Raining on the Parade

Gaming veteran Richard Schuetz (l.) delivers a reality check with respect to problem gambling in a piece that recalls his first experience with problem gamblers. He suggests the gaming industry needs to pay more attention to the issue or it will suffer the consequences.

Raining on the Parade

There is a story told in many Asian cultures of where six blind men come upon an elephant and they each describe the animal based on where they grab it. For instance, the blind man who grabs the tusk has a different reality of what an elephant is from the blind man who grabs the tail, as does the blind man who grabs the trunk, or the blind man who runs his hand along the elephant’s side, and so on. I believe that problem gambling is one of these elephants and would like to share my perspective from where I have grabbed that beast.

I started in the casino business in 1972, working for Bill Harrah’s casino in Reno, Nevada. At that time gambling was only legal in Nevada, and the two main Nevada markets were Las Vegas and Reno/Tahoe. Both markets were fed by visitors from outside the state, with huge visitation from the state of California, and it was somewhat easy for most to ignore the reality of problem gambling, for most of the problem was being exported out of Nevada. That is, when the people left Nevada to return to their out-of-state homes, they took their problem gambling issues with them. This is not unlike the chemical plant that dumps polluting chemicals into a river. The chemicals do not posit much risk to the locals, but they can be a significant health threat to those downstream.

I went to work for Harrah’s to pay for my college education during my pursuit of bachelor and graduate degrees at the University of Nevada, Reno. Because of the need to attend class during the day, I would go to work at 9:00 p.m. at night, getting off at 5:00 a.m., and yes, I was always exhausted—never getting enough sleep as a result of the responsibilities of school and the crazy hours I was working.

In the early 1970s, Harrah’s was a rocking joint in Reno. There were no tribal casinos in California and every weekend there would be this massive migration from the large populations present in Northern California to Reno. Harrah’s had a wonderful showroom that booked great talent, a very nice hotel, wonderful restaurants, and a first-class casino. Moreover, and I am sure that this will surprise many of you, essentially all of the men wore suit or sport coats and most wore ties in the casino at night; and the women all wore dresses or skirts. People put on the dog to go to the casino in the evening and it was an uptown experience in those days. It was kind of cool for everyone was looking good and stylin’.

During this time entertainers would also mingle with the guests on the casino floor and I once had Dionne Warwick racking cheques for me while I was dealing on a roulette wheel. Bill Cosby used to both deal and play blackjack in our pits, and Joe Conforte, who owned the big brothel outside of town, would parade through the casino with several of his scantily dressed employees and often play big on the tables. That was always a hoot. I fell madly in love with Olympic skating gold medal winner Peggy Fleming while she was playing on my blackjack game (I don’t think she knew of my deep feelings, for she only played for about two hours and left). I made Monday Night Football announcer Don Meredith laugh with a joke (I still remember) while he was playing on my game, and even got to deal to all of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and on it went. A person just never knew what or who they would see working in Harrah’s Reno in the early 1970s.

It was exciting to go to work at 9:00 at night, for the first show had broken, the music from the lounge acts was pulsating out onto the casino floor, and the place was alive with energy. Everyone was looking good and having fun. It was the stuff of movies and advertisements, and all what gambling should be. But through the night things would change.

At 3:00 in the morning, I was still dealing, and it was no longer to the beautiful people of the world. Many of the folks who were sitting at my game were very tired, very drunk, and very bummed. Many were chasing losses, had gotten into arguments with their partners or spouses, and were in a foul state of mind. As a broad statement, these were some miserable people. They gave every impression of being sick, and from what I have learned over the last 40 plus years, some were. For many of the folks I was dealing to at 3:00 a.m., it seemed gambling was not a controlled form of entertainment, but rather a pathology.

