The Man Who Lost $127 Million

Opinion: Responsible Gambling and the Duty of Care

by , Apr 14, 2013 | 1:00 pm

Robert Turner OP-ED

Robert Turner

OP-ED

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 in 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.

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 never 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 longtime gaming industry professional who created World Team Poker, the first professional league for poker, and Live at the Bike. His writings appear regularly in Gaming Today. Follow him on Twitter @thechipburner.


  • http://www.facebook.com/billrini Bill Rini

    This is why: Though not completely followed, there is a Know Your Customer (KYC) rule in financial services. I remember sometime in the 1990′s Charles Schwab losing a lawsuit where they allowed an investor to play options above his reported means (despite the fact that CS does not give financial advice – all CS investors make their own trades and only use CS as a NASD intermediary . The SEC’s stance was based on the fact that having been supplied with information about the investor’s net worth (supplied as part of account creation and to be in compliance with SEC/NASD KYC rules), CS should have reasonably been able to determine he was risking too high a percentage of his net worth in speculative investments.

    If only they had the same rule for multi-billion dollar organizations. :-)

  • http://pokerati.com Dan Michalski

    Thanks for the perspective, Bill. This is why, imho, “responsible gaming” is an important and overlooked part of all the licensed and regulated talk. Because think about it, if not, online gaming sites could use tech to recognize when someone is descending down a dark gambling hole, and instead of doing things to keep them as a long-term customer, they could be sending marketing messages like, “keep on trying. You’re bound to finally hit!” or “Mr. Watanbe, have you considered doubling your bets?”