NPR ‘Death, Sex & Money’ Podcast Shines Light On Online Gambling Addiction

Popular show explores a dark intersection of addictive tendencies, money troubles, and pandemic boredom
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“It really satisfied something in me for a short time. Until it didn’t.”

The popular NPR podcast Death, Sex & Money this month aired a three-part series exploring the financial and emotional damage a relatively brief online gambling addiction inflicted upon a young married couple. They chose not to use their real names and instead went by “Cora” and “Garrett.” It was Garrett who uttered the above quote in reflecting upon how he accumulated $18,000 of online gambling debts while out of work during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

The topic of gambling addiction is not the primary focus of the series. These episodes, each given a “Financial Therapy” subtitle, center more around the couple trying to work through their money issues that were exacerbated by Garrett’s gambling, as listeners eavesdrop on their therapy sessions with licensed clinical social worker Amanda Clayman.

The second and third episodes barely touch on gambling at all, in fact. But the first episode lays out Garrett’s “secret gambling addiction” in some detail, and it paints a highly negative and troubling picture — albeit an entirely accurate one for many people — of how online casino gaming can damage lives. Online casino has not been legalized at nearly the pace of online sports betting, but it is nevertheless expanding. It is now available in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Michigan.

The podcast never specifies which state Cora and Garrett live in or even whether he was gambling online via regulated sites or playing with offshore operators outside the legal purview of the U.S. Garrett also never specifies which game or games he was playing and whether sports betting was an element of his addiction.

The only hint we get is him mentioning that “in one hand I won $5,000.” So that could mean poker, or it could mean blackjack (although he’d have to be playing huge to win that amount in a single hand, even splitting several times), but it most likely suggests video poker or some sort of table-game version of poker where a royal flush comes with a jackpot payout.

Although the details are scarce, the message delivered to podcast listeners is unmistakable: In the wrong hands, online gambling is dangerous.

How Garrett ‘went off the rails’

It’s not the responsibility of NPR or WNYC Studios to present both sides of the online gambling picture. They’re telling one couple’s story. It’s immaterial to them that many people gamble only what they can afford to lose, use existing funds via sites like PayPal rather than funding accounts with credit cards as Garrett did, and have a healthy attitude toward gambling as a form of entertainment and not a fix for money problems.

The fact that many listeners have been exposed to just this one unfortunate example should serve as a reminder to operators and regulators to promote responsible gambling practices and make tales like this harder to come by.

So what exactly was Garrett’s story?

He works in construction, and his wife is an artist and teacher. Whereas they were making about $90,000 a year combined when both were fully employed, that “went down by about a third” in 2020 when Garrett spent several lengthy periods out of work due to the pandemic. He’s someone who started working at age 12 or 13 and, one infers, was left more rudderless than the average person would be without a job to occupy his time and provide structure, stability, and motivation.

“That’s when I kind of went off the rails a little bit,” Garrett said of finding himself with downtime when he was first laid off in March 2020. “I started to get into online gambling because, I don’t know, I was really bored, and I have an alcoholic/addictive tendency. … It was just kind of the channeling of my alcoholic brain, or the channeling of my addictive brain, to do something that would kind of give me, like, a spark.”

Various studies over the years have shown clear correlation between the gambling and alcohol addictions, and Garrett acknowledged an interesting way in which one fed the other.

“As somebody who’s an addict and an alcoholic and all those things, I was kind of patting myself on the back, like, ‘No, I’m not drinking, so, you know, I’m doing pretty good.’”

In other words, he gave himself a pass to keep gambling because he was succeeding on a different addiction front.

The gambling roller coaster

As for the details of his experience with online gambling, Garrett said, “I did win money early, which is, if you think about it, probably kind of algorhythmically set up that that happens.”

This is a commonly held belief, but one that is entirely unsubstantiated. The podcast did not pause to address it. In all games against the house, there is always short-term win potential. A player is slightly more likely to get off to a bad start than a good start, but good starts do happen nearly 50% of the time, and when a hot start is followed by the inevitable long-term downturn, it can create what seems like a logical narrative: “The game was rigged for me to start out winning so I’d keep playing and chase that feeling.”

From there, Garrett mentioned the $5,000 he won in a single hand. 

“So then, lights and fireworks went off in my head,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh, well, this is working out. It’s not a big deal.’ And then it progressively got worse. Or it progressively sped up to the point where I was doing it every day, like, a lot, every day.”

Eventually, he “lost like $10,000 in like a week. I couldn’t believe how behind I was financially.”

And that’s when his story took the darkest possible turn, and he attempted suicide. That was in November 2020. He was $18,000 in the hole, having maxed out one credit card and used another credit card Cora didn’t even know existed, all the while keeping his gambling a secret from his wife.

Garrett spent a week in the hospital but did survive his suicide attempt, and since then, he hasn’t gambled and Cora has taken full control of their financial management.

Operators are standing by

The podcast narration noted that online gambling revenue went up 250% during the pandemic and there was an increase in assorted problem gambling behaviors, as an extensive survey for the National Council on Problem Gambling recently found.

This is actually an outcome that the NCPG predicted in the early days of lockdowns.

Death, Sex & Money did a commendable job publicizing the help options for those in need, sharing the following information at the end of each episode:

  • National Problem Gambling Helpline: 1-800-522-4700
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Online support for gambling issues: gamtalk.org

Given that NPR is the No. 2 podcast publisher in terms of listenership — although Death, Sex & Money is just one of NPR’s 47 titles — surely a wider audience heard Garrett and Cora’s story than reads a typical gambling industry article. There are clear positives and negatives associated with this story airing: Problem gambling awareness needs to be promoted, but so do responsible gambling practices, which are left to the imagination of the listener in this instance.

The onus is on the industry — operators, regulators, media, and everyone else — to promote responsible gambling and make Garrett’s story as rare a case as possible. It’s vital to make opt-outs, self-bans, and wagering/depositing limits conveniently accessible, and to invite more tools that help protect problem gamblers.

Gambling operators need to make money, of course. But for long-term viability, they need to find ways to limit the amount they win from those who simply can’t afford to lose.

Photo: Tero Vesalainen / Shutterstock

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