The Man Who Lost $127 Million: Responsible Gambling and the Duty of Care

ProblemGambling

Putting a 24-hour casino in every home comes with great responsibility. Ensuring a safe, responsible gambling experience should be of paramount importance. Online gambling companies talk incessantly about revenue, but it is everyone’s responsibility from regulatory bodies to operators, from governments to the citizens themselves to require that all proper consumer protections and safeguards are in place before online gambling can go live. It is imperative that all stakeholders in online gambling be well versed not just in its benefits but its pitfalls as well.

Perhaps one of the most dramatic illustrations of what happens when a gaming company puts revenue before responsibility is the case of Terrance Watanabe who is reported to have lost most of his personal fortune recklessly gambling in Las Vegas. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal published December 5, 2009, “During a year-long gambling binge at the Caesars Palace and Rio casinos in 2007, Terrance Watanabe managed to lose nearly $127 million. The run is believed to be one of the biggest losing streaks by an individual in Las Vegas history.” While Steve Wynn is reported to have barred Watanabe from his casino for compulsive gambling, Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. welcomed him and derived 5.6% of its Las Vegas gambling revenue from him that year.

This case showed such an egregious lack of sound business judgment on the part of Harrah’s, now Caesars Entertainment, that the company was fined $225,000 by New Jersey regulators in March of this year. Gary Thompson, Director of Corporate Communications for Caesars Entertainment said, “Because of the confidential settlement agreement we reached with Watanabe, neither he nor we can make any official comment.” However, he points out that Caesars hired an outside agency to investigate the situation and made procedural changes deemed necessary to prevent recurrences.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has taken a more proactive approach to responsible gaming and has expressed great concern over the potential spread of excessive gambling in his state. When he conditionally vetoed that state’s online gambling bill in February of this year, one of his main recommendations was to increase funding of compulsive gambling programs.

In a statement released with his veto, Gov. Christie said his recommendations are intended to continue “the tradition in New Jersey of a fine, careful, and well-regulated implementation of gaming.” The operative word here is “careful.” In the rush to reap the financial windfall online gambling companies promise, oftentimes the need for consumer safeguards is overlooked. Gov. Christie signed the bill into law once the Legislature agreed to his changes. It is the duty of all jurisdictions considering introducing gambling to its citizens, whether in brick-and-mortar or online casinos, to take such a thoughtful, measured approach to the issue. Doing any less could have devastating effects. Today, November 21, Internet gambling begins a five-day trial run in New Jersey.  This will put Gov. Christie’s promise to the test.

As Keith Whyte, Executive Director of the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), states, “We are concerned that as jurisdictions race to legalize internet gambling, often in an attempt to boost their gaming tax revenues, they are neglecting serious problem gambling concerns. Without comprehensive responsible gaming policies, the massive expansion of internet and social gaming may exacerbate gambling addiction. Our IRG (Internet Responsible Gaming) standards incorporate best practices from around the world, and we strongly urge they be incorporated into online gaming legislation and regulation.” There is no question problem gambling destroys lives. Organizations such as NCPG propose that a comprehensive public health strategy is the most ethical and cost-effective response to the gambling addiction issues raised by internet gambling. The universal adoption of responsible gaming standards by operators and regulators alike, in tangent with well-informed consumers, is an important aspect of this approach. Legislation and regulation of online gambling must keep up with the rapid pace of technology.

While I was marketing director for The Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles, I produced many successful events that created enormous revenue for the casino. The morning after one such event I drove into the parking lot of the casino and noticed an elderly woman crying into her hands. This image has haunted me to this day. I thought to myself, “Did I do this to her?” This is the question all the stakeholders in online gambling should ask themselves. Let’s not forget there is a human face in front of that computer screen.

Resources for Problem Gambling:

National Council on Problem Gambling, http://www.ncpgambling.org, 1-800-522-4700

Gamblers Anonymous, http://www.gamblersanonymous.org, 1-855-222-5542

Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and marketing expert.  Robert is most well-known for introducing the game of Omaha poker to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986.  He also created the Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino in 1995. He helped create Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002.

He has spent over 30 years in casino marketing and player development and has served as an executive host at the Bicycle Casino and MGM Grand.  He is currently working with his new companies Crown Digital Games developing mobile apps and Vision Poker, a poker marketing group.

Find Robert on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thechipburner and on Twitter @thechipburner.  Contact Robert at robertturnerpoker@gmail.com for consulting, marketing or teaching.

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