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Betting on Research

An early look at the benefits of gaming put UNLV on the national research map.

UNLV History  |  Oct 18, 2017  |  By Jason Scavone
illustration of blackjack players

(Illustration by Tony Canepa)

Editor's Note: 

This story is part of a series on the moments that shaped UNLV on the way to its 60th year.


When Felicia Campbell came to UNLV in 1962, there were just five buildings and nothing but the Longacres Park apartments around for a good mile. She remembers standing at Longacres, looking across a barren campus with another fresh arrival, a sociology professor who took it all in and dismayed, “My God, it’s a gas station.”

They went and got a gallon of Gallo.

In those early days, all the faculty knew each other. “The students were older than usual,” she said. We got a lot of show kids. It would be dancers, we had dealers, everybody who worked on the Strip.” 

That any-and-all comers approach was egalitarian, but there were times it didn’t come together in the spirit of altruism and human yearning for self-betterment that you might hope for in higher education.

“I was teaching this class and a guy walked in the back door, and he had a pistol,” Campbell said. “He put it down on his desk. I looked and thought, ‘What do I do?’ I kept talking about prepositions.”

After a half hour, “I guess he decided not to shoot me, and he got up and left. Didn’t say a word. I didn’t report it. What would have been the point? Then you end up all sorts of paranoid.”

By the 1970s, the English professor’s curiosity turned to gaming. She realized that, even though gambling has been with us since fire became the hot new thing for cavemen, culture observers had never treated it as anything but a vice. She set out to change that with an academic’s critical approach.

Campbell spent time sitting at the tables, talking to players. She’d meet them for a drink or coffee after the chips were colored up or the money was all gone.

“It was participant observation,” she said. “People are sitting around, and they’d come and volunteer stuff. I did one article on the elderly life-seekers. I had this idea they should put gambling stuff in old people’s homes. These old people, they had a whole life in there. (One) woman said it made her feel like she had friends when she won something. She felt better.”

Her study came out in a 1975 article for The Futurist, “The Future of Gambling.”

The elderly, the distraught, they both found something life-affirming in gambling, she noted. The risk and reward of it all gave them something that had been missing in their lives. For the guys working all day, beat down by life, with no real agency in their work, gambling offered a measure of control.

“All day long you do what them dumb bastard supervisors tell you,” one interviewee told her. “Don’t make no difference whether it makes sense or not. Sometimes you just gotta get out of line. (My wife) don’t care. I’m easier to live with for a while, I guess.”

The article gained Campbell national exposure. She ended up on the wire services, in Time, and speaking in front of gaming conventions. Suddenly, there was a nationally recognized piece of academic research being attributed to a UNLV professor in the general media.

Of course it was a study of gaming that gained UNLV a measure of national exposure. It was a start.