Talking Points

Every couch a casino

Would you like a windfall of free money? Just download an app and start betting on sports. It's easy, it's fun, and it's cool. Don't miss out! That was the pitch in several ads during the Super Bowl this week, as legal gambling companies sought to entice a few million additional Americans into the fantasy of hitting it big. "Life's a gamble!" said DraftKings' new mascot, the Goddess of Fortune, as she invited fans to be as daring as Evel Knievel and Joe Namath. Not long ago, the NFL, the NBA, and Major League Baseball all insisted that widespread legalized betting on their sports could, as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell put it, lead to "the fixing of games" — another Black Sox scandal. But after 30 states legalized sports betting, the pro leagues couldn't bear to leave billions on the table, and became partners with DraftKings, Caesars Sportsbook, and other such companies. The NFL's new stance: Please do bet on our games. We get a cut!

Gambling owes its allure to magical-thinking — the dream you can get rich overnight, without hard work. (Cryptocurrencies sell the same fantasy.) The reality, of course, is that organized gambling is rigged, and if you hit for $200 today, the house will get it back in the long run, and then some. That's why the "sports books" are now offering newbies "free" deposits or "sure thing" bets to lure them into making a wager. Every bet, the pros know, produces a hit of dopamine in the brain, similar to cocaine and methamphetamine. The susceptible come to crave more and more "action," regardless of consequences. More than 6 million Americans already have a gambling addiction, and problem-gambling hotlines say calls have quadrupled over the past year. Now that a smartphone app can turn every couch into a casino, the number of lives ruined will surely escalate. Ah, too bad for them; the Goddess of Fortune couldn't be more delighted.

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.