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Gaming Guru

Richard N. Velotta
 

Gambling, No Strings Attached

15 February 2006

It soon may be possible in Nevada to place bets not just on casino floors, but while lounging at poolside, having lunch or strolling through resorts' shopping arcades.

The remote gambling devices that would permit wagers from far-flung locales on resort grounds are no bigger than small hand-held video games.

And that, critics say, is the problem. Because if the Nevada Gaming Commission approves regulations for remote gambling - as it could as soon as next month - some fear that it would be difficult to prevent underage gamblers from using the small devices.

"There's a new weed in the garden, and it's poisonous," said Durand Jacobs, a 30-year member of the board of directors for the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington, and an ardent opponent of the gaming industry.

"I see this (remote gaming) as a very, very dangerous, nefarious precedent that will spread, if allowed, like wildfire."

Supporters of remote gambling say the wireless devices - which would allow players to wager from public areas within a resort such as restaurants, lounges or recreation facilities - would create an extension to the casino floor, thereby increasing profits and state tax revenue.

Critics, though, warn that because hand-held games appeal to a younger crowd, the remote gaming devices could increase the chance of young players becoming addicted to the games.

"They look a lot like Game Boys," said Jacobs, a clinical professor of psychiatry. "And they've done that by design. Who plays Game Boy? It's going to appeal to children."

The five-member Nevada Gaming Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed remote gaming regulation Feb. 23 in Carson City. Another hearing and possible adoption of the regulations is scheduled March 23 in Las Vegas.

The state Gaming Control Board has recommended approval of the regulations. Chairman Dennis Neilander said no one has yet come forward to formally oppose them.

One of the first companies to produce a remote gaming product was Las Vegas-based Shuffle Master Inc., which teamed with Sona Mobile of New York to develop and unveil mCasino, a table game and slots product, and mWager, a race and sports book device, at the International Casino Exhibition last month.

The devices' software allows players to switch between a selection of Shuffle Master-licensed games and a variety of casino and sports wagers. The software also permits players to wager on horse races, then watch them run in real time.

Mark Yoseloff, chief executive for Shuffle Master, is excited about financial prospects for the new devices, which are expected to be on the market for his casino customers by the end of the year.

Even though the devices have high-tech features to ensure that they are used only by people old enough to play, Yoseloff expects low-tech measures will be just as important to keeping them out of the wrong hands.

"I think we've all seen kids on casino floors, touching the machines," Yoseloff said. "How do you keep kids from playing keno in a cafe? You monitor it and stop them."

Neilander said building safeguards into who uses the devices in important, but admitted that on today's casino floors there is never going to be 100 percent assurance that minors won't dodge casino security and play illegally.

Gaming Control Board member Mark Clayton said one of the protective safeguards would govern where remote gaming would be permitted within a casino. For example, remote play would not be allowed in hotel rooms and in restrooms, where monitoring their use would be highly problematic.

Despite all of the safeguards, critics worry that impressionable minors will find a way around the safeguards - and start down a path of addictive play.

"The more available and accessible the games are, the more it's going to be addictive to some people," said the Rev. Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.

Grey, an Illinois-based Methodist minister, is concerned about underage players getting their hands on remote devices. He also wonders why casino companies will invest in technology to boost their bottom lines, but not to battle against addictive gambling habits.

"Parents allow their kids to buy lottery tickets," Grey said. "At the track, they say, 'Pick my horse.'

"They have biometric scans on these devices. Why not put in biometric scans to get on the casino floor? They haven't shown a willingness to check IDs. Don't tell me they're going to use this technology when they don't even use it on their brick-and-mortar facilities. They only check IDs when (underage players) win."

The National Council on Problem Gambling's Jacobs said he is worried that once Nevada approves remote gambling, other venues would quickly follow.

"They'll pick it up like hungry fish, grab onto it as quickly as they can," he said.

Indeed, Missouri regulators are keeping an eye on Nevada's handling of remote gambling regulations, and Shuffle Master and Sona Mobile expect other venues to approve similar regulations.

"It will be interesting to see how popular it is," said Kevin Mullally, executive director of the Missouri Gaming Commission, widely considered the country's toughest gaming regulatory body. "We haven't been approached by anybody yet, but we've been observing what's going on. Right now, we're more focused on server-based gaming. That's where our technological attention has been focused, and I think we may have that done before Nevada."