Most gamblers know the house wins—if not on a single game or hand, then certainly over time. The house edge guarantees a casino will eke out some fraction of profit from every game on the floor, from as little as 0.28 percent for some blackjack variants to almost 30 percent on keno and sic bo. The more a player plays, the more the edge tips toward the house.
Casinos aren’t cagey about this—on the contrary. They’re direct about the built-in advantage and the odds to win (or more realistically, not win). Player education programs get into the weeds about probability and the absolute randomness of random number generators; the same programs remind players to set budgets, take frequent breaks and walk away when their bankroll is gone.
But a competing message—“Come in and win!”—makes more noise. A 2021 Caesars Entertainment ad, delivered by Peyton and Eli Manning, along with dad Archie, emphasized responsible gaming. But the family also starred in a Thanksgiving commercial in which J.B. Smoove (laurel-wreathed ambassador for the brand’s sportsbook) proclaimed that the holiday season is “a festive time for the sports betting public” and even claimed the Pilgrims loved to gamble.
So, how do casinos strike a balance—inviting people to get in the game, while cautioning them to stay out of trouble?
Paul Pellizzari, vice president of global responsibility at Hard Rock International, says the dual messages don’t conflict, but are complementary.
“Our industry needs to be direct about the reality of our games, but that in no way contradicts the fact that we have a business to run and we’re trying to promote what we’re selling,” he says.
Hard Rock’s PlayersEdge program, launched in 2019, addresses bettors across the spectrum: from new and casual players to at-risk gamblers to people experiencing harm. Its RG messaging goes out in digital and print promotions and at touchpoints like casino security podiums, end caps and cages. At the same time, its website also includes instructional content on how to play casino games, including blackjack, poker and baccarat.
“It’s about how players can be informed on risks, informed about themselves, and able to plan their night and experience,” says Pellizzari. “If we do that, it helps people have a better experience, stay healthy, and sustain our business over time.”
Christine Reilly, senior research director for the International Center for Responsible Gaming, says the scientific community “is still divided about what responsible gaming education means and what its impact can be.
“The people who write about responsible gambling say an informed consumer is the cornerstone—when a consumer makes the choice (to gamble), they should be as informed as they’d be about any transaction they partake in. But some people think that puts too much responsibility on the individual, that the industry has a greater role to play in making it safer. There’s a lot of debate about that.”
In short, RG messages—however reasoned and supportive—may not reach those who need it most. People with gambling problems have “cognitive distortions,” says Reilly. “They believe if they stay at that slot machine, it will pay off eventually, which isn’t true.” And for all the available information about odds and edge, “they don’t understand probability.”
The same may be true even of moderate gamblers. “Try to explain probability to somebody, and for the most part, they glaze over,” Reilly says. “The first thing to know is that 75 percent of people with a gambling problem have a preexisting condition such as depression, anxiety or substance abuse. They’re very vulnerable, and I don’t think a lot of responsible gambling tools can help them, because they’re too far gone.”
Not that RG messages aren’t helpful. “There are different audiences for responsible gaming. One is the average person who doesn’t have a problem and just needs to be reminded that it’s helpful to set limits. Talk to people anecdotally, and they’ll say, ‘I always decide when I’ve lost $50, I’m outta here.’ For a person who has a problem, it’s very helpful to let them know they can self-exclude, or give them a helpline number to get the name of a treatment provider or a gambler’s anonymous group.”
However, she notes, “It’s always going to be at odds with the regular marketing casinos need to do.”
The launch of MGM Resorts’ GameSense RG program coincided with the opening of MGM Springfield in 2017. “The program teaches everyone how to gamble responsibly, using healthy gambling tips and strategies that keep the gaming fun,” says Garrett Farnes, MGM’s director of responsible gaming.
“We’re constantly looking for new and innovative ways to share these messages,” Farnes explains. “Most recently we added QR codes to a lot of our slot machines, so people can learn how slots work while actually sitting there, which is awesome. (Senior Corporate Media Manager) Mark Jacobson does the ‘MGM Minute,’ an informative three-minute series on things like responsible gaming (on YouTube). We’re looking at every which way we can share these messages. And if it ever reaches that point where players might have challenges with gambling, we provide the information and resources.”
Messaging is supportive, not punitive, lest players “shut off right away, or think, ‘That doesn’t apply to me,’” Farnes says. “GameSense is for everyone, because we want everyone playing better.”
Cautionary Tale: The U.K.
Lia Nower, director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, advocates for more new-customer checkpoints that make people opt out of spending limits and time limits before they take a single spin on the slots.
“At the very minimum we should incorporate limit-setting features with clear explanations on how people should gauge them, and get as many people on board at signup,” Nower says. “That’s the way the U.K. is going. The U.K. is also moving much more towards an affordability model, which basically says, ‘We have the tools to understand when players are spending their disposable income or beyond. Do they have payday loans? Do they have second mortgages? We have a social responsibility to help them.’”
Look no farther than the U.K. for examples of operators who disregarded their player responsibility, to the industry’s detriment. In one notorious case, an Irish postal worker spent millions of pounds on gambling, some of it embezzled from his employer, with zero intervention from Paddy Power. At one point, he wagered more on a single game than he earned in a year. And despite its responsible gambling policies, Paddy Power entertained him “as a special guest at the Irish Derby and the Europa League final,” and wooed him with other perks, according to the Guardian newspaper. In 2018, regulators responded by slashing the maximum stake per spin on fixed-odds betting terminals from £100 to just £2.
