For Responsible Gambling Advocates, College Is Tough to Get Into
Former sports betting addict has made it his mission to reach an elusive demographic.
By Mike Seely
Patrick Chester attended his first University of Washington football game at the age of 5. When he was 9, his parents divorced, and he remembers his dad would frequently go “out drinking and gambling.”
“Seeing that as a kid, that was pretty exciting,” Chester, now 50, said of his dad’s carousing.
Chester was aware that his family had a history of substance abuse, so he was careful not to fall into those traps himself. But as for gambling, even as he entered the University of Washington as a student, Chester said, “I had no idea what could happen if I got carried away with it.”
Chester’s football fandom never let up, and by the time he was 28 and making a comfortable living in the construction industry, he was betting regularly on the sport’s college and pro versions — first through bookies, then through offshore websites. In 2006, at the age of 34, Patrick got married. This newlywed era, he said, marked “the early days of my gambling problem.”
“The early years of my marriage were pretty stressful financially because, behind the scenes, I was using our money to gamble,” he explained. “I was able to keep that from her (his wife, Erica) the first nine years of our marriage. She didn’t know I had a gambling addiction. She just knew we didn’t have any money.”
While Erica knew that her husband occasionally gambled on the golf course with friends, she said she “had no idea he was a sports bettor.”
However, she added, “Red flags would come up. I really never could put my finger on what was going on with banking issues and stuff like that. He always had an excuse for stuff and I had no reason not to believe him. It really was not until the day of his intervention that I was told it was a severe gambling addiction.”
‘I had not a clue’
That day came in early 2015, the morning after the Chesters returned home from a trip to Arizona to watch their hometown Seattle Seahawks lose in heartbreaking fashion to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
“My dad called me and said, ‘You need to come to the house,’ and it all went downhill from there,” Erica recalled.
She said the intervention was set in motion when Patrick sent a “cry for help” email to a relative along the lines of, “I’ve got a severe gambling problem and I am in real trouble.”
That relative reached out to Erica’s father, who, along with her sister, found a rehab facility — Project Turnabout in Granite Falls, Minnesota — with a gambling-specific track and an available bed.
“Pat was on a plane to Minnesota within 24 hours,” said Erica.
Of the intervention itself, she said, “I was absolutely in complete and utter shock. I was terrified. I had not a clue. I don’t remember saying a whole lot. I just sat there and listened. It was basically people telling me what was gonna happen. I just kind of went along with it.”
As for Pat, he said, “I wasn’t in any position to fight it. I was actually pretty relieved. I was on board with it. I read the room. It was either that or I was on my own.”
With Pat in Minnesota for a month of inpatient treatment, Erica was left to raise the couple’s 5-year-old son on her own while juggling a full-time job as a nurse.
“It wasn’t until after he was in Minnesota that we uncovered years and years of financial destitution,” she said. “I was so angry. I was scared. I felt just completely betrayed.
“I ended up having to hire three different lawyers on my end because a lot of the gambling funds came from bounced checks that he took of mine. He stole thousands of dollars from my retirement fund. I had to hire a divorce lawyer, a criminal lawyer, and a financial lawyer. It was financially devastating. The only saving grace was that I still had a career.”
When it comes to gambling addiction, lack of spousal awareness is par for the course.
“It’s almost across the board how it ends up going down,” said Jamie Salsburg, a recovering gambling addict and current host of the After Gambling podcast. “It’s very commonplace.”
Rehab, jail, and fighting for family
Project Turnabout is one of just a handful of inpatient facilities in the U.S. that avoids commingling gambling addicts with those suffering from substance abuse or other illnesses, a focus Chester found very beneficial.
“When I got there, I was glad I was in a place like that,” he said. “I wasn’t in a group of drug addicts. Some of us had co-dependencies and cross-addictions, but it was good to be in a group of just gamblers, not getting sidetracked.”
