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October 21, 2014

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HIGHER EDUCATION:

Casino U: A look inside UNLV’s gaming lab

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Paul Takahashi

UNLV junior Kimberlyn Davis throws a pair of dice during a Gaming 255 class at the Konami Gaming Lab on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. The UNLV gaming lab gives hotel college students hands-on experience in casino management.

UNLV Gaming Lab

UNLV gaming professor Gary Waters explains the table game of craps to hotel college students at the Konami Gaming Lab on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. The gaming lab gives students hands-on experience in casino management. Launch slideshow »

Players gather around a craps table in a dimly lit room filled with slot machines and blackjack tables.

A woman throws a pair of dice, then smiles as applause and jubilation erupts under the watchful eyes of a dozen security cameras overhead.

The scene looks straight out of any Las Vegas casino, but it's not. The "players" are college students learning the ins and outs of the hotel-casino industry at UNLV's world-renowned gaming laboratory.

Just a few miles from the Strip, the Konami Gaming Lab serves as the training ground for UNLV hospitality students interested in gaming management.

"We're not teaching students how to gamble," insists UNLV gaming professor Gary Waters, who teaches introductory classes in the gaming lab. "We're teaching students how to manage casinos. This is really important for the gaming industry."

Once upon a time, people interested in gaming management didn't need a college degree. Many worked their way up the casino ladder, from dealers to pit bosses to floor managers to casino executives.

But as the casino industry diversified, adopting new gaming technologies and complex business strategies, a college degree is more of a requirement for casino employees interested in upper management.

"The landscape has changed in the last few years," Waters said. "There are more college-educated executives leading these casinos. Education is more highly recognized in gaming now."

•••

Waters brings nearly two decades of experience in Las Vegas hotels and casinos to his introductory gaming classes.

To become an effective casino manager and executive, UNLV students must learn not only how to play the various table games and slot machines, but also what it takes to deal the cards and operate the machines. They must learn all the facets of a casino operation from the perspectives of a customer, a dealer and a manager.

"(Being a dealer) is a lot different than being a customer," Waters said. "It's a different picture when you're on the other side (of the table)."

Waters uses online resources, textbooks and hands-on experience in the gaming lab to teach his students blackjack, craps, roulette, baccarat, pai gow, poker and the slots.

Waters recently introduced craps to about 60 students in his Gaming 225 class.

"Who's played this game before?" he asks before he begins his lesson. Two students raise their hands.

Waters launches into his tutorial on craps, going over how to play it, but also game theory and game protection, which safeguards the casino from cheats and scams.

There are various ways to play craps and wagering options, from proposition bets to place bets to pass line bets, Waters says. He tells students the house has just a slight 1.4 percent to 1.6 percent advantage in an individual craps game, but that the odds for the casino improve to 14 percent when looking at the entire craps operation.

"That's the best way to win," Waters tells his students. "Knowing when to quit."

And finally, Waters reviews game integrity, perhaps the most important role of a casino manager. After all players won't bet if they don't trust the game.

In an adjoining room, students learn how to monitor tables for cheaters and card counting using a dozen security cameras in the gaming lab. Students also learn how to spot tampered slot machines and learn best practices for game protection.

"If the dice leaves the table, it needs to be examined by the pit boss," Waters reminds his students.

Most of Waters' students are freshmen and sophomores who are too young to legally gamble. The gaming lab – which uses free-play slots and fake wagers – provides under-21 students an opportunity to prepare for jobs in the gaming industry without breaking the law.

"Everyone here wants to be a manager, and we need to know every single aspect of the casino," said UNLV sophomore Michael Dick, 19, who aspires to own a boutique hotel and restaurant. "Just to be able to experience this makes me view the casinos differently."

Furthermore, the lab gives UNLV's international students a glimpse into the Las Vegas casino model. Asian students in particular have flocked to UNLV's Harrah's Hotel College, buoyed by new opportunities in Macau, Singapore and Thailand.

In the coming year, multibillion dollar casinos are set to open in the Philippines, South Korea and eastern Russia following the success of casinos in Macau and Singapore, which raked in an estimated $40 billion last year. With Japan and China considering gaming legislation, Asian students are looking to gaming kingpin Las Vegas to learn about gaming.

"We have an excellent model in Las Vegas but gaming has become more and more international," Waters said. "We have to become more internationally minded."

UNLV freshman Xue Yan Ning is an international student who hopes to work in Asia's fledgling but rapidly expanding hotel-casino economy. One problem: The 17-year-old hails from Hunan province in China, where gambling is illegal.

"(UNLV's gaming lab) is very exciting for us, because we can't learn (these games) in China," Ning said. "This is our only chance to try to learn the games."

•••

Gaming education has evolved since UNLV opened its first gaming lab at Beam Hall in 1995.

At the time, slots machines still took coins and tokens instead of tickets. Pai gow and baccarat were less popular and technologies such as the automatic shuffler weren't broadly implemented.

Seeing the wave of changes in the gaming industry, UNLV included plans for a new and expanded gaming lab when it built the Stan Fulton Building six years ago. Konami – a slot machine manufacturer – renovated the new lab two years ago.

The new lab incorporates some of the new trends and technologies being pioneered by Las Vegas casinos today, such as software used for player tracking.

"Points and rewards. That's what the industry is all about now," Waters said.

Konami is putting in player-tracking software on slot machines and table games inside the gaming lab to teach students how the club cards work.

Other nascent trends, such as bonus features on table games, are being adopted more slowly to ensure these changes are here to stay, Waters said.

"We try to keep (the lab) as realistic as possible," he said.

That realism helps when UNLV students apply for gaming management internships, which have become harder to secure in the recession, Waters said. UNLV has partnered with local gaming companies to help its students land internships and opportunities. About a third of UNLV gaming graduates receive offers for a supervisory position, he said.

"Our primary objective is so students can relate academic information to actual table games and slots, and get some operational experience," Waters said. "The more they get involved, playing it and dealing it, the better they perform in their internships and the more successful they are in their careers."

Although the gaming lab is used by other professors and the International Gaming Institute for research into subjects like gambling addiction, its main purpose will continue to focus on undergraduate education – despite gaming's mounting challenges.

Today, gaming in Las Vegas represents a smaller portion of a casino's revenue streams, which now includes rooms, dining, nightclubs and entertainment. Las Vegas is also facing more competition from casino operations overseas, on Native American lands and even online.

Still, Waters believes gaming will persist in Las Vegas, known as the gaming capital of the world. As long as Las Vegas continues to hold that title, UNLV will continue to educate its students in gaming management, he said.

"Gaming will always remain a major driving force in Las Vegas," he said. "That's why we feel (gaming education) is very important."

CORRECTION: This version corrects the location of the former gaming lab at UNLV. The previous lab was located at Beam Hall, not Bern Hall. | (November 15, 2012)

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