Victim of Their Vices: Why the Lockdown Was Especially Hard For Gambling Addicts

In the midst of the lockdown eliminating usual outlets or sources of outside entertainment can make the struggle with addiction even worse.

Possible Trigger Warning: Gambling addiction

Andy Bellatti classifies his worst day with a price tag: $3,000.

Three thousand dollars... gone in just two hours... while sitting inside a casino in Las Vegas.

“I’ll never forget that was the day where I was sitting next to somebody who was playing, and she was also losing, losing, losing, and I did not know this woman,” Bellatti said, “and at one point she turned to me and she goes…‘Are you also addicted?’ That totally stuck with me because the answer was: ‘Yes, and I’m miserable.’”

Before visiting Las Vegas in 2007, Bellatti had never been interested in gambling. But the first time he tried it, he was “instantly hooked,” mainly with slot machines. They were a way for him to escape and numb. Soon, he was planning at least one trip a year to Sin City to get his fix. Eventually, those trips weren’t enough, and Bellatti moved to Las Vegas permanently – but his life on the strip was far from perfect.

“Before my addiction, I had no credit card debt. I had one credit card. I had a savings account with money in it. Five years after, I had twelve or thirteen credit cards, $35,000 in credit card debt, no savings, and I cashed out two of my 401ks,” he said. “My rock bottom kept getting lower and lower and lower. I remember sitting at that slot machine and thinking, 'Is this it?' Like, 'Is this how the rest of my life is going to be?'”

Bellatti’s story, sadly, isn’t uncommon and is even more familiar this past year.

In the midst of the lockdown eliminating usual outlets or sources of outside entertainment for many people, combining unhealthy technology use with a pandemic can make one’s struggle with addiction even worse.

“I think especially now during the pandemic, [since] people cannot travel or do the things that they once enjoyed, they're looking for anything that serves as an escape or source of enjoyment,” Bellatti said, “and gambling, I think for many people, might be the thing they go to.”

The past year has put all of our emotions through the ringer, and few of us have come out unscathed –which is why Bellatti is most worried about those who are becoming victims of their vices.

“At the end of the day, when you're a problem gambler, usually what triggers you to gamble is any kind of negative emotion – despair, depression, loneliness, anxiety – and a pandemic exacerbates a lot of those emotions and feelings for people,” Bellatti said. “If I was still active in my addiction during the pandemic, that would have been such an easy escape for me.”

Keith Whyte, Executive Director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, noticed this struggle first-hand over the past year.

“Anecdotally, we've heard a lot of concern during the pandemic from gamblers who feel like they may be at higher risk. They’re lonely, they're stressed, they're isolated – in some cases they may have lost income – and these are all risk factors for developing a gambling addiction,” said Whyte. “So gamblers themselves have been expressing that the pandemic for them may be a dangerous time.”

According to the American Gaming Association, overall gambling participation declined steeply in the United States in 2020 by about thirty percent, and part of this drop was due to casino closures and reduced access last year.

Whyte, though, noticed another disturbing trend during the pandemic.

“When you look at that overall participation trend, online gambling participation – online gambling, and mobile gambling and sports betting – exploded during the pandemic,” Whyte said. “We're seeing increases of hundreds of percent in online and mobile gambling. And now of course that sports are back, sports wagering is going through the roof.”

According to the AGA, in 2020 sports betting revenue was up about seventy percent, and betting on this year’s Super Bowl also jumped by that same amount. The recent NCAA Tournament is also expected to add another multimillion-dollar tally from placed wagers.

“There are now more than twenty states who have legalized gambling on sports in the past two years,” Whyte said. “It's the largest and fastest expansion of gambling in our nation's history -- all right during or as a consequence of the pandemic.”

According to Sportshandle, in some of the states that recently legalized digital sportsbooks, nearly 90 percent of all sports bets were placed either online or through mobile devices. From August 2020 until February 2021, the AGA said there was a six-month streak of consecutive all-time records of sports betting handle.

“March numbers still aren't in in most of the country, but I think when all is said and done, in the first quarter of 2021 both sports betting handle, as well as revenue for the industry, is going to be up about 300% from 2019,” said David Forman, the AGA’s senior director of research.

With brick-and-mortar casino closures, Forman says the pandemic has also had a surprising impact on a traditionally smaller sector of the mobile and online gambling world: I-gaming.

“One area it has kind of changed things a bit is where when it comes to I-gaming, which is the online slots or blackjack games that are offered in just a handful of states. But what you saw in those states is that the I-gaming revenue did increase pretty significantly last year,” Forman said. “Last year in 2020, I-gaming revenue was up about 200 percent.”

During the pandemic, with fewer real-life opportunities available, screens have become the escape for many, and with gambling at one’s fingertips, it can be a tough temptation to resist –especially for younger gamblers.

“One of the risk factors for gambling on your mobile phone -- besides the immediate access and the direct notifications -- is the fact that most gambling companies now essentially have one-touch betting. So just like Amazon wants you to be able to order in one touch, betting companies want you to be able to play in one touch,” Whyte said. “But what gamblers may not know is that the same way Amazon collects all your larger data to try and personalize
and sell you a product that they think you really want, gambling companies are collecting all that data and targeting and tailoring their offers and sometimes even their games to the specific gambler."

“So as these three things come together -- the pandemic, the expansion of legalized gambling and new technology, we think it's going to create a storm for people at risk for gambling problems, and for people who already have gambling problems,” Whyte said.

A recent NCPG survey surrounding gambling attitudes and experiences found that for younger male gamblers especially it was “almost impossible for them to resist that targeted offer to gamble” on mobile apps, Whyte said.

Bellatti struggled with his gambling addiction for five years, and at the time, he says he turned to addictive play to avoid dealing with larger demons in his life, like work and personal issues – all things that he kept hidden from others.

It was a conversation with his boss that was the wake-up call Bellati needed, and it eventually led him to a twelve-step program. Bellatti has been in recovery for the last three years and urged others struggling with problem gambling to seek help through a recovery program and to give it at least thirty days. For him, it’s helped him realize the root of his problem and find a support group he desperately needed.

“Here I am, almost three years and four months later, and my life is so much better," he said. "It's not that it's perfect, but I always say my worst day in recovery is better than my best day when I was active in my addiction.”