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The highs, lows and terrible in-betweens of a compulsive sports gambler

PASADENA, CA - MARCH 29, 2024 - - David Leong, 31, at his apartment complex in Pasadena on March 29, 2024. Leong started gambling on sports when he was a sophomore at Taft High School in Woodland Hills. It was an addiction that dogged him for 8 years. After receiving treatment and recovery, he is now a clinical social worker helping others overcome their gambling addiction. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

David Leong had a hunch, but that’s how it is for most sports gamblers. Luck is mistaken for skill, and skill, it is believed, can make you a killing.

On a Saturday morning, Sept. 3, 2016, he and a friend flew to Vegas, scored an 8-ball of coke and checked into a suite at Bally’s. Leong had an $18,000 credit, and it was time to make it rain.

“There is no way USC can beat Alabama,” he remembered thinking as he visited two sportsbooks to spread the wager.

Kicked up with adrenaline and nerves, he didn’t touch the coke. A win would double his bet. A loss would … he pushed the thought away and settled in to watch the game.

The Crimson Tide was slow to score, but by halftime, they were up by two touchdowns. Still, Leong didn't relax. Nothing's ever a sure thing.

For almost 10 years, he had lived with these feelings: the highs, the lows and the terrible in-betweens of a compulsive sports gambler. And he knew he wasn’t alone.

So earlier this month, he wasn't surprised when he heard the allegations involving Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani and Ohtani's interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, that have rocked the baseball world.

In an interview with ESPN, Mizuhara said he had gotten into debt gambling on sports other than baseball and that Ohtani had helped him out by wiring at least $4.5 million to an Orange County bookmaker. Ohtani said he had no knowledge of the transactions and accused Mizuhara of stealing the money from him.

As Major League Baseball and federal authorities investigate the competing narratives, sports gambling has drawn renewed attention.

Once the domain of casinos, it is now available through gaming apps and self-service kiosks, with credit card companies happy to foot the bill for an industry that's tailored its approach to a generation seldom off their phones, eager to turn an easy buck and quickly seduced by the sales pitches of onetime athletes like Tom Brady.

Head coach Jacque Vaughn of the Brooklyn Nets reacts near a FanDuel advertisement.
A FanDuel advertisement can be seen in the background as head coach Jacque Vaughn of the Brooklyn Nets has his eye on a game in New Orleans. Ads for fantasy sports sites are ubiquitous. (Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images)

Fantasy sports sites like the DraftKings and FanDuel fuel the desire, drawing in solitary gamblers — mostly men in their 20s on their phones — while offshore sportsbooks open a virtual door to live-action games. During this year's March Madness, the American Gaming Assn. estimates that 68 million Americans will place some kind of wager on the tournament.

“Online gambling has been a game changer,” said Lia Nower, distinguished professor and director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University. “You don’t have to travel or be restricted by when the casino is open. You have your casino, your race track, or your sports book in your pocket on your phone.”

Convenience abets addiction, and while Leong, 31, doesn’t pretend to have special insight into the nature of the disease, he is sharing his story with the hope that it might help break the stigma and isolation.

A clinical social worker with Westside Gambling Treatment, he counsels problem gamblers whose lives he recognizes too well: desperate for cash, struggling with debt, living with depression.

Leong has a degree from Cal State Northridge, but that trip to Vegas — the $18,000 he put on Alabama to beat USC and the aftermath — was his real education.

::

A few minutes into the third quarter, Alabama escaped a blitz and turned a 17-yard pass into a 71-yard TD. Even though his team was up, Leong still couldn't relax. He paid for a 15-minute neck and shoulder massage.

“Gambling operates on a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule that is particularly addictive because the payout is unpredictable but can be very large,” said Nower. “The longer you play, the more you become conditioned, and the harder it is to stop.”

A head-and-shoulders shot of David Leong smiling.
David Leong started gambling on sports when he was a sophomore at Taft High School in Woodland Hills. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Leong never saw himself as having a problem, but then, few gamblers do. All he knew was that he always seemed so close to scoring the money, cars, girls and fame that came so easily to others.

He’d gotten his first taste of betting in 10th grade. Growing up in Tarzana, in a modest single-story home with a pool just down the street from a country club, he loved sports: karate, soccer, baseball, football.

His parents liked going to Las Vegas, and on one trip, his dad asked who he thought would win a basketball game. The Lakers, of course, and his dad made the bet and won. The next day, it was football. Leong liked the Saints. When they won, his dad peeled off $100 for him.

He doesn't hold his father responsible. He blames his own addictive personality. But when he held that bill, Leong felt his life change. Back at school — William Howard Taft Charter High School in Woodland Hills — he googled an overseas sportsbook, betonline.ag, and opened an account with $50.

Once, this would have been unimaginable. In 1992, Congress passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which, with few exceptions, outlawed sports betting. But in 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the legislation, ruling that sports gambling should be regulated by states.

In California, sports betting has remained illegal despite the “tremendous amount of advertising that makes it seem that all sports betting is legal,” said Timothy Fong, professor of psychiatry at UCLA and co-director of the school's Gambling Studies Program.

Online gambling is the loophole, and consumers in California can easily access out-of-state and -country sportbooks.

Experts like Fong consider online gambling a public health issue of growing concern that has brought "unnecessary pain and suffering ... to the lives of millions of people across the nation."

Furthermore, Nower said, the industry has grown without federal regulation that might have required prevention or education programs such as those that exist for substance use.

“And gambling is every bit as addictive as substances,” she added.

People outside of the New York Stock Exchange.
People walk by a banner outside of the New York Stock Exchange for the IPO of Flutter Entertainment, the parent company of FanDuel, earlier this year. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Leong remembers placing his first bet on an NBA game and constantly checking the score during an afternoon football practice. He can’t remember whether he won or lost, but that doesn’t matter. Gambling gave him an edge.

