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Top 10 things I learned at Casino City this year

21 December 2015

I knew very little about the gaming industry when I took this job as Casino City's copy editor earlier this year. I wasn't even especially familiar with it from a user perspective — entering the workforce with a degree in creative writing was enough of a gamble for me, thanks!

Fortunately for me, the way this whole copy editing gig works is that I bring the grammar nerdery and a copy of the AP Stylebook, then I get to learn the content stuff on the job. And I learned a lot this year, some of which had nothing to do with gambling whatsoever (ask me about the Australian postal system!) (actually . . . don't). But most of it did, for obvious reasons.

Here are 10 of my favorite things I've learned on the job this year.

10. People in this industry have the best names

First, the obvious ones: I might think it's a bit narcissistic to name your casino after yourself, but I can't really argue with "Trump" and "Wynn" as perfect names for either casinos or casino moguls.

Additionally, I am embarrassed to admit that I spent a good four or five months hearing people talk about 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event champ Chris Moneymaker before it occurred to me to ask someone what his real name is. Turns out, Chris Moneymaker's real name is actually Chris Moneymaker.

If you showed me a television show about an accountant-turned-unlikely-poker-champion with a name like "Moneymaker" I'd throw things at the TV for being obvious.

And while this name has no gambling-related connotations whatsoever, I was delighted to discover that there is a real person named Norbert Teufelberger. He's the CEO of bwin.party.

I'm a word nerd. These sorts of things amuse me.

9. People come up with the most random stuff for charity fundraising

"Charitable gaming" is without a doubt my favorite section of our business publications to copy edit. Some of this is because the licensing requirements get really specific in really small-town ways that make you wonder what, exactly, happened that they had to legislate that you can't give a firearm as a prize in a charity bingo game in New Mexico. But mostly it's because I get to learn about things like duck race raffles.

In a duck race raffle, a bunch of rubber ducks are dumped into a river or other waterway to be carried along by the current. Each rubber duck is given a number, and people purchase raffle tickets with corresponding numbers. Whoever holds the ticket with the number of the duck that crosses the finish line first wins.

For some pictures of a really big rubber duck race, check out this article about one that was canceled because the city was spending $30,000 a year to rent the rubber ducks.

Other states require licenses for things such as bell jars (a type of paper slot, not copies of the Sylvia Plath book) and cake wheels. Less excitingly, a pickle card is just a cute Nebraska term for a pull-tab.

8. Way too much about daily fantasy sports

I think we all learned more than we wanted to about daily fantasy sports this year. (Except maybe Dan, who it seems could use a little extra insight.)

While DFS has been around since 2009, its explosive growth and subsequent (and obvious, in my opinion) legal troubles were one of the biggest stories of the year. I personally was able to avoid the brunt of the ad blitz through the possibly extreme measure of not having television, but this did not save me from ads on billboards or at bus stops – nor did it stop my Twitter feed from filling up with promoted tweets from FanDuel, usually sandwiched between sarcastic tweets from Chris Kluwe bagging on FanDuel.

While this drama is far from over, and will probably continue into one of the bigger stories of 2016 before being made into an inevitable Aaron Sorkin movie, the story thus far is a classic illustration of the dangers of hubris, which is Greek for "being too clever for your own good." In short, a bunch of smart, enterprising young nerds found a market opportunity in a small loophole in a law (the UIGEA) and proceeded to drive a Mack truck through it with sirens a-blarin', and are now being rudely reminded that laws are open to interpretation and even change. On the upside, the body count thus far is a lot lower than your average Greek tragedy, and it's led to some hilarious media coverage:


7. Online gambling can be pretty cavalier about its "gray market"

Brick-and-mortar casino gaming is one of the most tightly regulated industries you'll ever hear about. Online gambling, apparently, is a different story.

Exciting New York Times exposés about illegal sports betting rings aside, a lot of the online gambling industry tends toward the legislatively unclear. This is often treated in a matter-of-fact sort of way that continues to surprise me every time it pops up.

One example was this summer's merger between GVC Holdings and bwin.party, after GVC had gotten into a bidding war with 888. This surprised us and other industry insiders a bit, since GVC operates in gray jurisdictions, whereas 888 and bwin.party do not. But apparently that is only a minor business consideration, and saying that GVC operates in gray jurisdictions is a simple industry fact and not an allegation.