While Chester’s time in Minnesota put him on a path toward recovery, he faced another significant hurdle when he returned to the Seattle area: two criminal charges of first-degree theft related to money he’d previously stolen from construction clients.
“I was also working for myself for a few years as a general contractor, and I had people writing $30,000 checks and had a raging gambling issue. That was a problem,” he said. “I wasn’t taking people’s money with the idea that I was going to take their money and hit the road. I was looking at gambling as my way out — ‘If I just keep gambling, I’m just going to win all this money back at some point.’”
Facing a potential sentence of more than two years in prison, Chester cut a deal that would limit his time behind bars to four months. He had to agree to three years of probation that would require him to enroll in a program that would continue to help treat his addiction. After his release from Snohomish County Jail, Chester moved in with a friend, began working in landscape design, and tried to keep his family together.
“That took two to three years after I got better to get back in the house with my wife and son,” he said. “Once you lose that trust, it’s hard to get it back.”
Indeed, said Keith Whyte, executive director for the National Council on Problem Gambling.
“Problem gambling has some of the most damaging impacts on family. It’s not the financial stuff — it’s the deception,” he explained. “The lies, the secret bank accounts — that’s what I hear makes gambling addiction perhaps harder on relationships than other addictions. Rebuilding that trust is so difficult.
“If you marry someone who has a substance abuse problem, you know they have a substance abuse problem, although they may be in denial. But you may not even know your partner is gambling at all. There are few outward physical signs. Even if the partner knows you’re gambling, they almost never know how far you’ve gone until a big precipitating event happens. When that whole house of cards comes crashing down on the addict, a lot of relationships don’t survive.”
The Chesters’ relationship, however, did recover. Her husband’s time in rehab and jail, Erika said, “really gave us the time to focus on our own recovery and just dive deep. I wanted to submerge myself in learning about gambling addiction — why this happened, if I played a role, and separating the person from the addiction.
“I needed to separate the person that I married from this sickness. If he wasn’t 100 percent focused on his recovery and doing the right thing and taking action to better himself, I think we’d be in a different scenario here. But he ‘s put in the work, I’ve put in the work, and I wasn’t about to give up on something that I believed in and we had built together.”
The Chesters now have another son, age 4, and recently explained to their older boy, now 13, why his dad was scarce for a spell seven years ago.
“We made the decision about six months ago that he was finally old enough to know some of the details that took place, so we started by saying, ‘Do you remember the time when you were in kindergarten and Dad had to go away for awhile?’” said Erica. “We told him the reason he had to go away was because of gambling. And [because of] the choices he made through this addiction, he had to face consequences.”
Underserved demo, stigmatized addiction
With his life back on the right track, Pat decided to start speaking about his experience to college students.
“I recognize that a lot of people can gamble responsibly,” he said. “I share my story and get into some of the things to look out for. You’ve got college students 18, 19, 20 years old — they’ve got credit cards and don’t really know what the dangers are. When I talk to them, I try to engage with them, and a lot of times after I do a presentation, they’ll stand in line to talk. They don’t necessarily volunteer a whole lot, but the way they’re doing it is from all these apps. Eighty to 90 percent of the students who gamble are doing it from their phone.
“I’ve got a good job. I’ve paid back hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past seven years. We’re back on solid footing. It took awhile. I’m speaking more and I’m really passionate about that. As gambling addicts, we do a lot of sh*tty things. A lot of us don’t want to talk about it, but I made the decision early on to talk about it.”
Yet despite Chester’s considerable efforts, including an upcoming TEDx talk in Spokane, college-age individuals represent a vastly underserved demographic when it comes to problem and responsible gambling outreach.
“I think there’s a huge need there,” said Salsburg. “Unfortunately, even when you get to college age, it’s a little late in the game, but still an important demographic to touch on. The age where it’s socially acceptable to talk to kids, in my opinion, is often much later than it should be. But I also understand the concern from parents to talk to kids too soon about it. In my view, I don’t think there is a too soon, but that becomes the parents’ choice. You go on Reddit and you see 14- to 16-year-olds talking about betting on games and playing online poker.”
