The International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is the centerpiece of UNLV’s gaming programs in which students are immersed in gaming curriculum. The IGI takes that to another level with high-level research, classes for regulators, and focus on several different disciplines in gaming. Last year, Executive Director Bo Bernhard was promoted the vice president of economic development and Brett Abarbanel, a brilliant researcher, was named to succeed him. As director of research since 2016, she is familiar with the inner workings of the IGI. She spoke with GGB Publisher Roger Gros from a conference room at the IGI in January.
GGB: As director of research, you really were involved in everything the IGI does, so do you feel prepared to take on this position?
Brett Abarbanel: Yes. I’m so excited. Every time I go out into the world, doing the sales pitch for IGI is a breeze because there are so many incredible things that go on at this institute. For such a long time I’ve been singing our praises, so it’s an honor to take the reins and continue all those programs, all those initiatives, and championing them.
How tough was it for Bo Bernhard, another legend at UNLV, to give this up? This was his baby for so many years.
It is, and I would like to say, very selfishly, that it was very easy for him because he knows it will be in good hands. But at the same time, Bo hasn’t disappeared. He has a fantastic new job as the vice president of economic development for UNLV. And he is spectacular at this job. He’s also continuing as an adviser to me.
When you were an undergrad, you did a final thesis by developing a horse racing handicap system. Later on you became a fairly good poker player, and of course you love to play esports. Does this actual involvement in the gambling side of the industry keep you more in touch with the customers?
I like to think so. One of the ways that I have always approached research is to make sure that we’re always thinking about every single person that is affected by what we do. So one, we study the industry. We’re in the middle of the world’s biggest laboratory—Las Vegas, and everything else that goes into it. And a huge part of that is gamblers themselves. If you’re talking about problem gambling, if you’re talking about professional gamblers, everybody has different wants and needs that go into the gambling activity. And we would be remiss if we didn’t take everybody’s thoughts into account.
How about responsible gaming? The IGI has been involved in that for almost 20 years.
Right now with responsible gambling, Bo is still contributing to it. That’s a big pet interest of his as well as Alan Feldman, who has been working for IGI for three and a half years since retiring from MGM. Alan is leading our responsible gambling initiatives right now. Going back a few years, we had a five-year project with MGM looking at the GameSense program. We have ongoing responsible gambling ambassador training that we’ve done, for example, with Sands for over a decade now. San Manuel gave us a nice donation to get into that a little deeper.
You’ve been heavily involved in esports. It’s been widely discussed in the industry for a few years now, but nothing has really come of it. Will you continue those efforts?
You’re right. There’s really been a struggle with trying to figure out how to incorporate esports into not just a casino setting but more broadly into a general kind of gambling offering. We’ve seen a few different sportsbooks just add an
esports vertical within their book. And then more broadly, we’re also seeing a variety of different gambling elements in video games. Some of those are indeed monetary gambling, and others are more sort of chance mechanisms that are being treated as gambling, depending on where you look.
The Nevada Gaming Control Board met in early January and voted on the recommendations from the Esports Technical Advisory Committee that would put esports underneath Regulation 22, which is the reg that we have under which pretty much all race and sports operate. So it really streamlines how esports can exist within a book in Nevada. And hopefully it will set a standard for other states thinking about how this might be set up, such that it starts to grow esports into a better understood and more legitimized space for betting.
The IGI has been heavily involved, along with the University of Nevada, Reno, with two events over the years, the Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking and the Executive Development Program, both developed by the late Bill Eadington, who really founded the academic study of gaming. What’s the future of those events?
The 18th International Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking will take place May 23-25 at ParkMGM in Las Vegas this year. We hold this once every three years, and we do that on purpose. We want to make sure that everyone’s bringing their best, most developed and interesting work. At our last conference in 2019, we had 34 different countries represented.
The Executive Development Program is held every year in Lake Tahoe, and there is a very limited amount of people admitted to that. It’s such a spectacular program. Bill Eadington was a great boss, just a brilliant guy who looked for what the industry needed, who looked for what regulators needed. He was so aware of all the different stakeholders, and the Executive Development Program is the culmination of that. It’s been held now for over 30 years.