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Top 10 random observations from the casino and gambling world

19 Feb 2018

By Gary Trask
Following a weeklong trip to London and a tumultuous few weeks in the casino industry, let's take a lengthy orbit around the gambling world with 10 random observations.

10. Defending the Poker Brat
Phil Hellmuth made some news away from the poker table last week when an Uber driver posted some nasty details about her encounter with him in a private Facebook group called “Uber and Lyft Drivers Breakroom." According to the driver, the Poker Brat acted "privileged," was on the phone the whole time talking about his "million dollar book deal," left behind garbage ("chips, water and poker paperwork") and, most damning, did not "even tip $1" during a ride to the airport.

As you would expect, Hellmuth was immediately ripped to shreds on social media for the alleged incident, but there were also many that came to his defense.

During my years covering the World Series of Poker for Casino City, I've witnessed many of Hellmuth's classic meltdowns at the table. I've seen him talk incessantly on his phone. And I've had him chew my ear off about his poker books. But I learned a long time ago that if you want to see a person's true self, you watch how they treat the "little people." And, in my experience, for a guy with this kind of star status, Hellmuth has always been gracious with fans, media and other people that surround him at the WSOP. In fact, when I wrote about Hellmuth and fellow poker icon Daniel Negreanu "bracelet hunting" two years ago, at the top of the story I described a scene where Hellmuth goes out of his way to wave down a food server and apologize for not tipping her enough earlier in the day, before putting a couple large bills in her hand.

So, like Negreanu, I'll buy the fact that Hellmuth was obnoxious and talking nonstop on his phone during this Uber ride. But as far as the lack of a tip goes, my best guess is that it was a misunderstanding or a brain cramp on Phil's part, so let's give him pass on this one, OK?

9. Another record-breaking Super Bowl
For the eighth time in nine years, the handle for Super Bowl betting at Nevada sportsbooks broke a new record, shattering last year's number by more than $20 million. A total of $158.6 million was wagered at the state's 198 outlets when the Eagles upset the hated Patriots in a wildly entertaining 41-33 shootout. The growth of Super Bowl betting in recent history is downright staggering. In 2013 when Baltimore defeated San Francisco, $98.9 million was wagered on the game, which at the time was a new high. Now, just five years later, the handle has soared nearly $60 million.

The reasons are many. First off, the growth of proposition bets on the Super Bowl continues at a rapid pace. Some books reported that more than half of their action was on props, as compared to the more traditional point spread, total and money line bets. Secondly, the popularity of mobile sportsbook apps has made it easier for bettors to get down on the game. Once again, many sportsbooks now say that more than half of their action is wagered via a mobile device. Thirdly, live wagering, which has been huge internationally for years, is becoming more en vogue here in the U.S., and thanks to the mobile apps, it’s a more convenient option.

Finally, and most importantly, the main reason for the increase in sports betting across the board is that it is now an accepted industry. It’s no longer considered sordid or seedy. The mainstream media now accepts and embraces sports betting and regularly reports what the point spreads are and where the action is going. We’ve come a long, long way in recent years, and there's a chance that by next year's Super Bowl we will be able to bet the game in a half dozen more states. But, as you'll see below, we've still got miles and miles to go in catching up to the rest of the world.

8. Gambling culture shock
The primary takeaway for me regarding sports betting after spending a week in London earlier this month was just how far behind we are here in the U.S. There are 9,000 "betting shops" in the U.K. For those who've never seen them, we’re not talking about the massive sportsbook set-ups you see in Las Vegas. These are literally little stores – much like a small convenience store in the U.S. – found in business or entertainment districts. They are typically made up of a handful of electronic gaming machines called fixed odds betting terminals (or FOBTs), a bank of TVs, a row of betting terminals and a counter with a few people accepting sports bets.

The simple act of walking into a betting shop, placing a wager on a game and then finding a nearby pub a few steps away to belly up at and watch said game is akin to stopping at the store and grabbing a coffee and a pack of gum, yet most Americans would find this scenario implausible.

