In Ippei Mizuhara’s text messages, problem gamblers see a painfully familiar obsession

In Ippei Mizuhara’s text messages, problem gamblers see a painfully familiar obsession

As Astros fan Saul Malek read the criminal complaint alleging interpreter Ippei Mizuhara stole more than $16 million from Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani to pay his gambling debts, Malek was less stunned by the enormity of Mizuhara’s sports betting habit than by how familiar his behavior felt.

Malek, 26, is a recovering gambling addict. The rush he first chased with fantasy sports became problematic in college when he was connected with a bookie. Malek put $10 on the Royals to beat the Blue Jays. The Royals won, 15-5. Easy money. Malek won a $20 bet that weekend, underdog Bears over Steelers in overtime. Soon Malek started betting bigger — $50, then $100 — and losing. The wary voice in his head was drowned out by a more confident one claiming a big win was around the corner.

“Even if I were down thousands of dollars,” Malek said, “each game felt like the start of a new streak for me of getting back positive.”

That sort of sentiment is found throughout the 37-page criminal complaint against Mizuhara, who is charged with felony bank fraud and has been court-ordered to attend a program to treat gambling addiction. While the sums in Mizuhara’s case may be remarkable — nearly 25 bets per day, averaging $12,800, and a net loss of $40 million over two years — the behaviors exhibited are unfortunately universal, according to several problem gambling experts.

“I’d like to say it’s uncommon, but I’d be lying,” said Lia Nower, director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University, “It’s becoming more and more common, actually.”

Nower, like the other experts interviewed, spoke generally about gambling trends because she is not involved in Mizuhara’s treatment. While the last national survey regarding the prevalence of problem gambling was released in 1999 (“At that point, we’re looking at riverboat casino and lottery,” Nower said), a Rutgers study conducted in 2021 found a prevalence rate of high-risk problem gambling of about 6 percent.

The gambling environment has changed drastically since a 2018 Supreme Court ruling struck down a federal law prohibiting sports gambling in most states. Sports betting is now legal in 38 states. It’s often just a click away, with more options than ever to bet on with in-game wagering. The commercial gaming industry is setting revenue records year after year.

Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, which commissioned three surveys on gambling attitudes and experiences, said the risk of problem gambling has risen significantly since 2018.

“We think both the rate and severity of gambling problems are increasing in the United States,” Whyte said, adding, “That increase is mainly due to the massive growth of online sports betting.”

It’s unclear what betting experience Mizuhara had prior to meeting bookie Mathew Bowyer, but one of the more jarring parts of the Mizuhara criminal complaint is how quickly he started losing substantial sums. About a month after first using the illegal sports book, Mizuhara requested to pay his losses in smaller denominations — $15,000 on consecutive days — due to wiring restrictions. Two weeks later, he allegedly impersonated Ohtani to bank employees and sent his first payment, for $40,010, from Ohtani’s account.

Experts refer to the phenomenon of a new gambler almost immediately getting in over their heads as “telescoping,” and young men betting online are believed to be especially vulnerable.

“They’re playing in a lot more high-risk ways, with little experience,” Whyte said, “and there’s that telescoping effect where they seem to be going from initiation to problems in a very, very rapid timeframe.”

Within a few months of his first $10 bet, Malek had a conversation with his parents, who’d noticed the bank transfers leaving his account. They talked about the risks of sports betting, and Malek stopped for a bit — mostly because he’d run out of money to pay bookies. Then, one week, he realized his credit line with a bookie had reloaded despite not making a payment. He saw that as his chance to win it all back. He lost it all instead. That was Malek’s introduction to playing on credit. He started betting money he didn’t have. When Malek ran out of credit with one bookie, he’d block their phone number and find another bookie, hoping he’d win enough to pay back the previous bookie. When he ran out of bookies, he made a dating profile with photos of a woman he knew and used it to ask would-be suitors if they knew any bookies.

“It sped up pretty quickly,” he said.

Compulsive bettors often operate under the illusion of control, thinking that in sports betting, compared to a game of chance like slot machines, their expertise will give them an upper hand. Nower said problem gamblers, some of whom will have pre-existing vulnerabilities, will confront operant conditioning — the interval ratio reinforcement schedule tells them a win is coming, but they don’t know when — and develop erroneous cognition.

“You start to think you can control the outcome of random chance, which of course you can’t,” Nower said.

“The step of going from betting in a controlled manner and with resources you have and can afford to lose, versus tipping over into a loss of control, is very individual,” said Rachel Volberg, an epidemiology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who studies problem gambling. “When we consider things like slot machines, the trigger there can often be a very large win early on in your gambling career. That seems to set your brain up to expect that it may happen again. You end up chasing after that and losing a great deal.”

Chasing losses — increasing bets to win back money — is, in theory, a way to make up ground quickly. In practice, it is a great way to get deeper in the hole. A tendency to chase losses requires access to more and more money or credit. Mizuhara had both. Aside from allegedly stealing from Ohtani’s account, Mizuhara regularly asked his bookie to “bump” (or extend) his line of credit.

