The Dangerous Combination of Online Gambling and Cryptocurrency
by Alex Freiburger
Nominated by Jon Holland for English 125: Writing & Academic Inquiry
Employing a plethora of real-world examples, facts, data, analogies, and expert interviews, Alex Freiburger’s “Fortune May Not Favor the Brave…” demystifies the enigmatic world of crypto currency and probes the psychological and economic risk of its intersection with online gambling. The Monte Carlo fallacy, Drake, Draftkings, and organized crime, this essay has something for everyone, no matter your interest, investment, or understanding of cryptocurrency or your moral stand on gambling. Neither of these phenomena are going away anytime soon, so what should we do? How do we magnify the benefits of crypto currency while mitigating its potential consequences related to gambling, addiction, and crime? Alex’s writing is clear, authoritative, and entertaining, but his focused analysis, riveting introduction, research-driven exploration, and pragmatic attempt at a solution make this a one-of-a-kind essay and an exemplary model for undergraduate writing.
- Jon Holland
Fortune May Not Favor the Brave: The Dangerous Combination of Online Gambling and Cryptocurrency
The day after the 2022 Super Bowl, a Vox article by Terry Nguyen announced the winner. It was not the Cincinnati Bengals and not the Los Angeles Rams: the real winner was money. The preponderance of commercials for online gambling platforms and cryptocurrency dominated the advertising. Both industries spent heavily to air ads in an effort to gain legitimacy and overcome their shady reputations. The online sports-betting platforms DraftKings, FanDuel, and Caesars Sportsbook relentlessly advertised their services in an industry that is growing rapidly as thirty states have legalized online gambling, and many others will likely follow (Yakowicz). These companies' Super Bowl ads often ran special promotions for those who registered during the game. For instance, DraftKings gave new customers a free fourth-quarter bet, and FanDuel lured new users by offering the chance to wager $5 for the chance to win $280. Nguyen found the online gambling ads “depend on a twisted sense of FOMO” in which viewers worry about missing out on free money while watching the sports competition they tuned in to see.
Likewise, a commercial for the crypto trading platform Coinbase, which allows users to send and receive cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin, allowed viewers to scan a flashing QR code that allowed them to register for an account and receive $15 in Bitcoin. According to Nguyen, Coinbase spent an estimated $14 million for this coverage, and the commercial proved so effective that the Coinbase app crashed during the Super Bowl. Despite previous social media backlash about its November 2021 “Fortune Favors the Brave” ad, which features Matt Damon speaking about how important it is to be fearless to make history, Crypto.com aired the ad again during the Super Bowl. The point of this ad was to demonstrate that investing in Crypto requires users to have the bravery of an Apollo astronaut but will allow them to make history by being part of this pioneering, high-tech industry.
The online gambling and cryptocurrency industries intersect. The hip hop artist Drake placed a $1.3 million Bitcoin bet on the Los Angeles Rams to win the game. However, placing this bet with cryptocurrency could have potentially been illegal. In Ontario, Canada, the only licensed online sportsbook is Proline Plus, while Drake posted his ticket being placed through a non-regulated site called Stake (Nicolle). Though few people place such high-stakes bets, many online gambling opportunities involve cryptocurrency transactions. While online gambling offers bettors convenience, some experts worry that this convenience will result in users’ personal financial disaster and an increased prevalence of gambling disorders, especially as online gambling firms can target heavy-betting users with seemingly irresistible offers. Although some states, such as New Jersey, have long sought online gambling, others are less sanguine about the prospects but have legalized it to capture the revenue and attempt to refill dwindling state coffers. As many more states consider this process, the public and their representatives should become informed about the benefits and dangers of online gambling. Doing so also requires looking carefully at how gambling in cryptocurrency works and what challenges it poses for regulators. Although the online gambling industry as a whole needs more effective regulation, the cryptocurrency online gambling platforms pose unique challenges for legislators creating online gambling laws and regulators seeking to enforce them.
