While New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement Director David Rebuck has been known for a number of years as perhaps the most preeminent regulator in the U.S., he says he was a “novice” in terms of the gaming industry when he first took the job way back in 2010.
Fortunately for Rebuck, he got started just ahead of the technological explosion that would revolutionize what it means to be a regulator.
Speaking last week on the National Association of Administrators for Disordered Gambling Services (NAADGS) podcast, Rebuck told host and prominent responsible gambling consultant Brianne Doura-Schawohl that when he began his new role, the lone focus for gaming enforcement employees was on “brick-and-mortar” casinos — all of which in New Jersey are located in Atlantic City.
That included methods designed to try to ensure that gamblers acted responsibly.
“We were very focused on patrons who came into the buildings, on self-exclusion, training for employees, and so on,” Rebuck said. “In my mind, it was working well. I didn’t know any better.”
25 points become 30
Rebuck said that early in his tenure, he met with a number of responsible gaming leaders including Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling since 1998.
“As they were educating me, I said, ‘Maybe we’re not doing things as well as we can,'” Rebuck recalled.
Around the same time, momentum in New Jersey to offer legal, regulated online NJ casino gaming continued. By the time it launched in November 2013, Rebuck noted, Nevada offered only poker online, while Delaware only had a suite of online casino games via its state lottery.
So New Jersey became the first U.S. state with millions of residents to have multiple operators competing for market share.
“I give credit to Keith Whyte here,” Rebuck said. “When we were rolling out how to do online gambling, Keith reached out to us with a plan in writing, what his organization believed were 25 key points that had to be implemented.
“I was like, ‘I think we do this, but I don’t know if we do this one,'” Rebuck added, saying that he asked his staff to review the extent to which the agency’s efforts already matched Whyte’s goals.
“At the end of the day, I wanted an ‘A’ score — we may not get 100 percent, but in New Jersey, 90 percent is an ‘A.’ They came back to me and said, ‘We have about 20 already implemented.'”
Several more were seen by staffers as sensible and manageable, so Rebuck soon got his ‘A,’ he said — even after a revised plan by Whyte expanded to 30 key points.
The value of research
Still, Rebuck found there was far more work to be done.
“I’m an attorney who had been involved in higher education, with colleges and universities — I had a background as an administrator,” he said. “I value the role of academic research to assist in providing people with the information they need.”
But Rebuck said that he was “disappointed, quite honestly,” when he first began meeting with some responsible gambling groups.
“I was concerned that their suggestions, their information, was not supported by research and academic findings,” Rebuck said. “How could they prove to me that what they were suggesting was even going to work?”
So Rebuck was gratified that the bill signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie more than a decade ago included a requirement for an annual DGE review of academic research associated with problem gambling. The same was true, Rebuck said, when sports betting launched in the state in 2018.
Rutgers University was chosen to do such research, and Rebuck said, “I can assure you that [the annual reviews] don’t collect dust. I’d say that 95 percent of the recommendations become mandated. There’s very little we disagree on.”
Dr. Lia Nower, professor and director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers, was named chairman of the research committee for the National Council for Problem Gambling in 2019.
“It’s a great partnership, one that will continue as long as I’m here,” Rebuck said.
New Jersey law mandates that entire databases for online gambling — minus only the names and other information of specific gamblers — must be provided to Rutgers, something Rebuck called “a researcher’s dream.”
The aha moment — what’s next for NJ
While conducting ordinary meetings with various online gaming and mobile sports betting operators over the past year, Rebuck said he experienced an “aha moment” during one such meeting.
“I actually kick myself in the pants sometimes, because I should have picked up on it sooner,” he said.
Rebuck said he was intrigued by the observation that technology could serve as “an early warning system” regarding problem gambling, with automated features that could flag certain changes in gambling behavior by regular patrons.
“That person may need some information on how to be educated on problem gambling, on whether or not they may have a significant problem,” Rebuck said. “And I said, ‘Everybody has got to do this.'”
So Rebuck and his staff laid out, after months of discussions with gaming operators, what standards would be put in place. He added that operators would need to meet those standards with a specific responsible gambling team, not with marketing officials or customer service employees.
As Rebuck hinted this summer, those mandates must be implemented by all “60 or so” online casino and mobile sports betting operators in the state by Jan. 1, 2023.
Rebuck said that he expects all of the sites to meet the deadline, adding that if any companies are “having struggles,” they need to communicate that to DGE as soon as possible.
Credit checks will not be part of the process, Rebuck said, but operators have so much data on their customers that he said there are plenty of other ways to detect signs of irresponsible gambling.
Regulators can learn from each other
While New Jersey’s status as a pioneer in legal gambling — the state’s first casino launched in 1978, ending Nevada’s national monopoly — Rebuck said that his agency can’t create all of the most innovative ideas in regulation.
“It’s good to have a little competition, to push the envelope,” Rebuck said. “If I see something someone else is doing, that maybe they’re out ahead of us in some way, we’ll look at that and say ‘Maybe we should do that in New Jersey.'”
Rebuck referred to regulators in Massachusetts and the province of Ontario, Canada as being particularly creative in carving out helpful regulations.
“I’m an optimist,” Rebuck said. “I don’t know of anybody who is an adversary, not an advocate, of trying to do better and to try things we have never done before.”