We're all in agreement that legalized and regulated sports betting is going to be reality in the U.S. at some point in the near future. In the coming months, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on a case that may very well be a springboard to expanded sports betting in as many as 10 states within a year. But, at this moment, it's striking how much different the culture is overseas compared to the U.S.

7. Cutting through the red tape of regulated sports betting
Speaking of the U.S. Supreme Court case in New Jersey, according to ESPN, this Wednesday (21 February) has been added to the list of potential dates that a decision could be announced, with the others being 5 March, 2 April, 30 April, 14 May, 21 May, 29 May, 4 June, 11 June, 18 June and 29 June.

As we reported back in December, most experts agree that the sports betting industry is going to receive good news whenever the Supreme Court does decide to come to the surface. But even if there is a positive result, it will simply mark the official start of bargaining and debating between all of the stakeholders, including the professional sports leagues and gaming companies — which will, no doubt, be nasty.

In an editorial published on Casino City Times back in December, USFantasy Sports President Vic Salerno, one of the pillars of the sports betting industry in Las Vegas, warned that "the real heavy lifting has yet to begin," pointing out that "the exuberance of the gaming media and my professional associates" regarding the possible repeal of PASPA was a little much at the time.

Salerno was spot on. In recent weeks, the NBA and Major League Baseball floated the idea that they would be requesting "integrity fees" to compensate the leagues for the "risk and expense created by betting" and the "commercial value" their product creates for betting operators. This is ludicrous on so many levels because, as Salerno pointed out, sports betting is already a "low-margin business" that requires "vigilant risk management." An integrity fee would further cut into the take for the states and operators to the point where it would likely cause bookmakers to charge a 12/10 or even 13/10 vigorish on wagers, as compared to the standard 11/10.

In turn, the millions and millions of bettors already betting on sports within the black market will likely continue to do so in order to avoid this extra tax. What's more, these bettors usually can wager on credit in the illegal market, rather than posting money up front, making it even more attractive. So, effectively, the legalization and regulation of sports betting in the U.S. could help illegal bookmakers, not put them out of business, which has been one of the selling points of proponents over the years.

6. Knights have bookies squirming
One of the feel-good stories of the year is the manner in which the new NHL expansion team, the Vegas Knights, have taken over the city. Gaining a professional team from one of the four major sports was huge for Las Vegas in many ways. And then after the horrific shooting at Mandalay Bay on 1 October, the city was in desperate need of something to rally around. Enter the Knights, who have done a terrific job embracing the community — and, in turn, the fans have absolutely fallen in love with this team. The Knights are almost unbeatable at home (22-4), and the games at the T-Mobile Arena are an event, not just a hockey game. Last week, a couple got married by an Elvis impersonator in the stands during the second intermission to a rousing ovation by another sold-out crowd. Yes, only in Las Vegas.

Making this story even more compelling is the fact that the Knights have been the surprise team of the NHL this year. Typically, expansion teams struggle in their first year, but entering this week, Vegas is tied for the most wins in the league and has already broken the record for most wins by a first-season expansion team. The Knights are currently on pace for 54 wins and 114 points, which would shatter Florida's record of most points by an expansion team in their first year (83).

In the sportsbooks, the overall handle on hockey has soared because of the Knights — and while that's a good thing for business, bookies are facing some serious liability if the Knights continue to surprise. Vegas was a 10-to-1 shot at the start of the season to make the playoffs and a hefty 250-to-1 to win the Stanley Cup. But the combination of their success on the ice and the locals betting heavy with their hearts has driven the number to win the Cup all the way down to just 5-to-1. The hot and heavy action on the home team definitely has the men on the other side of the counter concerned.

“We get killed if they make the playoffs, and we close if they win the Stanley Cup,” William Hill Director of Trading Nick Bogdanovich told the Las Vegas Review Journal back in December.

