A Game-Changing Scholar in Vegas Seven

This is one of the most emotionally-difficult pieces I’ve had to write for Vegas Seven–a look at the career and legacy of my friend and mentor Bill Eadington, who passed away last week:

Within five years of his 1969 arrival at the University of Nevada, Reno as an assistant professor, Eadington had made the case for gaming as the subject of serious academic inquiry. In 1974, he organized the first meeting of what is now the International Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking at the Sahara in Las Vegas, threading a narrow path between academics who scoffed at the idea of learning anything from studying how people gamble and casino professionals who mocked the notion of reedy academics passing judgment on their methods.

via A Game-Changing Scholar | Vegas Seven.

I’ve been working on the program for the 15th International Conference this week, and I can definitely say that Bill’s spirit will be with all of us.

New podcast: Bill Eadington

This morning I had the great pleasure of having a nice conversation with a long-time friend, the University of Nevada Reno’s Dr. Bill Eadington. Luckily for all of us, I recorded it and released it a few hours later as the thirty-third UNLV Gaming Podcast:

33-November 2, 2011
William R. Eadington
In this November 2, 2011 interview following his induction into the Gaming Hall of Fame, Professor Eadington reflects on his career in gaming studies, starting with his youth in Orange County, California, continuing through his decision to pursue a career in economics and his subsequent emphasis on gambling and casinos, and finishing with his thoughts on the future of gaming studies. Among the topics Dr. Eadington discusses are the foundation and development of the International Conference on Gambling and Risk-Taking, the expansion of gambling in the past decades, and the changes he has seen in the study of gambling over his 40-year career.

Listen to the audio file (mp3)

Here’s a little bit of background for you: I’ve known Bill for about 14 years now. Back when I has a history grad student at UCLA doing research into gambling, I naturally stumbled across his work. Then I somehow learned that he was organizing an academic conference that focused on gambling issues. It was the 10th International Conference on Gambling and Risk-Taking, which was being held in Montreal.

At the time, I was in Eric Monkkonen’s (who was also my dissertation chair) seminar, and he’d issued a challenge: if any of us got our paper accepted for publication or presentation via an academic journal/conference, we’d automatically get an A for the class. As it happened I was doing fine with my coursework, but since Eric had offered such a generous prize, I figured that maybe I should give presenting a paper at an academic conference a shot. I applied to the conference and was accepted–I believe that Judy Cornelius waived my conference registration fee in light of my grad student without funding status. I scraped together the money for airfare and a hotel that was considerably less expensive than the conference hotel, wrote my paper, and headed off to Montreal.

I got off the plane pretty wide-eyed, and my eyes got even wider once the conference started. Sitting in on panels with people like Peter A. Griffin and David Spanier was quite a revelation. I also met one of the most idiosyncratic gentlemen and scholars I’ve met yet, Russell Barnhart (Bill talks about him in the interview), who spent a good chunk of one afternoon with me in a Montreal park talking gambling history while giving appreciative looks to the young women out for the spring weather. Quite a character.

Before that conference, gambling history had just been something I was going to write my dissertation on–I was still planning for a career teaching US history, probably with an urban and cultural focus, in a traditional academic department. The conference opened my eyes to the possibility of perhaps making gambling something to study in the long term.

Fast forward three years: it’s 2000 and the ICGRT is being held at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. I’ve already got my dissertation and, not wanting to bum around LA scraping together adjunct jobs, have gone back to Atlantic City and a job in surveillance at the Trump Taj Mahal. I got a mailer for the ICGRT and convinced my higher-ups at the Taj to give me time off to attend the conference. I’d also printed off a copy of my dissertation on archival quality acid-free paper that I planned to give to UNLV Special Collections, just as a way of ensuring that someday someone might read what seemed like it might be the sole output of my academic career; there weren’t any teaching jobs waiting for me, and I wasn’t really looking for them anymore. This was going to be my scholarly swan song.

But a few things happened to me that week. I stopped by Special Collections to drop off my dissertation and learned that Susan Jarvis, the director of what was then called the Gaming Resource Center, had retired. The Director of Special Collections, Peter Michel, encouraged me to take the job announcement with me. I agreed, even though I didn’t think I was particularly well-suited for that kind of work.

I also introduced myself to and had a long talk with Shannon Bybee, who was then executive director of UNLV’s International Gaming Institute. He was generous enough to give supremely thoughtful answers to a bunch of questions about working in and around the industry and working on the academic side.

Thanks to my experiences with Bill, Judy, Shannon, and everyone else I met at the conference, I decided to apply for the UNLV job.

Eleven years later, I’m sitting in my office as Director of the Center for Gaming Research, uploading my talk with Bill, and I realize that, without Professor Eadington’s pioneering work in gaming studies, it’s very, very unlikely that I’d be in that office.

