A Gambler’s Warning About Michigan’s Massive Mobile Gaming Boom

The state opened the floodgates to legal mobile gambling in January. Since then, the market has been saturated with mobile betting apps.

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I love to gamble. As I write, there’s a poker game in progress in another window of my laptop. There usually is. I’m not great at it, but I find it a satisfying outlet for an undiagnosed but quite obvious attention deficit disorder that seems to demand that I have at least three things going on at once. More importantly, I think I know my limits, I generally play for embarrassingly low stakes, and I rarely waste money on games of pure chance.

For those reasons, I thought I’d be elated to live in a state where gambling of all sorts is now legal online and be eager to test out the plethora of new mobile gambling apps that have launched since they were allowed in late January. I spent 15 years as a journalist in Las Vegas hearing so often that American adults ought to be trusted to stop themselves that I swallowed that belief whole and mocked the condescending prudes who warned that putting a full-fledged casino in the pocket of every man, woman, and child could cause problems.

Now I’m worried. Over the past several weeks, I’ve tested out the apps that have so far gone live, spending as little as necessary to get a feel for what it’s like to deposit money, place sports wagers, or play various casino games, and make withdrawals. (Actually, my faith in Tom Brady was rewarded in my Super Bowl bets — go Bucs! — which made the rest of this assignment an exercise in playing with house money.)

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It is so — too? — easy. As a customer and player, that’s exactly what we want. If you believe, as I do, that gambling is a legitimate form of adult entertainment that will occur regardless of whether there’s a proper, regulated environment, you must also believe the new system is better, safer, and more accountable. 

Still, this is also true: Michigan is undoubtedly about to endure an explosion of problem gambling, and many families will suffer. It is now tragically simple, fast, and free to pull money off a credit card or out of a bank account, lose it in minutes, and then repeat. At least in the old days, gamblers had to put in effort to go to a physical casino and pay exorbitant ATM fees to obtain cash when they ran out. That must have slowed many rolls. And prior to January, Michigan players could play on offshore gambling sites by paying obscene credit card fees or using Bitcoin — both speed bumps to help slow people’s bankroll.

I appreciated the ubiquity in many of the new apps of information about getting help for gambling addiction, although it could be better and the state’s commitment of $500,000 per year for problem gambling programs is paltry given how large the problem likely will be. It is true that all of the apps have “responsible gaming” settings where players can self-impose restrictions on how much money and time they spend, but that requires a level of self-awareness and self-control typically absent in addicts. It’s also simple to work around; if, in moments of sobriety, you set restrictions on one app, why not move to another app when the urge takes hold?

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I’m not sure what the answer is. This genie burst out of the bottle in January with a vengeance — some $115.2 million was bet and $42.7 million lost by Michigan players in the first 10 days of state-regulated mobile gambling. The amount lost to online casinos in February, the first full month, came in at $79.7 million — off of $301.9 million wagered — and is expected to soar even higher in March thanks both to the millions the apps are spending on TV ads and wagering on the NCAA March Madness tournament. Lansing will be giddy about its new revenue stream arriving precisely when the state most needs one. There’s just no going back; the public is devouring this, and the government never, ever takes its lips off a supple, steadily flowing teat.

“You’re right, it’s going to be very easy,” Michigan Gaming Control Board executive director Richard Kalm told me in an interview. “We’re already trying to get out ahead of that. I don’t think you can just go on and deposit $10,000 and bet it all at once. The apps should stop you from doing that. The goal is to make sure everyone has a good time and enjoys it for what it is, not to rely on it as a source of income or go too far.”

Yes, that’s the goal. We’ll know pretty soon what the reality is.


If you or someone you know needs more information on gambling addiction, call the Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-270-7117.

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Steve Friess is news and features editor at Hour Detroit and a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess landed a Knight-Wallace Fellowship for mid-career journalists at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at sfriess@hour-media.com.