5. Promo girl controversy at ICE

A hot topic in the aftermath of the annual ICE Totally Gaming tradeshow, the reason for my trip to London, was the "outrage" over the excessive use of scantily clad promo girls at many of the stands throughout the massive conference floor.

In the days after the conference, multiple news outlets were blaring with salacious headlines about the controversy, which was spurred by Sarah Harrison. The outgoing CEO of the Gambling Commission spoke at the conference and then declared that because of all the women wearing "little more than swimsuits" it may cause her organization to boycott the event in the future.

While this was my first time at ICE, I have attended several other trade shows over the last decade, both in the gaming industry and others. Here’s what I know. Were there a lot of "scantily clad" promo girls? Yes, without a doubt. You couldn’t walk more than 20 feet without seeing one. Were there more than other trade shows I've been to? Yes, but not to the point where it occurred to me during the show — except when I walked by the Endorphina stand. The Czech online gambling company had a virtual strip club set up in front of its space at ICE, complete with a pole, adult performers and seductive music. The company's new online slot, TABOO, was available for demo and is described as a "hot and steamy" with a "sexy dreamworld and daring atmosphere."

"If you can handle our wheel of pain, you will find yourself feeling a lot more joy. Are you ready to play?

The bottom line here? Sex sells. It has for many, many years. And some of the exhibitors may have gone a little too far, and that may very well change next year.

Having said that, take one guess as to which stand at the conference continually had the most traffic around it and a long line of people waiting to play its new game? Yep, Endorphina. So, go ahead and call this tactic tasteless, but at the same time, you have to admit it's effective.

4. Live dealer online casinos flourishing
As for the actual trade show itself, the live dealer online casino segment was well represented as this genre continues to gain in popularity. The idea is simple. Instead of your ordinary online blackjack or roulette computerized game, an actual real person, typically an attractive female (sorry, UKGC), stands behind a camera and deals the game with real cards or a real roulette wheel. The player can interact with the dealer and, in turn, the game is not only more engaging, but most players seem to feel that it is more secure and trustworthy.

One of the leaders in this space is Evolution Gaming Limited, which introduced its new live dealer game, Lightning Roulette, at ICE Totally Gaming, as well as a new VIP experience that takes this genre to a whole new level. Salon Privé is a collection of roulette and blackjack tables geared to bigger players, who gain access to private tables and must play a minimum of €2,000 per bet in roulette and €1,500 a hand in blackjack. Players are greeted by a host and are treated as they would be in a high-limit lounge at a land-based casino. They can request certain times to play, who is dealing, how fast the game is played, when they want a new shuffle and basically anything else that doesn't jeopardize the integrity of the game.

Last year, Evolution Gaming unveiled its Live Dream Catcher game, which features a Wheel of Fortune-like wheel that has become wildly popular.

"Dream Catcher is all about the show; the players feel like they're on a game show," Fredrik Bjurle, Director of Products told me in London as he provided a live demo. "Other games like baccarat and blackjack, it's more about the game itself and the gambling aspect . . . Once a player starts playing in a live dealer casino, they don’t go back to the traditional online casino."

Evolution Gaming employs an army of 3,700 live dealers and usually has around 400 table games or so in play at a time in state-of-the-art studios in Latvia, Italy, Spain, Malta and, new this month, Canada.

It appears that what Evolution Gaming is doing is most certainly working. Last week, the company reported that it generated revenue of €50.7 million in the three months ending 31 December 2017, up 48% from the same period one year earlier. For the year as a whole, revenue was up 54%, with earnings jumping 81%.

3. Introducing MSG Sphere

As nongaming revenue at casino properties continues to rise (only 34% of the revenue from the Las Vegas Strip came from gambling in 2016), we have seen a slew of nongaming amenities introduced over the last couple years. The latest announcement will change the iconic view of The Strip, thanks to a futuristic addition in 2020.

