Industry Taking Responsible Gaming Seriously, But Must Address Inconsistency

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Not all forms of gambling are equally addictive. Every player’s mileage varies, in terms of which games they find easy to walk away from and which games take hold and threaten to override responsible decision-making.

In addition to having covered the gambling industry in varying capacities for nearly 15 years, I’ve been a low-stakes gambler for more than 20 years. I’ve always been a responsible player. That’s the euphemistic phrasing, anyway; some might prefer to call me a “nit.” I don’t bet what I can’t afford to lose. I set stop-losses and, with very rare exceptions, stick to them. And when I play online, I practice careful bankroll management. I edited an article by poker pro Chris Ferguson (prior to his Full Tilt Poker disgrace) just as I was getting into online poker that advised never to play for more than 5% of your ’roll in a cash game or sit & go and not to exceed 2% buying into a multi-table tournament, and I’ve followed those rules (almost) to a “T” ever since.

As a result, I’ve consistently won, and withdrawn to my bank account, more than I’ve lost over the years. But I’ve also never positioned myself to win big. If you add up my hourly win rate from poker, sports betting, daily fantasy, and other forms of gambling over the course of my lifetime, it would be embarrassingly miniscule. But it would also be comfortably in the black, which is more than you can say for most people’s hobbies.

In recent weeks, however, I’ve discovered a personal weakness. I started dabbling in online slots soon after they became available in my home state of Pennsylvania. I found a game I enjoyed, played it at the lowest possible stakes, lost a little, stopped playing, then gave it another try, won big (by my standards), cashed some out to guarantee overall profitability … and ever since have found myself grappling with some addictive tendencies I’ve never really experienced before as a gambler. The spinning reels, the bright colors, the flashing lights, the explosive sounds when a jackpot hits — it’s doing something to my brain and my emotions that other forms of gambling don’t do.

It’s not causing problems in my life outside the game; I’m still playing with house money, and I’m still managing to quell the urge to play when I need to get work done. But I often feel the game stripping away my impulse control.

Everyone is different. But for me, there might come a time when I want to deny myself access to online slots — without having to limit my access to games of partial skill, like poker and sports betting. And I find it troubling that in these nascent days of legal, regulated online gaming in many states, not every casino gives me that option.

Not-quite-united states

Since the Supreme Court deemed PASPA unconstitutional 16 months ago, states have introduced sports betting laws one by one, with variation from one to the next in terms of tax rates, online access, whether in-state college sports are off-limits, and so forth. Responsible gaming standards, like everything else, are not uniform from one state to the next.

The spread of regulated sports betting beyond Nevada, and regulated mobile gaming in general, has brought with it a generally responsible attitude toward problem gambling. In the regulated U.S. gambling environment, there are rules, though you can’t always tell who’s serious about gambling addiction and who’s merely paying it lip service. There is always the little yellow and green “RG” button that you can click.

Indiana is the latest state to introduce an online gaming self-restriction program, though theirs will apply only to sports betting for now. Indiana’s Internet Self-Restriction Program is just one example of how it can be done: online sports-wagering self-restriction is separate from brick-and-mortar self-restriction, exclusion on one site applies to all sites, self-bans can be set for either one year or five years.

In New Jersey, the landscape is different because iPoker and iCasino are available in addition to sports betting.

And one look at the “Responsible Gaming” pages on the Play SugarHouse site in New Jersey and its counterpart in new-online-gaming-entrant Pennsylvania reveals a key difference in how the states operate.

On the Pennsylvania page, players can set “wagering limits” and can specify how they want to limit by vertical: “sportsbook,” “slot games,” and “table games.”

The New Jersey page doesn’t have that. Users can set limits by time, spending, or deposit amount, and they can flat-out self-suspend or self-exclude. But they don’t have the option to force themselves to steer clear of a particular game. (And it’s hard not to notice that the very page on which you can set spending limits features an advertisement at the bottom directing you toward their online slot machines.)

The PA process

It’s not that New Jersey is failing and Pennsylvania is perfect; far from it. This is just one instance where Pennsylvania’s approach is better suited to those players who would benefit from the option to bar themselves only from some games.

Doug Harbach, the communications director for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, explains that, in crafting their approach to responsible gaming, “Our staff researched what other jurisdictions and iGaming companies have in place and wrote the regs to reflect the most responsible policies that are currently out there.”

The PGCB requires a Responsible Gaming page on every site, a link to that page from every Web page, and the requirement to offer players the option to set limits during the registration process.

Pennsylvania does not, however, require sites like SugarHouse to limit by vertical.

“While some iGaming sites allow for players to limit their play on specific types of gambling, others will limit every vertical when someone sets their limits,” Harbach clarifies. “This is up to each operator.”

Harbach adds that in most cases, if a player self-excludes from online gaming on a particular site, they will also be banned from playing at that site’s affiliated land-based casinos — and vice-versa.

In New Jersey, that varies quite a bit by operator. Depending on where you attempt to self-exclude from online play, you might be able to play at the correlated land-based casino, unable to play at that brick-and-mortar property in New Jersey, or even unable to play at that company’s properties nationwide.

’Stars aligned

One company that’s leading the way in offering as many self-exclusion options as possible is The Stars Group, operator of PokerStars (poker and casino) and FOX Bet (sports betting) in New Jersey.

