solutions on a scale to match the scale of the challenge."