In conjunction with Madison Square Garden Co., Las Vegas Sands last week unveiled plans to build MSG Sphere, a space-age arena to be located behind the Venetian and Palazzo. The 400,000 square-foot, 360-foot-tall "revolutionary" sphere will have seating for more than 18,000 people and will be mostly used for concerts and awards shows, as well as boxing, MMA events and esports. It will offer personal internet access at each seat and use a live audio delivery called “beamforming audio,” which can aim sound directly at each seat.

Construction is expected to start in late 2018, and the hope is that it will open in late 2020, when it will most certainly begin to compete with the T-Mobile Arena for top-notch musical acts. Although the price tag for the project wasn't revealed, Las Vegas Sands did say it would provide MSG with $75 million to help fund construction. Madison Square Garden Co. also has plans to build another sphere arena in London.

Here's hoping the economy remains strong and all of the projects that are on target to be completed in the next two years (The Drew Las Vegas, formerly known as the Fontainebleau; Resorts World Las Vegas; Las Vegas Convention Center District Phase Two expansion, which will add a million square feet of convention space; Wynn's Paradise Park) actually come to fruition. If so, the north end of the Strip will finally be revitalized and well worth the effort of venturing past Encore.

2. Be wary of the resort fee
Resort fees have been commonplace in Las Vegas for many years, but it’s no longer a nominal fee. Last week, the LA Times reported that Caesars Entertainment raised its night resort fees as much as $5 a night, with Bally's - Las Vegas, Flamingo Las Vegas, Harrah's Las Vegas Casino & Hotel and The LINQ Hotel & Casino going from $30 to $35, Caesars Palace from $35 to $39, and The Cromwell, Paris Las Vegas and Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino from $35 to $37. Other high-end Strip properties like Aria Resort & Casino, Bellagio, Vdara, Wynn Las Vegas, Encore Resort, The Palazzo Resort Hotel Casino and The Venetian Las Vegas are already in the $39-per-night range for resort fees.

The fee typically covers internet access, local phone calls, and access to swimming pools and fitness centers, but you are charged whether you use these amenities or not. In some cases, the resort fee can actually double your per-night room rate, and that doesn't even include the parking fees that most casinos now charge. So before you go booking a stay in Sin City, be sure to read the fine print.

1. The Steve Wynn debacle

The most notable story coming out of Las Vegas the last couple weeks has been the sexual harassment allegations surrounding Steve Wynn. Following a 26 January Wall Street Journal investigation detailing a number of horrifying details about Wynn's decadeslong pattern of alleged sexual misconduct involving his employees.

Of course, if these accusations are true, Wynn not only deserves every single ounce of scorn, shame and financial repercussions he receives, but he should be locked up. He has already resigned as chairman and chief executive of Wynn Resorts and will get no bonus or severance pay, which would have been in the range of $330 million, according to reports. The company said in a securities filing last week that Wynn's various benefits such as healthcare and administrative assistance will expire this year and he will be forced out of his lavish villa residence at Wynn Las Vegas on 1 June.

Selfishly, this story hurts because I have always admired the career of Steve Wynn and his impact on the entire industry. He truly revolutionized Las Vegas. He developed Bellagio, Wynn, Encore and The Mirage, four of my favorite Las Vegas resorts, not to mention Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Mississippi, which I rank among the best non-Las Vegas casinos I've ever experienced. I was elated when he received one of the coveted land-based casino licenses here in Massachusetts. Construction continues on the $2.4 billion Wynn Boston Harbor and the property is targeted for a 2019 opening.

Having a world-class resort-casino designed by Wynn within an easy drive from where I live and work is going to be a luxury never experienced in this parts. But this story certainly tarnishes all of that, much like when a favorite athlete is exposed off the field, or sordid off-screen details about a popular actor or music artist are revealed. Can we separate Steve Wynn the person and Steve Wynn the brand enough to still enjoy his resort casinos to their fullest? Only time will tell.
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