“One of the big barriers is interest from the university,” added Whyte, who thinks that the ideal age to start talking to children about the potential perils of gambling is 9. “In almost every instance, it’s us reaching out to the university, rather than universities themselves saying, ‘Oh, this is an important issue.’”
That could be because problem gambling tends to be stigmatized even among other addictions and mental illnesses.
“Schools are OK with people talking about substance abuse, mental health, suicide — but we’re not educating people about the risks of gambling,” said Kaitlin Brown, director of programs and services at the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling.
This is particularly problematic at a time when, as Chester put it, gambling is “so accessible and easy to do” for college students.
“It is a population we’re very concerned about,” said Phil Sherwood, director of marketing and communications for the Massachusetts Council on Gaming and Health. “We have noticed an uptick in individuals that are of college age that are in crisis because of a gambling problem. We currently have employees who do outreach. What they’ve seen is rooms full of people who used to be 40, 50, or 60 are now getting a lot younger — whether it be [Gamblers Anonymous] or some sort of other group discussion.
“We’ve noticed that, with [the collegiate] demographic, they’re hitting rock bottom faster. In the matter of a month and a half, their credit cards are maxed out. Generally, it’s a little more slow motion than that, but with the younger demographic, probably because of the proliferation of online gambling, it’s happening a lot faster.”
‘Behind the times in a very big way’
In early August, Chester was preparing to head back to Project Turnabout’s Minnesota campus, something he tries to do on an annual basis.
“When alumni come back, mostly they share their story of recovery and let patients ask questions,” said Tanya Friese, the facility’s director of services.
“Patrick has been absolutely phenomenal in his commitment and is very dedicated to his recovery,” Project Turnabout CEO Marti Paulson added. “Our alumni remains really close. Oftentimes they come back to the campus, some on a regular basis, to do service work.”
When asked whether there’s enough being done to educate college students about problem gambling, Paulson said, “Not even close. Even though we’ve been in existence since 1992, to get the word out about where there’s treatment and financial help, all of those things are difficult at best for older adults. To get to that college level is extremely difficult. To help them to see what constitutes problem gambling is very difficult because they’re online. It’s very much a stigmatized addiction because they’re not ingesting anything. Awareness, in and of itself, is our most difficult task.
“The chemical dependency and addiction world is just now penetrating colleges. It’s behind the times in a very big way. For instance, the state of Minnesota has a program where if you’re a resident of Minnesota and you have a gambling issue, you can get 95 percent of your residential treatment stay paid for. But we still don’t see them knocking on our doors, which they should be doing.”
Brown’s organization just received funding to implement problem gambling awareness programs in 10 colleges and universities in the state of Connecticut, with the intent of training student ambassadors to host workshops for their peers. Meanwhile, the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio has a college outreach program focused on fraternities and sororities that it’s exporting to schools in North Carolina under contract with Tar Heel State stakeholders.
“Greek life was a focus due to [members’] engagement in other risky behaviors,” said Mike Buzzelli, the Ohio network’s associate director. “People who live together and study together are more likely to reach out and offer support. So working with a fraternity would be just as impactful as working with a basketball team. They’re going to be more likely to notice when a fraternity brother or teammate is struggling. We give them all this information, but we also give them skills on how to reach out.”
But whereas Chester valued the singular focus of Project Turnabout’s program, Buzzelli’s network has opted for a salad bar approach, addressing gambling addiction alongside other issues of concern to newly minted adults.
“It’s not a topic that college students are normally thinking about, so we went out of our way to integrate that issue with other mental health topics — depression, stress, anxiety, and financial literacy. Gambling addiction has the highest suicide-attempt rate of any addiction, so we talk about how you reach out if a brother or sister seems to be struggling.”