Americans’ complex attitudes toward risk complicate the potential regulation of online gambling, let alone online gambling in cryptocurrency. In “America’s Gambling Addiction is Metastasizing,” Stephen Marche links online gambling, which will inevitably lead to an overall increase in gambling addiction, with a decline in American values. He sees it as part of “our boundless desire for risk,” even though that desire makes corporations and governments richer while “many unlucky and vulnerable people are destroyed” in the process (Marche). Large institutions displace risks on the individual. Marche adds, “American society has accepted that tradeoff—big money now for a social crisis later—on any number of fronts: in its banking sector, in its housing markets, in its health-care industry.” His analysis reveals the complexity of regulating online gambling, especially given many Americans’ propensity to prefer libertarian ideals and minimal economic regulations. Marche nonetheless effectively conveys how the inevitable growth of online gambling, with all its capitalist logic, will precipitate more risk for individuals and increase the precarity of Americans’ lives.
Are we right in assuming that online gambling in cryptocurrency is necessarily riskier than arriving at Caesars Palace with a wad of bills? This is a complex question because the risk is both financial and psychological. The cost-benefit analysis we make in deciding how to allocate our money differs from the risk-benefit analysis the FDA may make in approving a drug that has some negative side effects. In both cases, there is a risk of harm because our knowledge is limited. Under these conditions of what philosophers call “epistemic uncertainty,” we can fool ourselves by thinking that we are making rational choices (Hansson 539). That’s because of the heuristic biases that gamblers often rely on. In the well-known Monte Carlo fallacy, rather than assessing risk as independent, we assess it based on past occurrences, as when we fool ourselves into thinking that our luck is about to change. We also exhibit the “illusion of control” (Orgaz 1). We believe we can influence events that are clearly out of our control.
Although gambling online using cryptocurrency isn’t initially as easy as pulling up a chair by the roulette wheel and sliding a stack of chips to the dealer, after the account is set up, crypto gambling is far easier. As with all cryptocurrency transactions, the user must first get an anonymized account identification and link it to a digital wallet. Next, instead of establishing an account at an online service such as DraftKings, the bettor would go to a decentralized gambling application known as a cryptocurrency casino, where real-time wagering in currencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum is reflected on a public ledger, or blockchain, under the encrypted account code (Scholten and Walker 2). This account code is called a “pseudonym” or “public key” (Yin et al. 50). The code is the only identifier associated with the account.
Blockchains make data secure, transparent, and accessible. By shifting to blockchain, the industry stands to benefit in important ways, including “security, validity, anonymity, and cost-efficiency of the industry's core transactions” (Tomasulo and Pannullo). To execute a cryptocurrency transaction, users can employ more than one public key. For example, if you are making a Bitcoin transaction, all of the Bitcoin will be drawn from your account. The payment amount will go to the receiver’s account, and the remainder will go into a “change address” (Yin et al. 50). This change address could be the same public key where the Bitcoin was initially held, or it could be a new public key, which is a “best practice” for anonymity-prioritizing Bitcoin users (48). To make another transaction, the user would “sign” it by using the corresponding private key; after this, the transaction would be shared with the network, blocked with other transactions to be verified, and “accepted into the Blockchain by the consensus of all peers” before it is accepted and made public (50). With cryptocurrency casinos, every wager is publicly accessible because all bets reside on a peer-to-peer network, where information is available to any member in the network without privileging any node of it (Meng and Fu 2).
While the process sounds complicated, it can be initiated with a few keystrokes. Another Ethereum approach is to use a “smart contract,” which becomes analogous to a vending machine that, when given a certain fee, delivers a certain product. Etheroll, a simulated dice game using Ethereum blockchain, employs this smart-contract approach. The decentralized application, or DApp, is built on a smart contract. In a 2020 study of publicly available Etheroll data (which includes timestamps for transactions), Meng and Fu evaluated the process of online gambling using cryptocurrency—from betting decisions to strategies to payouts (4-5). This pioneering study of risk behavior stresses how quick and easy gambling on cryptocurrency platforms can be.
