THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


All In

Rhode Island legalizes sports betting

by Peder Schaefer, Deb Marini & John Graves

Illustration by Bella Carlos

published February 8, 2019


Ronny first came to what is now Twin Rivers Casino in Lincoln, RI—then a race track called Lincoln Downs—when he was nine years old to bet on horses with his dad. He came a lot when he was younger, and now that he’s a 59 year-old retired painter he comes more. Ronny arrives at Twin Rivers every day around 11 a.m. and leaves close to midnight. Except on Tuesday. The horses don’t run on Tuesday. “Gamblers are funny,” he said, fidgeting with his glasses. “They don’t care about the atmosphere.”

The room is massive, yet there is enough smoke to slightly obscure the small television just inches away from his face, necessitating the black floral glasses he keeps placing and replacing on the tip of his nose. The scene is dominated by stadium-styled rows of personal desks, each outfitted with a small television screen (tuneable to any sports broadcast or horse race), a cushioned chair, and an ashtray. Ronny sits in the second row of this colosseum, second seat from the right surrounded by a spread of racing programs and old food wrappers.

Like most gamblers, he’s pretty consistent with his regimen—he sits in the same seat with the same people to do the same thing every day. But with Twin River’s new Sportsbook Bar and Grill opening last November, he’s begun trying his hand at sports betting too.

 

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Ronny is one of thousands of people who have been drawn into Governor Gina Raimondo’s newest budget-padding strategy: government-syndicated sports betting, in which 51 percent of any of the casino’s sports betting-generated profits goes straight to the state’s General Fund, which helps fund human services, education, and general government expenses throughout the state.

Rhode Island was quick to legalize this form of wagering following the 2018 United States Supreme Court ruling that gave states the option to do so. Rhode Island, one of eight states that has legalized sports betting so far, is currently the only New England state to have done so, a magnetizing prospect for gamblers in nearby states, especially Massachusetts. This exodus of bettors across state lines has motivated the Bay State to move toward legalization as well, which would drain the crowds from Rhode Island’s two sportsbook facilities.

In a little over two months since the Sportsbook’s November opening, Rhode Island’s General Fund has earned around $500,000 from revenue gained through bets placed on sporting events at Lincoln’s Twin Rivers Casino and its sister casino in Tiverton. The Governor’s budget initially projected that sports betting would produce $23.5 million in added revenue for the state in fiscal year 2019. But the Revenue Estimating Conference, a public economic forecaster in the state of Rhode Island, more than halved that estimate to around $11 million after computer and regulation issues delayed the grand opening of the Sportsbook by over four months. However, with the Patriots winning the Super Bowl last week, and hordes of loyal New Englanders placing bets on their local team, the casino lost roughly $2.3 million—wiping out all profits they’ve made so far, according to a spokesman from the Department of Revenue. The state’s December revenue was already behind projections, and last week’s losses even further jeopardize the state’s chance of hitting their profit goals from sports betting.

Regardless of revenue created, the questionable ethics of using an expanded state-endorsed gambling apparatus to help fund the state budget looms. “Gambling is not a positive revenue source,” one patron at Twin River who requested anonymity, told the College Hill Independent. “It’s taking from people losing.”

According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, one percent of Americans are estimated to meet criteria for pathological gambling and another two to three percent are problem gamblers. The Rhode Island Lottery has programs in place to help those with a gambling problem, such as helplines and self-exclusion plans—­­­­­­­­­­­­but­ funding for the services are second rate, ranking 25th out of the 50 states in per capita funding, despite Rhode Island earning the most revenue per capita nationwide from gambling sources. “Is this stuff really helping society? I don’t think so,” the patron continued. “It masks problems.”

As the state struggles to fund crucial services, the 51 percent cut is a win for the budget and, more broadly, the people of Rhode Island. But when you follow the money back to Twin River, a question of conflict of interest arises: is it improper, or even immoral, for the state to bankroll its services on an addictive vice?

 

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The Sportsbook Bar and Grill lies deep in the heart of Twin Rivers, past the din of slot machine sirens and the crackling of poker chips, and down a long hallway. High walls of televisions—each a window to a bright, lively sporting event—enclose a dozen-or-so patrons, some watching the Sunday night games with fervent excitement, others watching with the apathetic glaze of mundane routine. Two men sit hunched about a plate of solidifying nachos, occasionally mumbling to one another in reference to one of the many LED screens.

One of the two, Billy, 30, of East Providence, comes to Rhode Island’s Twin River Casino three times a week to partake in its new sports betting facility, but has been involved in illegal online gambling for much longer. “I’ve been betting for four years,” he told the Indy. “A lot of people do it on the black market. This [legalization of sports betting] cleans up everything without people getting beat up for not paying.”