I also see a lot of press releases congratulating So-and-So from Somewhere for winning large jackpots at online casinos, where the Somewhere in question is in a jurisdiction that doesn't allow online gambling, or only has a handful of approved operators and the issuer of the press release isn't one of them. Of course, I choose to believe that all these people are playing their online slots while on vacation in another jurisdiction, because otherwise it'd be weird to be writing press releases about it, since that's sort of the opposite of trying to cover up shady behavior.

6. I think slots might be actually bad for your brain

One aspect of my job is to go back through several years' worth of gaming strategy articles by our gurus and make sure each article is properly tagged. Guess which casino game elicits the most strategy questions?

Slots.

Now, apart from a handful of bankroll management practices, there's not much strategy you can actually employ when playing slots. You decide which buttons you can afford to push and you push 'em. The machine spits out a random result, and maybe you win, maybe you lose.

The "random" bit is what seems to get people. Our endlessly patient gaming strategy writers have collectively written hundreds of articles explaining random number generators, pseudo-random number generators, probability theory, randomness perception and more. And people keep writing in with reports of seeing patterns in their slot play.

It's pretty well established in psychology that people are very bad at perceiving randomness correctly and that our brains are geared toward pattern-finding. It's not necessarily as well established that prolonged exposure to slot machines will then start warping your perception even if you know intellectually that they're supposed to be random because it's too exhausting for your brain to process that much randomness, but that is the hypothesis I'm developing. (Do not expect an academic paper on it anytime soon.)

This is not to say that I don't think you should play slots, but maybe play them in moderation and afterward go look at some flowers or something to clear your mind.

5. Casual/"low roller" gambling still sounds expensive to me

I'll be the first person to admit I'm a stereotypical cheapskate millennial when it comes to entertainment spending. Rent is expensive, and library books are free. I think going to the movies is too pricey because an evening ticket costs as much as an entire month of Netflix (and I can't even bring wine! and I have to wear pants). So it is unsurprising that reading about the kind of money that gets thrown around by high-stakes gamblers would give me vertigo.

What I was a little more surprised about was discovering that the kind of money thrown around by people considered low-stakes gamblers still gives me vertigo.

For example, I ran into this quote in an article about slot machine play:

Meczka: Our target customer is someone who comes to the casino three to four times a month and brings $200-$300, correct?

Unless my math skills are worse than I think they are (English major jokes to the left), that's a range of $600 to $1,200 per month. I know there are caveats — like, you can theoretically expect to get a pretty good chunk of that back, depending on how many times over you run it through the machine; and a customer who does lose the entire $200 or $300 on the first trip of the month won't necessarily come back as many times as they were originally planning. I hope.

But still. Anything you budget to gamble with is something you're budgeting to possibly lose, especially if you're playing slots. And I know there's a lot of "How do we get millennials to come to the casinos?" industry talk going on — Gary Trask will have a proper article on it soon, with actual research and stuff — but I'm telling you right now, casino execs, nothing on God's green earth will ever make me budget $1,200 a month to look at screens, so you'd better come up with something else. I could buy two new iPhones every month for that. I could cover Netflix subscriptions (streaming and DVD) for myself and my 72 closest friends.

And for absolutely free, I can watch the demo videos for Yggdrasil's online slots, which I'm not allowed to play in Massachusetts but which are my favorites because they are adorable.



4. Poker is the nerdiest thing I'd never heard of

I don't usually have much truck with geek gatekeeping, but for this point to make sense you need to know: I'm a pretty big geek. And nerd. And dork, to boot. Have you ever gotten into a long involved discussion about the differences between the three terms? I have, many times, and the usual consensus is that I'm all of them. More importantly — now that I've aged out of the obligatory Sad Nerd phase of studying Elvish by myself on Friday nights because I didn't have enough friends — I spend a lot of time in geek spaces. Conventions, meetups, clubs, forums, Renaissance Faires, book signings, Web communities, you name it. A side effect of this is that, in addition to my own actual geeky interests, I'm familiar with most other geek-coded activities and fandoms that I'm not involved in (whether I want to be or not).

Poker was nowhere on my radar screen. For years. I don't think the gaming group I was part of in college even had a chip set among our several thousand dollars' worth of video and tabletop gaming equipment.