Online gambling with cryptocurrency payments remediates one aspect of risk: that associated with the casino’s nonpayment of winnings to the bettor. Many online gambling platforms have actually been put on a “blacklist” by Casinosites.com. This blacklist currently lists 33 platforms, with many of their subsidiaries being listed as well. Reasons for being on the blacklist include unfair games, nonpayment, slow payment, and constantly changing rules and regulations (“Use Our 2022 Casino Blacklist”). Unlike online gambling in fiat currency, online gambling transactions with cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum and Bitcoin are handled through DApps that record the transactions on blockchains (Scholten and Walker 2). With transactions being validated on global user networks, where each node in the network verifies each transaction, the blockchain virtually eliminates the possibility of nonpayment as it is “almost impossible to defraud” (Dula and Chuen 15; Meng and Fu 2).
This means that while cryptocurrencies themselves are inherently risky, using an online gambling platform substantially reduces the risk that a firm will not pay bettors their earned winnings. In a personal interview, Puneet Manchanda, Isadore and Leon Winkelman Professor of Marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, noted that blockchain technology offers the gambler particular advantages for online gambling and sports betting: “The fact that it allows tracking lowers the chance of the online gambling firm ‘gaming’ the system” (Manchanda). Whereas much of what goes on in traditional casinos involves the surreptitious strategies that ensure that the house always wins, blockchain offers no backroom finagling kept secret from the public. This lack of information asymmetry offers a system that has to be more forthright, which is good for the individual gambler who is disadvantaged relative to the casino.
Though some online gambling establishments are inherently deceptive and act unethically to their customers, customers, too, have used their own strategies to avoid payment. Online gamblers who lose money (which, statistically speaking, is most gamblers) might call their credit card companies to dispute the charge, and the company will typically respond by reversing the charges. Before online gambling was legalized, this strategy was common, even though it amounted to fraud (Vogel). One New Jersey gambler tried to escape her $10,000 online gambling debt by claiming identity theft. When a police investigation proved this was not true, she was arrested for Theft by Deception (Vogel). Cryptocurrency, then, would solve the issue of trust for both the casinos and the gamblers.
But the risk doesn’t stop with the cryptocurrency bet we just placed. Whether we win or lose, we face a risk of addiction. Online gambling is more addictive than land-based gambling, especially for young people (Choliz 750-51). The greater accessibility and speed of online gambling lures individuals who will go on to develop gambling disorders. In “The Internet Turned ‘Money’ into a Hobby,” Rebecca Jennings interviewed “20- and 30-something dudes [who] made crypto and sports betting their personality.” Josh Clayton, a 29-year-old copywriter in Brooklyn, summed up the danger of cryptocurrency online gambling: “Gambling went from being something that was super taboo to being easier than ordering food on Uber Eats” (Jennings). The accessibility of online gambling is akin to a person with a substance use disorder having his dealer on Instacart, ready to deliver the dopamine reward any time of the day or night. The DSM-5 finds one characteristic of this addiction is “‘chasing’ one’s losses” by placing riskier bets to try to win back losses (Grant). Therefore, the 24/7 availability of online gambling presents an even greater danger. To compound this, cryptocurrency trading alone is an emerging form of gambling addiction (Mentes et al. 311; Griffiths 11). Thus, in addition to the financial harm, developing both disorders could be psychologically devastating.