So that’s why I’m both personally and professionally grateful to Bill Eadington. He’s truly one of the giants on whose shoulders the rest of us stand, trying to see just a bit over the horizon. I hope you enjoy listening to this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it.

New podcast up

This morning I was lucky enough to get a few minutes to interview Dr. Bill Eadington, director of the University of Nevada Reno’s Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming.

The Institute has two programs that I think will be of particular interest to a wide audience. The first is the Graduate Certificate program, which provides a great, flexible educational opportunity for those who are looking to learn more about gambling.

The second is the 14th International Conference on Gambling and Risk-Taking, which is being held in Lake Tahoe this May. If you are at all interested in any aspect of gambling, you really should attend. Here’s a quick description:

This conference traces its origins back to 1974, and is recognized as the premier academic and research oriented conference in the world, bringing together international experts, representing a diverse array of disciplines, to examine and analyze gambling from many perspectives. Leading researchers from academia, research organizations, and governments, along with leaders and representatives from commercial gaming industries, regulatory agencies, and the helping services–as well as professional gamblers and the general public–have gathered at prior conferences to present and evaluate their research findings, discuss current trends and new technologies, and explore the changes and challenges created by the increased presence of commercial gaming to citizens throughout the world. In May 2009, the experts will gather again, near the shores of beautiful Lake Tahoe.

I’m thrilled to have had my presentation proposal accepted, and I look forward to seeing a lot of you at the conference.

This podcast episode is a real gem–short, but packed with good stuff.

Reno, pedestrian Reno

I’m going to be teaching in Reno next semester, and from judging from this article I should feel right at home. From the RGJ:

The gaming industry is soaring worldwide but not in Reno, a leading gaming analyst told a group of young Reno business leaders Wednesday.

“This is an $85 billion industry (annually in the U.S.), but as of 1982, it was a $10 billion industry,” said Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada. “So, that is quite an expansion over that period of time.

“That’s the good news,” Eadington told a class of the Leadership Reno/Sparks. “The bad news is that Reno is not really part of this.”

Reno left out

The growth in Las Vegas tourism and the proliferation of tribal gaming in Northern and Southern California has hurt the Reno market, Eadington said. Gaming has also grown in areas such as Oregon, Washington and western Canada, further cutting into Washoe County gaming, Eadington said.

The impact of the Pacific Northwest and Las Vegas is also important, said Reno gaming analysis Ken Adams, when asked to comment on Eadington’s speech.

“Go back to 1989 and look at Northern Nevada’s feature markets — California, Oregon, Washington and Canada,” Adams said. “I’m guessing, but there is probably about $20 billion worth of gross revenue coming out of those places now.

“In 1989, the direction of the gaming industry in Reno and Sparks versus Las Vegas has diverged in a fairly dramatic fashion,” Eadington said. “The year 1989 is a critical period in Las Vegas history. That was the year the Mirage and the Excalibur opened, the first of the modern mega casinos.

“It is also the year Harrah’s chose to move out of Reno because Reno was too pedestrian, too parochial, too wrapped up, I think, in dysfunctional issues. They decided to move to Memphis and later to Las Vegas to be in the center of the action.”

RGJ.com: Analyst warns of gaming decline in Reno

Pedestrian, parochial, wrapped in dysfunction? It sounds a lot like Atlantic City, my hometown. Growing up surrounded by a sense that the city’s best days were behind it probably didn’t prepare me for moving to Las Vegas, which is in the middle of a boom.

Speaking of class, it’s coming along well. I’m almost finished with my lectures, and I’ve already learned a great deal about some topics that I’d previously neglected. I hope the students have as much fun as I am.

Guest lecturing

If you’ve called the office, I’ve been out, and for good reason. I gave a guest lecture in Bill Eadington’s econ class up at University of Nevada Reno. It was a great opportunity to talk about some of my new research in world gambling history. I think that Roll the Bones will benefit from my test-driving this stuff before good audiences.

I’ve also gotten a chance to explore Reno’s casinos (but I didn’t play keno) a little more. I’ve been lucky to have astute and helpful local guidance, and I’ve gotten to see some really incredible things. One word: Peppermill. This is the coolest casino I’ve ever seen. I took some photos, but I don’t think they’ll do it justice.

I’m also looking at the papers of Russell Barnhart, an enigmatic gambling historian, at UN Reno’s Special Collections. I guess that’s typical for me–“Hey, Dave, you get a chance to get out of the office. I bet you’re going skiing, or snowboarding, or doing something really fun.” “No, I’m looking at more gambling-related archival resources.”

If you’re a professor somewhere and want to have someone guest lecture on the history of gaming, contact me. If your university has some kind of unique resources on the history of gambling, that’s a plus, but I’ll travel just about anywhere to spread the word about the real history of gambling.