So I was a little surprised by the jolt of tribal recognition I experienced when I started watching this year's WSOP Main Event, and not just because of the presence of some of the online pros who seem to be cut from the same ill-fitting cloth as much of the rest of the gamer boy demographic (although that too. Poorly dressed nerd dudes are my dudes). Poker is a seriously nerdy game. There's an endless amount of minutiae to get involved in; it's easy to get super intense about it; industry gossip even indicates that it seems to have a problem with its more hardcore players disdaining casual fans and ruining their fun and then deciding that clearly these people just aren't smart enough to want to play with them. This sounds familiar!

But anyway, even though poker is culturally coded as a regular dude activity instead of a geeky interest, I think it could make much greater inroads among board gaming nerds. Especially if someone can get ESPN the memo that geeks are totally cool now. (We are cool now, right?)

3. Gambling politics don't break down along left/right lines

Much, if not most, of U.S. politics right now is heavily polarized, with a broadly identifiable Republican or Democratic position on each hot-button political topic. However, on nearly any gambling-related topic, there are pro- and anti- arguments within both parties, and no clearly identifiable pattern of the party affiliations of politicians who support or oppose various forms of gambling expansion.

Highly religious Republicans tend to oppose gambling on principle. Republicans for whom pro-business or pro-state's-rights considerations win out tend to support it or at least oppose any sort of federal limitations, most notably New Jersey's Gov. Chris Christie, who has overseen the implementation of regulated online gambling in New Jersey and fought to legalize sports betting in the state. Republicans who are besties with Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson may support land-based gaming but oppose online gambling, most notably national embarrassment Jason Chaffetz. In his recent hearing about the Restore America's Wire Act, Chaffetz was roundly rebuffed by colleagues from both sides of the aisle, including Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Massachusetts). Meanwhile, fellow Massachusetts Democrat Marty Walsh, Mayor of Boston, has been playing a lively game of "Let's keep suing each other into oblivion" with Steve Wynn, although that is supposedly more about traffic and the fate of Suffolk Downs than it is about gambling expansion generally. The GPWA Times has featured both Democratic and Republican officials on both its Wall of Shame and its Hall of Fame.

This last remaining bastion of bipartisanship is heartwarming to see in our current political climate. That said, a not insignificant number of politicians demonstrate a level of technological competence where they seem to still think the Internet is a series of tubes, so political talk about online gambling has been known to devolve into a big blob of nonpartisan stupid.

2. Macau is a train crash nobody can stop or look away from

The Macau Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, for the uninitiated, is an 11-square-mile jurisdiction consisting of a peninsula, two islands and a strip of reclaimed land off the mainland Chinese coast. The most lucrative gaming market in the world, it currently boasts 43 gaming locations, and another four are planned or under construction. This is bad, since gaming revenues have decreased every single month since the middle of 2014, usually by double digits.

Nobody seems to have any idea how to stop this. Every month the revenue numbers come in, and every month they fail to be accompanied by any sort of plans to halt construction or delay it or turn the proposed casinos into giant indoor water parks or anything.

The story behind the revenue slump, as much as anyone can put things into print without getting murdered, is pretty fun and ought to be made into a bunch of gangster movies as soon as possible. The simple version is that most of the money was coming from corrupt, embezzling Communist Party officials, and the government has cracked down on corruption. Since travelers couldn't carry much money from mainland China to Macau, high rollers would borrow money from VIP clubs, called junkets, and then pay the junkets back when they got to China, and everyone knows but no one can prove that the junkets are backed by organized crime syndicates, who are the only ones with the muscle to collect large illegal gambling debts in mainland China. Now that this system is falling apart, there have been all sorts of exciting stories about kidnappings, protests and even a heist.

There are also boring stories — namely, the monthly slew of sad revenue reports. It's getting pretty difficult to come up with new variations on "Revenue down X% in Macau this month" for the headlines, so unless something turns around, expect to see headlines like "Macau Still Pretty Screwed Over" and "This Whole Gambling Thing Still Not Really Working Out For Macau" starting sometime around February. I apologize in advance.

1. You can bet on water buffalo fights in Vietnam

This tidbit showed up in our latest edition of the Global Gaming Almanac with no additional explanation. Further research indicates you can bet on water buffalo fights throughout a lot of Southeast Asia:

Top 10 things I learned at Casino City this year is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
Clare Fitzgerald

As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.
Clare Fitzgerald
As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.