Once cryptocurrency casino accounts are set up, the risk from the gambling alone is considerable. Scholten et al. (2020) studied 2,232,741 transactions from 24,234 unique addresses on the Ethereum cryptocurrency network and found the average player spends roughly $110 on a median of six bets per day (12). That’s an annual exposure of $40,150, which represents 72 percent of the average annual income for Americans as of 2020 (“National Average Wage Index”). Although its users come from many different backgrounds, online gamblers generally tend to be middle-aged married men who work full-time and gamble to make money or to relieve boredom (Salgueiro et al. 900). For heavy hitters, however, the exposure is astronomical— wagering about approximately $100,000 on a median of 644 bets over 35 days (Scholten et al. 12). That means these gamblers are risking $36.5 million per year. The average blockchain bettor spends less than traditional casino bettors, but the heavy hitters spend considerably more. Although the heavy hitters fare better than the smaller bettors in terms of their typical losses, the bottom line for both is that they emerge, on average, as net losers. Whether that wipes out an emergency fund of a few thousand dollars or a retirement nest egg in the millions, the experience of online gambling is not, on average, an enriching one.
When the gambling venue is a crypto casino, that risk only amplifies because of the added epistemic uncertainty of the cryptocurrency valuation. Cryptocurrency introduces sizable risks associated with the volatility of the underlying cryptocurrency market. In the case of online gambling using cryptocurrency, this cost-benefit analysis leaves even more opportunity for the flawed heuristics to result in financial losses. As Manchanda explains, “Online gambling via crypto has two levels of risk — one is the risk from the gamble, the other is the risk of the currency (and its value). So it’s almost double the risk. It can be argued that using crypto is already akin to gambling.” Yet we may convince ourselves that we’ve rationally accounted for the financial risk. Cryptocurrency trading and gambling both require that we make decisions on the basis of limited information, focusing on short-term profit motives to achieve highly volatile and uncertain outcomes (Delfabbro et al. 1). Individuals with gambling disorder were more likely to trade cryptocurrency than those who did not: higher problem gambling scores (PGSI) predicted greater cryptocurrency trading intensity in terms of the daily time spent, number of trades, and monetary amount (Delfabbro et al. 4). Thus, cryptocurrency trading and gambling are mutually reinforcing.
In fact, psychological problems related to online gambling also apply to cryptocurrency trading. Both can be considered problematic internet use and may not be responsive to sheer willpower to overcome. A team of Italian psychologists showed young participants pictures of online gambling, a video game, and a neutral image. They found that the online gambling image caused a “attentional facilitation effect,” indicating the brain’s bias toward this image as it found this “the most salient and rewarding category” (Balconi and Angioletti 5). If that’s the way a population without a gambling disorder responds, imagine how difficult it would be to have a gambling problem and see gambling apps, get push notices, and discover emails every time you look at your phone. These images could trigger a physiological response in the amygdala, the frontal cortex, and the prefrontal cortex that in turn raises the heart rate and stimulates an autonomic response that makes clicking the app and placing a bet much harder to avoid (Priolo et al. 20). If a similar mechanism helps drive users to trade in cryptocurrency, then being able to resist may become even harder still. The greater accessibility and speed of online gambling, especially in cryptocurrency, makes crypto casinos more likely to lure individuals who will go on to develop gambling disorders.
Adding to the risk factors, both online gambling and cryptocurrency markets also draw dangerous criminal enterprises. Online gambling is also associated with money laundering, organized crime, tax evasion, and other illegal practices (Platzer 17, 24; Clary 251). Joseph S. Campbell, assistant director of the FBI Criminal Investigative Division, raised the concern that online poker would increase crimes as criminals could employ tools such as virtual private networks to “conceal their identity, location, and true gambling activity’” (Platzer 17). Thus, online gambling may be a problem for the unsuspecting gambler and a resource for criminal actors.
Does online gambling using cryptocurrency increase the opportunity for these crimes? According to Manchanda, we cannot yet know: “It’s not clear that the “bad” agents . . . have understood how to leverage crypto to their ends.” Although a strong attraction to cryptocurrency is that the encryption provides anonymity (something that traditional banks do not offer), that still may not be sufficiently private for some criminals, according to Manchanda. He maintains that “the biggest challenge for these agents would be to circumvent the public nature of crypto” (Manchanda).