At three in the morning on a blackjack game there is a much higher likelihood of seeing the underbelly of gambling, not the subject of the wonderful advertisements. At three in the morning on a blackjack game you are much more likely to hear foul and mean language, not laughter or interesting stories. At three in the morning as a dealer, you just might be looking into the belly of the beast. Dealing blackjack is an up-close and personal experience, and at three in the morning it was sometimes too up-close and personal

I believe that many of the people who are now the lobbyists, public relations spokespersons, experts, and other proponents of gambling really haven’t spent night after night, year after year, dealing cards in a very close proximity to gamblers at three and four and five in the morning – to be up-close and personal to people who are often times absolutely miserable in the act of playing games for money. I also don’t believe that a lot of casino regulators have done this, nor legislators, nor even treatment professionals and researchers. This is a part of the anatomy of the elephant that most have never grabbed, and if they had, I think many would behave and think differently. People can read about problem gambling, people can study the data, and people can make speeches and write articles on the topic—all important grabs at the elephant, but I would argue that staring into the eyes of it every night, year after year after year, would change the perception for many people of just how damaging that elephant can be.

Last October, it was my honor to be invited by Keith Whyte to give an address at the annual convention of the National Council of Problem Gambling in Cleveland, Ohio. What I noticed at this conference was the absence of senior executives from the gaming industry, with the notable exception of Alan Feldman, of MGM Resorts International, a real stalwart at these things. This bothered me, for I was learning a great deal from the different presentations. It seems that the senior executives, if they are truly wanting to lead, needed to understand this stuff, especially with respect to some of the new products and delivery channels being employed in gaming. Sometimes I worry that these executives think it is enough to write a check to one of the organizations, and always discuss problem gambling in politically correct ways—but that they really don’t want to be bothered with learning much about it.

I also noted that there were not a lot of heads of regulatory agencies at the NCPG convention. I know that they attend conferences, always working to sell their competence and their markets. It does seem that they could become better regulators if they were to attend these conferences or conventions and understand the latest research on problem gambling.

Nor could I find any of the many consultants who are so busy teaching the world about sports wagering. I guess that teaching the world about sports wagering does not demand much insight about problem gambling.

And looking at the NCPG website I found that while not attending, many of the companies did sponsor, but I could not find the DFS folks. Have they become so confused that they really do not know that all of that talk about them not being about gambling was all just spin?

Finally, I noticed that many of the folks who have entered into U.S. market from across the pond apparently do not want to join into the institutions that work to research and address the issue of problem gambling. I worry that they just want to involve themselves in the part of the industry that makes them money.

As I mentioned, for many years the state of Nevada was the only state that had gambling in the U.S., and the state developed believing that it did not need to address problem gambling, for that was an issue for the folks downstream. But throwing the problems into the stream no longer works, for there is gambling everywhere, and the stream has become a lake, and now no one can escape the potential toxicity of the product.

The point of this is that the understanding of problem gambling needs to increase, for as knowledge increases, so too will the programs to mitigate the risk and damage to that part of the gaming population where gambling is a pathology. And everyone needs to be a part of these programs.

Industries suffer when they ignore the negative side effects of their existence, and this is not the way to ensure sustainability for the gaming industry. It is no longer enough for a casino CEO to sign off on the check request, make a few politically correct statements about problem gambling and think their work is done. No, if they are going to lead they are going to need to understand, and to understand they need to participate.

It is no longer acceptable for the leaders of the regulatory agencies to delegate this to a manager; rather the leaders need to travel with that manager to these problem gambling events to hear directly what is happening in the field.

It is no longer acceptable for the consultants selling gambling to the country to know how to say problem gambling, but have no earthly idea what it means; and it is not acceptable when many of the new members of the industry feel that they can just get a free ride on the externalities they create.

If gambling is to grow up, it needs to act like it, and it needs to seriously address the risks and damages brought on by problem gambling, for no matter where one grabs that animal, problem gambling is not an attractive by-product of the industry. If the evolving leadership of this industry thinks it can get by with what has been done in the past, or less, it is making a terrible mistake, for in the end the people of this country will not tolerate it.

Articles by Author: Richard Schuetz

Richard Schuetz started dealing blackjack for Bill Harrah 47 years ago, and has traveled the world as a casino executive, educator and regulator. He is sincerely appreciative of the help he received from his friends and colleagues throughout the gaming world in developing this article, understanding that any and all errors are his own.