A Game-Changing Scholar

Bill Eadington, quite possibly the formative figure in the academic study of gambling, died on February 11 at age 67. Even if you weren’t one of his students, never read one of his books or never heard him speak, you’ve benefited from his work.

Eadington began studying gambling in the late 1960s, when the casino industry was, to say the least, much different. No publicly traded companies owned casinos; the Gaming Control Board was just over a decade old and still partially at odds with the federal government over the issue of skimming and mob influence in Las Vegas casinos; and academic interest was largely limited to a fringe of mathematicians who were mostly concerned with the vagaries of individual casino games.

Within five years of his 1969 arrival at the University of Nevada, Reno as an assistant professor, Eadington had made the case for gaming as the subject of serious academic inquiry. In 1974, he organized the first meeting of what is now the International Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking at the Sahara in Las Vegas, threading a narrow path between academics who scoffed at the idea of learning anything from studying how people gamble and casino professionals who mocked the notion of reedy academics passing judgment on their methods.

With his usual quiet determination, Eadington engineered a meeting of the extremes: Harrah’s executive Mark Curtis came to the conference and made a presentation on how Harrah’s ran its business. It was well-received by the economists in attendance, and he was equally impressed with what he saw of their papers. This led to future cross-pollination between the academy and the gaming industry, which, with the influx of corporate ownership, was becoming more professional: Both sides were learning now.

Governor Brian Sandoval’s recent call to establish an intellectual “hub” for gaming in Nevada is really just a page from the Eadington playbook—it’s because of Eadington’s fine work over the past four decades that there’s a basis for the serious academic analysis of gaming in this state.

Eadington believed society would benefit from scholars studying gambling objectively and dispassionately, with more concern over good methodology than reinforcing existing partisan stances. In a state powered by gambling, it’s vital to understand how the industry works and what it does, rather than just hoping for the best (or worst).

Today, governments, advocacy groups and gaming companies regularly enlist expert advice from academia. Bill Eadington was among the first academics to bridge the gap between theory and practice; his career, straddling the line between gambling’s murky past and its corporate present, is emblematic of the changes that happened in the industry during those years. In “the old days,” managers ran their joints on street smarts and an understanding of the games. That approach, though, couldn’t be scaled up to casinos with thousands of games and tens of thousands of visitors on any given day. Instead, the industry needed management and strategy tools derived from a mix of learned wisdom and insights from business and economic theory.

Which is why it was important for the gaming industry—and the thousands of Nevadans who work and are connected to it—to have Bill Eadington.

He also provided an invaluable resource for dozens of state, local, tribal and national governments that called upon his expertise on how casino projects might change a region, how to measure the social and economic impacts of gambling, and how to frame gaming laws and regulation. And as a mentor, Eadington encouraged an international group of scholars who do similar work, adding to the value of the public discourse about gambling.

He also got to see hundreds of his students move on to long and rewarding careers in casino management, law, regulation and other fields—a testament to the skill and dedication of any teacher. Because at the end of the day, that’s what Eadington was: a teacher, whose insights have made all of us better informed.