Jan. 15, 2022: F— I lost it all lol … can you ask (Bowyer) if he can bump me 50k? That will be my last one for a while if I lose it.

Nov. 14, 2022: I’m terrible at this sport betting thing huh? Lol . . . Any chance u can bump me again?? As you know, you don’t have to worry about me not paying!!

Dec. 9, 2022: Can u bump me last 200? I swear on my mom this will be the last ask before I pay it off once I get back to the states. Sorry for keep on asking. . . .

June 23, 2023: I’m the worst lol . . . can’t catch a break. . . . Can I get one last bump? I swear this is gonna be my last until I get the balance down significantly . . . . I promise this will be the last bump for a while.

June 24, 2023: I have a problem lol. . . . Can I get one last last last bump? This one is for real. . . . Last one for real

“I would imagine that if someone has access to a large amount of money, they may believe that they can borrow the money, win it back and put it back in,” said Dr. Marc Potenza, a psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine. “Then when that doesn’t happen and they get deeper into a hole, they believe that they can win back that money and things spiral increasingly out of control.”

In many cases, a compulsive gambler is not necessarily satisfied by just breaking even; they’re chasing the thrill of the action. As with other addictions, gamblers build tolerance, Whyte said, so they start to bet bigger. Our bodies haven’t developed a physical defense to compulsive gambling. “There’s not enough money in the world to overdose somebody with a gambling problem,” Whyte said. “It is infinitely scalable, it seems, which is really tough if that’s the high you’re chasing.”

On March 10, 2022, two years before his gambling became public, Mizuhara messaged Bowyer asking to lower his line of credit from $300,000 to $100,000. “I’ll get too reckless with 300,” Mizuhara wrote. But this attempt to put a guardrail in place, to minimize the harm his habit could do, didn’t last long. Mizuhara owed his bookie more than a million dollars in May 2022, according to investigators, and he continued to receive betting-limit bumps — some at his request, other times offered by Bowyer.

“(Problem gambling) is rarely linear,” Whyte said. “There are a lot of stops and starts. People try to cut back, or they have a huge loss or big win. Even though the downward spiral is still pretty consistent, it’s not a smooth curve. There’s lots of bumps along the road.”

“These are all really, really sad stories,” added Volberg. “I’ve sat in Gamblers Anonymous meetings and listened to some horrific stuff. Mizuhara’s (story) is really a tragedy.”

Reporters follow Mizuhara’s attorney, Michael J. Freedman, after he left federal court last week following Mizuhara’s hearing. (APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images)

There are some safeguards available, but they are not mandatory across the United States. Bettors can set limits on their bank accounts. They can install bet-blocking software on their phone or computer. If they are betting with a regulated book like DraftKings or FanDuel, they can implement limit-setting features in betting apps to cap how much they can bet in a given timeframe. “A very small percentage of people — we’re talking 4 percent to 6 percent at the most — even use these features,” Nower said. “It’s really unfortunate.” (Mizuhara was betting with an illegal bookie, which lacked any protections like the self-regulating options often required of legal sportsbooks.)

Several experts have called for increased federal support regarding problem gambling. Nower has lobbied for a federal regulatory agency to set minimal standards in several gambling areas, and for regulators from different states to put together uniform best practices across states. Whyte said gambling policy needs to begin with educating kids long before they place a bet, and it’ll take will and funding to build that framework. Given how much the gambling environment has changed recently, Dr. Potenza said, “We have to collect the information to make sure that we protect vulnerable individuals and promote public health.”

Mizuhara appeared in federal court last week, one day after prosecutors charged him with felony bank fraud, which carries a sentence of up to 30 years in prison. He surrendered to authorities and was released on a $25,000 bond. He was also barred from gambling or entering casinos and was ordered to enter a gambling addiction treatment program.

Whyte’s advice for any compulsive gambler: install limit-setting tools, then tell a friend. “Addiction breeds in shame, stigma and silence,” he said. The National Council on Problem Gambling fielded over 325,000 calls and texts to their 1-800-GAMBLER national helpline last year. “It’s still only a fraction of the 9 million people we think have (gambling) problems,” Whyte said. “But for some of those 325,000, that’s the first time they’ve told anybody in the world. It’s an anonymous person on the other end of the phone, but with that one step everything else becomes possible.”

Malek started going to Gamblers Anonymous meetings at his parents’ urging before his junior year of college. He owed somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000 across eight bookies and he had run out of bookies. “I was like how people describe a dry drunk, just white-knuckling. I didn’t have any access.”

After a breakup, Malek confided in a Gamblers Anonymous mentor about how betting had upended his life. He was suicidal. He couldn’t sleep. He was lying and cheating. “I had no real hope in life with the way I was going,” he said.

He tried the Gamblers Anonymous 12-step program, and he stuck to it.

Almost six years later, Malek is still paying off some of his debt. But he is now a public speaker, traveling the country talking about gambling addiction. He reads Mizuhara’s account and it brings back conversations he had with bookies, the way he spoke with them like old friends, like he was just a light-hearted, easy-going guy who was dealing just fine with the fact he was losing money he didn’t have.

(Top photo of Ohtani and Mizuhara: Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)

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