The son of a Chinese father and a white Jewish mother, Leong had struggled in middle school with his identity, feeling on the outside of popular social cliques. Playing high school football — quarterback for the Toreadors — opened a few doors, but he never felt at ease.

Now, he had $1,000, right there on his phone, while many of his friends didn’t want to spend $6 on lunch.

But he always needed more.

Unable to get credit as a minor, he got a job as a sign twirler, standing at Renaldi Street and Reseda Boulevard, spinning the giant arrow for condos in Porter Ranch. More often, he and his buddies would hide in the bushes, smoke weed and watch Netflix. He liked the feeling of not working and still getting paid.

His salary went to his pot habit and gambling, and when he ran short, he did whatever was needed, like boosting a necklace from Macy’s.

“I wasn’t ashamed,” he said. “This is what us 16-year-old guys did. We did everything we could to get money.”

His hero was celebrity poker player Dan Bilzerian, whose Instagram posts were all about hot women, nice cars and expensive mansions. Never mind that Leong drove a Civic. On good days, he imagined himself in a Maserati.

::

At the end of the third quarter, USC got another field goal, but Alabama won, 52-6.

Leong felt high. Two months shy of his 24th birthday, he had turned 18 grand into 30 grand. He and his friend wondered what bottle service they’d order, what new bet they’d place, and with that, the happiness was gone. Just hours after winning big, Leong felt empty.

He needed to figure out how to stay in the action.

That feeling had defined his life: the constant, restless hunger. He dabbled in cards, but the kick wasn't the same. It didn't have the buzz of anticipating and participating, that dopamine hit, that adrenaline rush.

And nothing came close to the thrill of in-game betting, putting money on the next layup, pass or serve just seconds away from it happening.

“You’re playing for that juice,” said Nower. “This is what makes sports gambling different than, say, video poker or slots, which help if you’re depressed and want to disassociate. Sports betting is a more action-oriented form of gambling.”

Because Leong followed sports, he saw himself no different than a businessman who plays the stock market.

He will never forget the time he won big: a parlay wager — $50 on eight teams — he made at home with 5dimescasino.com. When it ended with the 49ers hitting a field goal at the end of the fourth quarter, he cleared $8,000. He couldn’t stop screaming with excitement.

Each win confirmed his skill, and each loss felt alien: It was never his fault, just bad luck or a referee’s bad call.

Out of high school, a student at Pierce and Valley colleges, he began applying for every credit card he could, maxing them out while thinking that with one big win, he’d be OK. Short of that, he learned to work the angles.

Because overseas sportsbooks are not legal in the U.S., the transactions were registered on his bank statement as sports merchandise, which he would dispute and get rescinded.

“A real gambler will do anything to stay in action,” he said.

Living at home with no expenses, making $4,500 a month as a delivery driver, he frequented a payday loan shop in Reseda, borrowing $2,000 with 30% interest. He met his bookie in a parking lot at the corner of Reseda Boulevard and Devonshire Street and passed over an envelope of cash.

::

That night in Vegas, he tried to celebrate, but he was on the hunt for another game when he heard about the Notre Dame-Texas match-up the next day.

The Longhorns had had two losing seasons and were starting a freshman quarterback. This would be easy, he thought; he doubled down on the Irish, looking to hit $60,000.

If today was good, then tomorrow would be even better.

The kickoff was Sunday afternoon, and by the end of the first quarter, the score was tied. By the end of the second quarter, Texas was up by a touchdown, and by the fourth quarter, Notre Dame had come back but was still behind by a field goal. They were being outplayed. Leong was stunned.

Just when it looked like the game was over, Notre Dame returned a blocked field goal, tied the score and forced two overtimes, only to finally lose, 50-47.

As Leong saw the Texas quarterback sail into the end zone on a six-yard run, he knew it was over. Standing in his hotel suite, the sparkling neon of the Vegas Strip below, he never felt more alone. He had nothing — no money for a flight home, no money to bet, no money for weed — only enough for a Greyhound ticket back to L.A.

Recovery circles, as Leong would later learn, call it “incomprehensible demoralization" — rock bottom.

Still living with his parents, he wanted to change. He knew something was wrong; this wasn’t who he was. He said that he would start attending Gamblers Anonymous, but he didn’t. He just continued to gamble and take drugs.

“Gamblers present well to society,” said Yael Landa, director of the gambling program at Beit T’Shuvah, a treatment center in Culver City, “but if you delve in deep under the surface, you see a master of living a double life.”

Three months later, his mother opened one of his credit card statements and saw the mounting debt. She made it clear: Get help or get out.

Leong placed his final bet on Dec. 17, 2016. In a flourish, he did the last of his coke, and on Jan. 3, 2017, enrolled in an outpatient program at Beit T’Shuvah.

His father paid his bookie $10,000 to settle his account, and Leong declared bankruptcy, absolving himself of $90,000 he owed to various credit card companies.

Over the next year, he began to learn more about himself and how this long downward spiral began. As much as he tried to find that one skeleton in the closet to explain it all, he couldn’t.

“I’ve gotten everything I wanted in my life,” he said. “Great parents. All the opportunities. But it was a perfect storm: me loving sports, wanting to make money and having low self-esteem.”

Today, living in an apartment in Pasadena with his girlfriend, he says that he’s learning how to be happy, which means tolerating discomfort, hard work and the grind of everyday life.

In 2020, having interned at Beit T’Shuvah, he earned a master’s degree in social work. His first jobs were with two homeless agencies as a case manager, and when the opportunity came up to help addicted gamblers, he took it.

He calls it his comeback, and while he still watches sports, he ignores his hunches.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.