Billy never bets less than a hundred dollars on a single game, and will sometimes wager as much as $5,000. He declined to give a last name out of fear that his girlfriend would discover his secret forays into the gambling world. “I’ve lost more than I’ve won,” he said indifferently, glancing up at the University of Minnesota basketball game as he spoke,“but I’m doing a lot better now with this guy.”

“This guy” is a Californian man who reached out to Billy over Instagram a few months ago. Now, for $60 a month, he sends Billy daily picks for key games. “He helped me win 3k last week, and if Minnesota wins [tonight], I’m going to hit for like $300,” he said, again looking up to see the Golden Gophers' progress on television number 22.

About twenty feet away, sitting on a stool overlooking the main floor of the Sportsbook, was Ozan Adiguzel, a senior at Brown University who studies statistics. Adiguzel is from Turkey, where sports betting has been legalized for years. He said the system in Rhode Island has a long way to go before it can rival European institutions. “In Europe these things are much more organized,” Adiguzel told the Indy. “You can bet through apps…there are kiosks and stores that are much more friendly.”

Young, with a scruffy beard and round, metal-rimmed glasses, Adiguzel stands out from the rest of the bettors, who are mostly older men wearing sports jerseys. He is going to work for the Sacramento Kings basketball team as a data analyst next summer. After looking at some stats, he ended up placing $160 in bets, including $100 on the Houston Rockets game. “I’ve been working at sports betting for a long time,” said Adiguzel. “It’s also fun. When you bet on a game, then it’s much better to watch the game… It’s exciting. There are studies about it, betting. It makes you have more dopamine.” Adiguzel represents one side of the sports betting dichotomy: he chooses to bet for fun, while others, riddled with addiction, have no choice.

Televisions flashed games and highlights. Waiters took orders and patrons formed lines to place bets. Adiguzel looked over it all. “I was thinking of doing some homework here actually,” he said.

 

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Standing at the end of the line at the Sportsbook Bar and Grill, Brian Warwick waited to place his bet. The line wasn’t too long, maybe ten people deep, but that’s not always the case. “You come down here in the mornings and the lines are out the door.”

Warwick is 57 and lives with his wife and two kids near Boston. He’s a friendly, talkative guy in a blue jacket who loves reminiscing about past bets and discussing his kids. He helps coach his daughter’s basketball team and works the book at the school games. “I like numbers, so I enjoy helping out,” he explained. Each week he makes the hour commute to the Sportsbook to place his bets. “I’ve been pretty successful. I haven’t had a week where I didn’t win at least one ticket, so I’ve at least broke even.”

Placing a bet is not as simple as just picking the winning team. The casino analyzes the game and creates a betting line based on their own projected outcome. For example, if Twin River believes that the Celtics are five points better than their opponent, they would assign a line of “BOS -5” for the game. Then the bet would need to be placed based on whether the bettor thought Boston would win by more or less than five points. Bets can also be placed specifically on whether a not a team wins a game, but the payout is dependent on which team is favored to win and by how much. Essentially, to make a profit, bettors need to be better than the casino at projecting the outcome of games.

A huge basketball fan, Warwick’s favors large parlays, the combination of many wagers into a single bet, which allows you to earn hundreds or even thousands of dollars despite risking only a small amount of money. Each additional wager roughly doubles your potential return on investment, so the possible earnings can grow quickly. These bets are riskier, though, because if even one of the wagers fail, you don’t win any money.

Warwick has had some close calls on parlay tickets. “Recently, I won this ticket where I needed Cleveland to lose by less than nine points,” he said. “They were down by nine with two seconds to go, and there was a last second three pointer which brought them to within six.” Another time, he came up nine points shy in one game of winning $4000 on a $25 parlay. “I woke up at 3 A.M. to check it because I was that excited.”

Warwick thinks of sports betting as more than just a wager placed on one team or another. To him, it is a way to both enjoy and to think critically about the game in a way that is very different from other types of gambling. “See, out there [in the casino], you hit the slot and get lucky and win $15,000 or whatever. That’s all chance. For this you need luck too, like the three pointer at the buzzer the other night, but you do need to have strategy. And it's rewarding when you get a good chunk of cash back and you’re the one who made the pitch.”

 

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Elsewhere in Twin River, the “Club 100” room is dark and drab. There are no windows, and the carpet is a shade of deep maroon. A flashy chandelier hangs over a big, rectangular table. Music and the tinny pop pop pop of slot machines drifts in through the closed wooden doors.

Club 100, located near the north entrance of the casino, was the location of last week’s General Assembly’s Permanent Joint Committee on State Lottery meeting. A bipartisan collection of lawmakers from Rhode Island’s Senate and House of Representatives, the committee takes turns meeting at the State House, the Rhode Island Lottery headquarters in Cranston, and at Twin River. Representatives from both Twin River and Tiverton Casino Hotel were present and spoke at the meeting.