The Stars sites have all the usual restrictions, from time and spending limits to total exclusions. But they also do it by vertical, and then sub-divide it even further. For poker, you can restrict your cash-game table limit and your tournament buy-in limit. And for iCasino, you can limit/exclude on a game-by-game basis.

So for a player who, say, has found slots games addictive but blackjack less so, it’s easy to self-regulate without limiting access across the board.

‘Stars established a dedicated responsible gaming team back in 2007 and takes this part of its business very seriously.

“PokerStars implemented responsible gaming features long before they were a requirement and that philosophy has been keenly embraced by The Stars Group,” TSG Responsible Gaming Service Senior Manager Jeanne David tells NJ Online Gambling. “We’ve always tried to be best in class and are proud of our systems. Of course, we are always looking for improvements. All Stars Group products have controls in place to ensure we have player-safety controls integrated into the software, such as self-set table and deposit limits, self-exclusion, cooling-off periods, and timeouts.”

The Stars Group has accumulated extensive data with regard to exclusion and problem gaming, although the company does not make the data public and our efforts to get a breakdown of self-exclusion habits by vertical were denied.

“We have a large amount of data at our disposal which we proactively use on a case-by-case basis,” David says. “We are increasingly looking at innovative new approaches to data analytics for identifying areas of concern when it comes to responsible gambling. We are constantly enhancing the various detection capabilities and we are looking to further strengthen these by leveraging the benefits of data analytics for identifying areas of concern.”

If there’s an area in which to be critical of the approach to responsible gaming at The Stars Group, it’s in terms of navigation on the site. That “RG” button is easy to find — but it merely takes you to an information page. If you actually want to limit or exclude on the PokerStars app, you have to click on “Tools” and open the “Responsible Gaming” dropdown.

It’s not hidden, per se. But it’s not entirely intuitive to find if you don’t know where to look.

And that’s the case at many sites in New Jersey. As with sites, both regulated and unregulated, that nudge you to think twice before withdrawing, it feels almost predatory — or at least disingenuous from operators that preach responsibility — not to make excluding from a game every bit as easy and visible as playing in a game.

Is more user control really better?

As noted at the top of this article, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to self-exclusion. Some players would benefit from limiting access only to specific games, while others need to go completely cold turkey with gambling.

For the operators, from a business perspective, there’s a case to be made that self-exclusion by vertical allows them to retain customers who would otherwise consider a complete self-ban, but then again, maybe a site’s success against, say, a professional sports bettor is dependent on that bettor losing his sports winnings in the virtual pit.

Jamie Salsburg, a former compulsive gambler who hasn’t made a wager in nine years and blogs and podcasts about responsible gaming at AfterGambling.com, believes there are pros and cons to all sides of how much wiggle room to give a gambler, and he views this as a critical — and exciting — juncture for the effort against problem gambling.

“This is the time to try things, and that possibility has me really optimistic,” Salsburg says. “I want to see operators and regulators try things, and not set rules that are so strict or narrow that it eliminates trial and error and learning and growing.

“What do you do when it’s really early in something and you don’t know the answers? Like if your kid’s playing sports, and he’s five, do you specialize in one and put all your eggs in that basket, or do you let him play everything and see what works? That’s where we are with this. Try everything, because we don’t know all the answers.”

Salsburg finds frustration, however, in the fact that so many sites are operating in different jurisdictions and have so much information flowing in constantly on player habits and aren’t sharing that data.

“All the operators have all the answers to all the questions,” Salsburg says. “One operator data set doesn’t tell the full story. But if you pulled together all the data they have and you made it all anonymous, you’d have all your answers on problem gambling. All the answers are sitting there.”

The known unknowns

What Salsburg is alluding to is the fact that people don’t just gamble on one site, and a true problem gambler can always find a way around restrictions.

Say a user excludes from everything but poker at one online gaming site, and that site’s data indicates the exclusion is working perfectly. That user might be on another site playing blackjack or slots. Or playing at a casino if the exclusions don’t extend to land-based gambling. Or jumping on the offshore sites once he’s out of regulated options.

“You have to be careful that you don’t push so many people out, because then you start losing your data,” Salsburg says. “That’s one of the big draws of having legal sites, is you start to put together a picture of what is true and what is false. So you have somebody, they look very responsible, they only play poker at a very minimum amount, but if you’ve pushed them through whatever kind of self-exclusion to do all of their chasing on slots offshore, then we still don’t know what works and what doesn’t.”

As Salsburg says, from experience, “A problem gambler is going to find a way.” Self-exclusion by vertical is great for some people. But it doesn’t necessarily address the underlying problem.

From my personal perspective, the more flexibility there is in gambling self-exclusion, the better. But for some, limiting a few impulses is no substitute for facing a legitimate addiction head-on.

There are no absolute answers to the question of how universal an individual’s gambling ban should be. But as long as operators and regulators are taking this subject seriously, the opportunity to get closer to clarity exists now in the U.S. in a way it never did before.

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Eric Raskin

Eric is a veteran writer, editor, and podcaster in the sports and gaming industries. He was the editor-in-chief of the poker magazine All In for nearly a decade, is the author of the book The Moneymaker Effect, and has contributed to such outlets as ESPN.com, Grantland.com, and Playboy.

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