While Marche appears correct in his claim that Americans have accepted a certain level of risk in their daily lives, we don’t have to stand idly by while online gambling redistributes wealth to gambling corporations. The industry is still new and less powerful than it will be. Eighteen have legalized online sports wagering, meaning that more than one hundred million Americans can legally wager (Yakowicz). Six states— Delaware, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia) offer legal online poker and casino betting (“Legal Gambling States”). These numbers are likely to increase. Twenty additional states may legalize online gambling and will need to negotiate with state lawmakers. To a certain extent, the same can be said for cryptocurrency itself, as countries around the world find themselves in need of stricter regulations (Sauce 67). With cryptocurrency gambling set to become the fastest-growth area of online gambling, lawmakers should prioritize promulgating effective regulations of cryptocurrency casinos.
Addressing the problem of online cryptocurrency gambling requires a two-pronged approach: regulating cryptocurrency (primarily at the federal level) and regulating online gambling (primarily at the state level). Cryptocurrency is not going away and produces sizable challenges to regulators. Because cryptocurrency exchanges rely on so-called “dark pool” investments, effectively becoming a private securities exchange offering anonymous investments, banning them would serve no purpose as this would only push users even further to the “dark side” (Sauce 62). Thus, overregulating cryptocurrency exchanges could end up increasing illegal activity instead of decreasing it.
While it is easy to respond to something as confusing as blockchain technology and as potentially dangerous as cryptocurrency by deciding to regulate it tightly, this kind of knee-jerk reaction could undermine the currency’s chief moral good: by providing efficient, virtually free transactions (with costs in the zero-to-one percent range), cryptocurrency offers a valuable service to the unbanked, as it allows them to avoid financial institutions’ fees and commercial transaction costs (Dierksmeier and Steele 6). If lawmakers don’t know enough about cryptocurrency, which is a very safe bet, then they might easily overregulate based on input from the paid lobbyists those institutions would unleash on Washington. A secondary concern with regulating cryptocurrency arises from the desirability of digital anonymity as resistance against profiling and other practices attached to the growing quantity of digital financial data collected on us for purposes such as marketing to us or scamming us (Yin et al. 47). Thus, just because cryptocurrency can be linked with morally questionable consequences does not mean that it cannot achieve morally laudable goals.
Yet, the challenges of regulating a currency exchanged on peer-to-peer platforms under conditions of nearly complete anonymity may make the idea of regulating cryptocurrency appear futile anyway. Existing regulatory frameworks operate by having “a legal entity or person that can be brought into the regulatory perimeter” (BIS Annual Economic Report 317). But what do regulators do with an encrypted key? The blockchain is also indifferent to geographical borders: “Cryptocurrencies live in their own digital, nationless realm and can largely function in isolation from existing institutional environments or other infrastructure. Their legal domicile—to the extent they have one—might be offshore, or impossible to establish clearly” (BIS Annual Economic Report 317). Nearly everything about the way we currently look at financial regulation presents challenges when it comes to cryptocurrency.
Is it even feasible, then, to attempt to regulate this elusive form of currency? Manchanda believes it is. He argues, “The best strategy would be at (a) the macro [level]—treat cryptocurrencies like regular currencies, and (b) regulate crypto exchanges.” Manchanda addresses a critical prerequisite: cryptocurrency must first be recognized as legal tender in the US. Otherwise, the government cannot apply its financial rules.
This includes regulating cryptocurrency exchanges, as Manchanda advises. He concedes that if cryptocurrencies are regulated, policymakers will initially have a hard time avoiding causing regulatory arbitrage. We need global regulation to prevent cryptocurrency exchanges from merely registering in countries with lax regulations or none at all, but that level of international agreement is virtually impossible to achieve (Dierksmeier and Seele 4-5). According to Manchanda, this may be a growing pain we have to face: “The fact that Bitcoin and Ethereum account for the vast majority of crypto usage [means] focusing on them should be the first step.” Whether blockchain currency is legal tender becomes a critical point when it comes to online gambling using blockchain technology: if cryptocurrency isn’t currency, then gambling with it isn’t technically gambling. Consequently, the online gambling institutions using it could argue that current regulations don’t apply to them.