Lawmakers discussed lottery revenues, questioned Twin Rivers and Tiverton management on operations details, and looked into the specifics of the budding sports betting operation in Rhode Island. “The wait time [to bet] is unacceptable,” William O’Brien, a representative from North Providence, told the Indy. During the meeting, he pushed Twin River management to expedite the process to enable sports betting kiosks and a sports betting app at the casino. “The process [of placing bets] has not gone as well as I would have liked, but how can you predict how many people are coming,” O’Brien told the Indy after the meeting. “They have made adjustments and are fixing it.”

When asked about the ethical concern of taking lost money from gamblers and filling state coffers, O’Brien said, “People are not forced to do it, they are doing it because they want to. That’s excess money. That’s not taking it away from hardworking people who need money to support their families.” In reality though, gambling can have a detrimental impact on people from all backgrounds. According to statistics from the North American Foundation for Gambling Addiction Help, young adults are the most susceptible to gambling addiction, with more than 1 in 100 struggling with it. Additionally, having a parent that gambles dramatically increases the likelihood of having a problem, which means that the addiction will most likely expand in the future.

Betting kiosks, where bettors can place bets from a computer, are supposed to be active by March 11, in time for March Madness, and an app is due to be up and running by June 3. Legislation has been introduced in the State Senate that would legalize mobile sports betting from anywhere in the State, according to Senate spokesperson Greg Pare. He told the Indy that the Senate is optimistic that the legislation will pass soon.

Even though he’s not on the committee, Senate President Dominick Ruggiero was also at the meeting. Sitting on a bar stool near the back of the room, he held a betting table for the Superbowl in his hands. Ruggiero is a prominent supporter of sports betting. He placed an inaugural, honorary first bet in November alongside Speaker of the House Nick Mattiello—and has recently introduced new mobile betting legislation, which gives bettors the ability to place bets from anywhere in Rhode Island. “People are going to do this regardless,” Ruggiero told the Indy when asked about the ethics of creating revenue from people’s misfortune. “We have programs [via Rhode Island Lottery] in place to help with betting problems… Your bookie isn't gonna help you with that.”        

Ruggiero explained to the Indy that the impetus for wanting to legalize sports betting was to take advantage of the huge amount of illegal gambling already going on. According to him, 97 percent of sports gambling in the United States is done illegally (experts dispute the exact number, but most agree that it is over ninety percent). Representative O’Brien echoed Ruggiero’s stance, telling the Indy that “the most important point is that they are doing it legally. They don’t have to worry about being arrested or crucified for gambling.” In Ruggiero’s eyes, legalizing sports betting will allow Rhode Island to create more revenue, as well as to provide help and assistance for those struggling with gambling problems. But while these services sound good on paper, they are only helpful to gambling addicts, rather than working to prevent addiction in the first place.

Ruggiero’s stance on gambling is likely informed by his personal practice: he likes to bet. He told the Indy that he bet $400 on the Patriots to win in the Super Bowl, and put $100 down a few weeks ago, when the odds against the hometown team were six to one. His payout after the Patriots beat the Rams in last weekend's Super Bowl was over $1000.

After the meeting, legislators toured the Sportsbook. Finely dressed and surrounded by aides, they huddled near the entrance, gazing up at the basketball games playing on dozens of different screens. Ruggiero held his betting booklet in hand.

 

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When the Minnesota basketball game ended, Billy stared up at one of the television screens. The Gophers had won by five points and he earned a $300 payout, but you wouldn’t know it by the look on his face: there was no change in his disposition as he went up to receive his cash. The thrill that had once accompanied winning seems to have all but disappeared.

Brian Warwick finished betting early. He was off to work the night shift. He comes once a week from Massachusetts and doesn’t take his betting too seriously. Unlike many other patrons at the casino, for the most part Brian’s relationship with sports betting seems to be a healthy one. “I don’t spend too much, It’s a lot of money to run a family,” he says. But his motivation for placing bets is the same as everyone else at Twin River: “I do like a pile of cash, I’ll tell you that.”

The next day at Twin Rivers,  Ronny was in his same exact spot: second row, second seat from the right in the smoking section. He was dead asleep, slouched in front of his personal television screen and stack of racing programs. The slot machines were still blaring. The chips on the poker tables still crackling. The air still smelled like cigarettes, and the small televisions blared the same racetracks from across the country, just with different horses doing the racing.

The elevator descending from the addicting second floor was jammed with patrons leaving the casino. “Everybody happy?” said one man leaning against the wall of the elevator. He stood amongst several people wiped out from a day of gambling, who chuckled remorsefully at his question.

“I should’ve left my wallet with them at the door,” he said. “They took it all anyway.”

 

PEDER SCHAEFER, DEBORAH MARINI, and JOHN GRAVES B’22 put Peder’s great aunt’s novelty Spiro Agnew bobblehead on a prop bet parlay for Chris Hogan.