Gambling by degrees

Casino workers used to calculate credit rating by instinct; they could smell if a client was going to win. Then gaming became respectable and the college boys moved in. Now your croupier may be a BA. By David Spanier
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The Independent Culture
When you go out for a night's gambling, the modern casino manager does not peer suspiciously at you through a peephole in the door. When you arrive, he or she is likely to greet you by your first name and will probably also know your income, tastes, family background and expected win or loss. He could probably also give you a short disquisition on product differentiation and elasticities of demand, if you cared.

Today, the first graduates of gambling studies in Britain complete their course. In a ceremony at the University of Salford, 33 casino staff - managers, inspectors and pit bosses - who took temporary leave of the roulette wheel and the blackjack table for a gamble in academia, will be awarded their certificates.

The occasion marks a new stage in the evolution of gambling in Britain. Outside their casinos, dealers and inspectors do not sport bow-ties, natty shirts or saucy mini-skirts. Green eye shades are worn only in the movies. They simply try to make up for working unsocial hours (British casinos close at 4am) by catching up with home life and children. "That's why so many casino people date each other," I was told, "we don't meet anyone else."Beyond the narrow space of their own baize, they are typically not much interested in what's going on.

In the old days of the floating crap game and the street-corner bookie, gambling was a shady affair. There was an edge of danger to it. Casino games or other gambling took place in "spielers", back-room premises which a player could enter only after being given the once-over by a strong- arm man at the door.

It was natural, so far as the United States was concerned, that this sort of gambling was run by crooks and conmen. When casinos became legal in Nevada, the first operators had a wide experience of illegal gambling. That was where they had learnt the game.

Their talent was based on a feel for gambling. They could size up a customer, estimate his value and assess his credit rating, without resorting to a calculator or taking up references. Sure, a lot of funny things went on in the counting rooms. But these guys had "the gamble" in them, as they say, without any recourse to a college education.

It was only when gambling became respectable and turned into "gaming", and Wall Street started taking casinos stocks seriously, that the accountants and the button-down graduates started moving in. There was, at first, quite a rivalry between the two sides. But today, when casinos are part of a huge leisure business, the college boys have largely taken over top management.

In Britain, which has more casinos than any country in Europe, there has been training, but perhaps a lack of wider expertise. Casinos have prospered, but there was always a high risk attached. On several occasions, operators who got out of line with the gaming regulations suffered an ignominious fate. Their whole enterprise was declared "not fit and proper" and shut down - the worst beat in gambling.

The casino industry itself has backed the Salford programme, designed to produce a higher grade of managers. The potential conflict between the two sides - old-style gambling instinct versus new-style management training - has been handled well. There is close and continuous cooperation between the gaming industry, which has funded the students, and the teaching staff who have devised the course at Salford.

"It's no use producing papers on the economic ramifications of gambling, which only three people can read," says Dr Greg Anderson, head of the Department of Economics. "Our work has to be relevant."

Professor Neville Topham, director of the Centre for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming, who has a business consultancy background, stresses the positive side of gambling. "The casino industry has certain advantages. It carries no stock and has no bad debts." He thinks that the downside of "problem gambling" tends to be exaggerated. "It was surprising, our students turned out to be such personable people."

The inspiration for setting up gambling studies came from one of the most experienced operators in the country, Leonard Steinberg. As chairman of Stanley Leisure, the provincial casinos and betting shops chain, he recently moved his chips into Mayfair by acquiring Crockford's and the Colony Club.

Today he receives an honourary degree in recognition of his efforts in establishing the new Chair in Gambling.

"My thinking was three-fold," he explains. "One, gambling and gaming have always been considered rather unfortunate businesses and I thought if someone could obtain a degree or a diploma it would raise the status. Two, there are so many statistical bodies throughout the country all giving out information which does not coincide with what is really happening. I thought a good independent body could provide information which would be respected. And three, the industry was bereft of people with a business profile and understanding of how economics works. If we had people with degrees they could start in the industry at management level, rather than coming through as a clerk in a betting shop."

As part of a university course in economics, gambling studies comprise far more than a totting up of chances and probabilities - though that comes into it too. The casino personnel spent seven three-day sessions in full-time study, learning about the history of gambling and development of the industry, business strategy, marketing, competition and so on.

All this is a far cry from the croupier's routine job of calling "Rien ne va plus!" or as they do in British casinos, "No more bets!" as the wheel spins at roulette. The point is that gambling is an enormous business in Britain, turning over pounds 40 billion a year (of which pounds 33 billion is repaid as winnings). It is seen these days not as a back-room game but an integral part of the entertainment industry.

A further advantage of the Salford experience is that it has brought casino staff together. In the normal course of things, they are prohibited from going into any casino outside their own workplace, and never talk to colleagues in the other major companies. To add to their qualifications, economics graduates can pick up social skills - a useful asset when they have to eject an old-fashioned troublesome character from their premises.