Who Excludes Who?
Data for New Jersey shows that 5 percent of bettors make 75 percent of the bets and represent 65 percent of all money wagered. “That clearly shows there’s a disincentive to limit high-intensity bettors, a large proportion of whom are likely problem gamblers,” says Nower.
In her view, self-exclusion contracts—a pillar of responsible gaming policies—need to be a two-way street. “We know that people with gambling disorder have loss of control. It’s an addiction; they’re unable to stop despite repeated attempts. But if you look at the self-exclusion contracts in most states, it puts 100 percent of the responsibility on people with a diagnosed inability to control their behavior.
“These contracts specifically say the operators have no duty of care, though they have the resources, data and credit histories to know who’s gambling beyond their means. Everybody has to take their piece of responsibility.” Nower also takes a dim view of RG pages that include “popups with bonus offers.”
So, most self-exclusion programs currently put the responsibility on the person who may be least able to exercise it. Should operators then make like bartenders, saying, “You’re flagged?”
“I’ve been part of policy deliberations on exactly this question,” says Hard Rock’s Pellizzari. “The short answer is, obviously casinos can remove and exclude people for different behavioral reasons—mistreating staff or other guests, or cheating. But to be clear, the exclusion in that case is about the behavior. It’s not, ‘We think you have a gambling problem.’ Operators aren’t in a position to make that determination.
“The longer conversation is around duty of care and a possible role for operators. There’s a natural tendency to think you should be able to remove people, but it’s actually difficult. And a psychologist will tell you, unless someone wants to get help themselves, third parties can only help so much.”
He rejects the perception that the industry preys on the weak. “It’s interesting to go to Atlantic City or Lake Tahoe or South Florida and ask our employees, ‘Do you think our business model is premised on addiction?’ Because you’ll hear people say that. Our employees don’t think that’s true. We couldn’t have a business and succeed if everyone was addicted.”
Tens of thousands of Hard Rock staffers have been trained to detect signs of potential problem gambling, and are authorized to intervene—up to a point. “We spend time in the training saying, this is a mental health disorder—a ‘process addiction,’ as the clinical people would say,” says Pellizzari. “And so we can say, ‘You’re not a social worker or clinician, but here’s what you can do.’”
Among the options: suggest that a player take a break, comp that player for a meal or hotel room, and, in more serious situations, refer them to professional help in a discreet, compassionate way (while keeping a supervisor in the loop).
Meanwhile, on its website, CaesarsCasino.com says it “reserves the right to exclude a player at company discretion if… there is a reasonable risk that the player is not gambling responsibly and he refuses to self-restrict or self-exclude.”
First, Do No Harm
Keith Whyte, executive director of the Washington-based National Council on Problem Gambling, says education about odds and randomness “may have an impact on youth by reducing risk and increasing protective factors. But as a protective factor for adults, it’s likely pretty weak.
“Perhaps a better way to look at it is, does it cause any harm? No. Could it help? Does it provide maybe a little bit of a protective factor for people who are at low risk for problems, without a family history of addiction, for example? Maybe.
“Most people who develop gambling problems are seeking escape from problems in their lives,” Whyte says, “not because they don’t understand the odds or are bad at math. Parallels to alcoholism are probably helpful—teaching people about the consequences of drunk driving doesn’t reduce alcoholism, but it may prevent a little bit of drunk driving.”
According to Reilly, “Anything that can combat the erroneous perceptions about luck and probability is helpful,” but that kind of educational content may not be game-changing for people with an addiction.
Meanwhile, look at any casino ad and you’ll see the beautiful people, celebrating their wins with fist-bumps and champagne, feeding the dream of every casino customer to one day beat the house. And players keep playing, because every so often, some average Joe sits down at a slot machine or table game and wins a life-changing jackpot.
Learning Curve: Q&A with Jennifer Shatley, President, Nevada Council on Problem Gambling
GGB: You’ve said responsible gambling programs are meant to “stop problem gambling behaviors from developing in the first place.” Does that mean it can be prevented through education, at least in some cases?
Jennifer Shatley: RG programs direct those experiencing problems to help resources, but their primary intent is prevention, and their target audience is all gamblers. But there’s a perception issue that’s detrimental to their effectiveness. They’re positioned as if they’re targeted at individuals experiencing problem gambling. If they’re thought of that way, the vast majority of the customer base ignores them, because they think these programs and tools aren’t for them.
In reality, RG programs provide information to those who gamble so they can make informed choices about their play. This includes explaining how games work, detailing the odds, dispelling myths and misperceptions and providing strategies to keep gambling as an entertainment activity to minimize potential harm and keep problems from developing.
Do casinos do a good enough job of explaining probability, odds, volatility and house edge to consumers?
These can be difficult concepts to understand, so it’s important to also communicate that over time gamblers should expect to lose and should budget their gambling funds as entertainment expenditure. These concepts tend to be better understood when they’re presented in engaging ways that are both fun and educational. Additionally, this information should be complemented with RG messaging that offers tips on responsible play, such as setting and sticking to a budget.
How can casinos balance the RG message—”Keep it fun, play within your means, ask for help if you need it”—with the louder message of “Come in and win?’
In addition to the current practice of featuring RG tags and helplines on marketing ads, advertising efforts can be expanded to include campaigns devoted specifically to RG messages. These campaigns can make up a certain percentage of the company’s overall advertising spend or placement. Further, operators can utilize various communications channels such as texts, popups or email to send RG-specific messages to customers.