Federal legislators contemplating regulations should contract with cryptocurrency specialists who can anticipate how gamblers will use these blockchain exchanges. Those who watched Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testify before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees in 2018 would have had at least one incontrovertible takeaway: a lot of these lawmakers don’t have the slightest understanding of how internet technology works (“Facebook CEO”). If they struggled to understand how Facebook works, they are probably not the best people to draft legislation about two far-more-complex internet functions—online gambling and cryptocurrency payment systems.
Online cryptocurrency casinos should be legalized so that they can be regulated. This process will be implemented primarily by state governments, and the trend is likely to follow the general online gambling legalization trend. So far, thirty cash-strapped states see online gambling as a means of producing revenue, just as casinos and state lotteries have done in many states (Yakowicz). According to the American Gaming Association, the leading lobbying group for casinos, governments could receive an estimated $2 billion revenue boost annually from the legalization of online poker alone (Clary 231). How essential gambling tax revenues are to the state coffers varies. For Nevada, where gambling is a prominent industry, gambling taxes comprised twenty percent of the state’s general fund in 2015, just ten percent less than all sales and use taxes, and for Rhode Island, the state lottery alone accounted for more than ten percent of general fund revenue in 2015 (Platzer 17). Though state legislators may be deterred by the technological complexity of blockchain policymaking, the possibility of capturing this tax revenue will likely motivate states to expand their regulations to cryptocurrency casinos as well.
Although the complexity of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology will likely delay government action, states that are future-looking should focus their online gambling legislation and regulation to address crypto gambling’s unique dangers. States have focused on their right to legalize and set standards for “player protections, taxation, licensing, enforcement, payment processing, and geolocation standard [to ensure players are gambling within their states)” (Platzer 16). Although most states will probably end up legalizing online gambling, they can—and should—use this opportunity to hold online casinos accountable. Representative Hakeem Jeffries urged the U.S. House Judiciary Committee to determine “‘whether permitting a multibillion-dollar industry to police itself serves the best interests of the American people’” (qtd. in Drape and Williams). Jeffries argues that the industry can ruin gamblers’ lives through gambling addiction and reward criminal actors. Instead of solely state regulation, Jeffries believes the federal government should regulate the industry more heavily through greater policing of fraud and money laundering and should add a federal tax to payouts.
Passing online gambling laws requiring in-person registration becomes especially important for cryptocurrency casinos, as such a process would link an individual’s gambling proceeds with a tax ID number so that the government can hold tax evaders accountable. To prevent an individual from setting up multiple accounts within one sportsbook, Illinois, like a handful of other states, requires people present themselves in person at an authorized sports betting establishment to be cleared to gamble online (Harrell 524). While this would not prevent money laundering through cryptocurrency, it would make the payment system (traditional currency or cryptocurrency) irrelevant with respect to taxation. However, we should earmark revenue derived from cyber betting for information about the risks of online gambling addiction and cryptocurrency in general.
Drake may have been a big winner with his cryptocurrency Super Bowl bet, but statistically speaking, those Americans who signed up for cryptocurrency trading and online gambling accounts during the big game are probably net losers by now. Some may have decided the gambling life was not for them or that cryptocurrency’s complexity made them too anxious to get involved. However, statistics suggest that many of the individuals who pulled out their phones during the game have gone on to develop a gambling addiction, a cryptocurrency trading addiction, or a combination of them. Money, as Nguyen aptly noted, is the winner—with cryptocurrency casinos doubling the financial risk. Meanwhile, the laws have not caught up with the technology. Drake probably did not know his bet was illegal, as most intentional lawbreakers don’t post evidence of their crimes online for millions to see. By promoting cryptocurrency gambling before the federal and state legislators have provided a proper regulatory framework, many cryptocurrency casino users will likely discover too late that fortune may not always favor the brave.
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