Saul Malek, 25, of Dallas, fell $20,000 in debt because of sports betting. Malek is in recovery for his gambling addiction and speaks at schools and on podcasts to raise awareness about the compulsions developed from wagering on sports. Dallas Morning News photo via Tribune News Service

Saul Malek won his first sports bet on Sept. 20, 2017. He won again four days later, with an underdog wager during the Sunday NFL games.

That’s all it took. From there, he was hooked.

“I just felt at the top of the world, this amazing high,” he said. “It gave me this belief that I was a professional, that I wouldn’t have to work or anything. … (I could) be a big shot, like some Mafia guy winning all these bets.”

Instead, it was the start of a problem. Malek would bet through a creditor, and when he couldn’t pay it off, he blocked the phone number and moved on to another. He began routinely betting between $500 and $1,000 on games, and even about $3,000 on a tennis match. He fell $20,000 in debt; four years later, he’s still paying it off.

“There’s no peace in that lifestyle,” said Malek, now 25 and living in Dallas. “There’s this constant spinning of the mind, of all this worry and fear of who am I telling the lie to, who do I owe money to, what am I going to say?”

“It’s a constant hell, being trapped in your own mind, trying to out-think this thing that’s really a mental compulsion. And then it just gets worse.”


As sports betting goes live in Maine on Friday, the state is bracing for an increase in people like Malek who have gambling disorders. New Hampshire and Connecticut have seen a significant jump in calls for help since sports betting was introduced in those states. And since the advent of sports wagering in many states, the demographic of gamblers has skewed younger.

“We want to be vigilant. We already have services and resources in place,” said Lori Manson, the problem gambling services coordinator for AdCare Maine, an Augusta nonprofit that manages the state’s 211 help line. “Obviously there will be an increased need for services, but I’m hoping that it won’t be a tidal wave right away.”

Since 2018, over 30 states have adopted sports betting. As the number of states allowing sports betting has grown, so have the instances of problem gambling. According to a survey conducted by the National Council on Problem Gambling, participation in sports betting rose from 20% of the U.S. adult population in 2018 to 26% in 2021.

That same survey said that compared to other gamblers sports bettors were six times more likely to have frequently lied to hide their gambling, four times more likely to have felt “restless or irritable” when trying to quit or limit their gambling, and 13 times more likely to have relied frequently on others to pay debts or bills.

Addictive gambling affects a small percentage of gamblers; according to the national council, only 3% to 4% of adults in the U.S. have signs of a “mild or moderate” or “severe” problem. But for the people in that percentage, it’s a dire situation.

“I don’t think people are aware of the extent of the risk that it carries,” said Malek, who is in recovery but keeps his story fresh as a speaker at schools and on podcasts raising awareness of gambling addiction – and, in particular, compulsions developed from betting on sports.


“I think that people are starting to view this topic of gambling and gambling addiction almost as a sort of trendy news story that appears and goes away. … They think maybe this is just kind of an interesting topic, but not one that’s a public health concern.

“It’s really a cause for concern. It’s a mental health disaster.”


With the spread of sports betting across America, the demographics on who’s placing the wagers has changed. The percentage of sports bettors under the age of 45 rose from 67% in 2018 to 80% in 2021, according to the the National Council on Problem Gambling.

“You used to think that the problem gambler was the little old lady at the slot machine,” said Diana Goode, the executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling. “Now it’s the 20-something male betting on sports.”

Disorders can develop from all forms of gambling. But sports betting bears a particular risk.


“People who know sports have this feeling of ‘Oh, I’m going to be good at this,'” said Manson with AdCare Maine. “They have this sense that they can win, and … it doesn’t work in their favor a lot of the time.”

Manson said the advertising for sports betting, which fills TV and radio broadcasts of games and talk shows, adds to the risk factor, as does the convenience of mobile betting.

“It takes a lot of effort to drive to one of Maine’s two casinos, whereas now people are going to be able to gamble legally from their phone … 24 hours a day,” she said. “I’ve heard people liken it to, if you have an addiction to gambling, it’s kind of like if you could press some buttons on your phone and heroin would come out of it. How hard would it be to quit heroin if you could get it right out of your phone?”

Lori Manson is the problem gambling services coordinator for AdCare Maine. “It takes a lot of effort to drive to one of Maine’s two casinos,” she says, “whereas now people are going to be able to gamble legally from their phone … 24 hours a day.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

As sports betting has expanded, the options for wagering have grown drastically. What used to be limited to betting on point spreads and game outcomes has become, due to prop bets, an ability to wager on anything, which can make fueling a disorder even easier.

“It’s not your dad’s sports betting,” said Manson, who expects sports betting to overtake the lottery as Maine’s most popular form of gambling. “You could place 100 bets during the first inning. That can be like hitting your body’s reward system constantly. That gets that whole adrenaline thing, the whole dopamine thing, gets that all going.”

States that have already legalized sports betting have seen the rise Manson is anticipating. In New Hampshire, which went live in December 2019, sports betting was the reason for 47% of the help line calls in 2022, said Ed Talbot, the executive director of the New Hampshire Council on Problem Gambling.


“Pre-pandemic, our help line calls were No. 1 casino, a very close second was lottery, and No. 3 was sports gambling. Currently, it is now first sports gambling,” Talbot said. “There was definitely a notable increase.”

Connecticut went live in October 2021. Since then, the state has seen a 45% increase in calls seeking help, Goode said.

“It was overwhelming. It was all day and all night of calls,” she said. “When it first started, it was super rough. It was all of us answering the phone, all the time. It’s better now.”

Goode said it’s become easier for people to develop a problem.

“Because it’s online, people can now use their credit cards, so they can go into debt to gamble,” she said. “We didn’t have that before.”



Manson said the state’s 211 help line, which assists callers seeking help with a range of concerns from fuel payment assistance to opiate addiction, gets about seven calls a month on gambling problems.

The help line and the counseling it can lead to are one of the resources available to gamblers needing help, a list that also includes meetings, both virtual and in-person, and a self-exclusion list that gamblers can join. Manson said the help line is for everyone affected by gambling disorders.

“That counseling is available to the individual with the gambling problem, but it’s also available to their family members,” she said. “Gambling is an addiction where the whole family ends up being really impacted, especially since it’s often a very secret addiction and they don’t know until things are very, very bad.”

Callers are put in touch with a network of five to six counselors. Manson said she’s trying to find more.

“That’s one of the services I’m most concerned about scaling up,” she said. “The network is quite small right now. … Most of them do telehealth, so it’s been OK so far. We’ve been able to meet the need.”

The revenue from gambling, however, boosts the efforts to help those affected negatively by it. In Connecticut, the two casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, give $500,000 a year to problem gambling services, an amount Goode believes was only set once sports betting was implemented, while the lottery provides 6% of its revenue to the state’s mental health department.

In Maine, 1% of the adjusted gross sports wagering receipts will go in the state’s Gambling Treatment and Prevention fund, which helps pay for counseling via the help line but also could go toward advertising the state’s services.

“(That’s) a big deal,” Manson said. “We basically get our word out via social media, mostly unpaid posts. … It would be great if we could do radio ads and things.

“The most important thing is for people to know that there are services, and there are people who understand. They just need to call 211.”

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