Once you know a bit about her background, it seems inevitable that Brett Abarbanel, the International Gaming Institute’s (IGI) new director of research, would come back to UNLV. And if there were one person who could tell you if there was any statistical validity to this statement, it would be her. Abarbanel studied statistics and architecture at Brown before pursuing graduate degrees in hotel/hospitality administration at UNLV. Combine this with a childhood near a horse track and a friend who knew poker, and you’ll understand how Abarbanel became the perfect combination of spectator and participant, scholar and lifelong student. Her path has prepared her well for her new role predicting and progressing the gaming and gambling research that will keep UNLV at the forefront of the field.
Tell us about your new role on campus.
Everything I’m doing is geared toward extending and promoting the research the IGI has been doing, is doing, and will be doing. A big part of that is bringing more students into the research IGI is conducting, so I’ve been working with Liam Frink in the office of undergraduate research to bring more undergrads into the fold.
Only people over 21 can work in certain areas of a casino, but we can and are bringing in more undergrads to engage in the research that can be done off a casino floor. For example, because no actual gambling with money can be done in our casino lab, we can have people of all ages in there. The work that looks into law and regulatory research is pretty straightforward, as are literature reviews, so any of our students can be incorporated into that as well.
Another effort I’m involved in is the new UNLV e-sports lab. E-sports has been around for a while but really boomed in the last couple years. Because we’re UNLV and in Las Vegas, we want to look at e-sports as it’s relevant to gambling and how those worlds interact and collide, so we’re building out an e-sports space that could exist within a casino.
How did you get here — to your field and to UNLV twice over?
It was a natural progression of my life. Academe was always present for me; this is my father’s 50th year being a professor. Between my professor father and lawyer mother, the importance of education was ever-present as I was growing up.
At the same time, gambling was always present in my life. I’m from Del Mar, California — a tiny little beach town in San Diego with a very large horse racing track. I grew up in the shadows of the Del Mar Racetrack, and I worked there over two summers. I ran stats up in the press box and practiced the things I’d learned in class, got up at 4 a.m. and took entries on the back side of the track, and interacted with the jockeys and trainers.
Around that same time, one of my friends at school who’d heard I was majoring in statistics said, “I have a game for you to learn,” and he taught me poker. I had two jobs as an undergrad: I graded for the math department for $8 an hour, and then I would use that as my poker bankroll. It was really fun. And it’s how I met my spouse.
Then one day, I found Bo Bernhard in 944 Magazine. I can with 100 percent certainty say I would not be where I am now if it were not for Bo Bernhard. He had work that I could get involved in. At the time, the recession hadn’t hit yet, so there were still plenty of research dollars floating around. I started working on the Nevada problem gambling project, and from there, folks at the IGI said, “If you’d like to be a student, we have the graduate assistantships available.” So I matriculated as a master’s student and later a Ph.D. student, earning a master's degree in hotel administration in 2009 and a Ph.D. in hospitality administration in 2013.
Tell us about an object in your office that has significance for you and why it means something to you.
I have a giant novelty check from the California Lottery. When I was working at UCLA, I would visit Sacramento to attend California Gambling Control Commission meetings. During these visits, Richard Schuetz, then commissioner of the Gambling Control Commission, took me around and introduced me to several stakeholders, including the California Lottery. As a gift, they gave me a giant novelty check.
I love that check. It’s the only thing I have up on my wall. I didn’t win, but I like to think everyone who visits my office thinks I won a hundred trillion dollars because that’s what I wrote on it.
What’s the biggest misconception about your field?
Usually, when I tell someone I’m a gambling researcher, the immediate response tends to be, “What should I bet on? Which numbers should I pick? What game is the best for winning? What’s the best blackjack strategy?” They think I know all the answers for how to beat the casino, but that’s not what we do.
But you do actually play poker. So what’s your advice?
This is super clichéd — it’s even a line in a song — but you gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em. If you’re going to win, you have to be able to call somebody’s bluff and realize when you’re beat. That’s just a handy way of saying it in a semi-poetic way that rhymes.
Since you’ve played two roles at UNLV so far, what’s one tip you’d give for success as a student and one you’d give for success as a faculty member?
As a student, always seek out more than what’s required of you. There’s much you can gain from doing the work that’s assigned to you in class, but there’s so much more out there that’s normally not provided to you as a student simply because there are only so many hours of class time that you have. If you seek out other research labs on campus, email professors, or even go out in the community to do your own research, you’ll gain a lot.
As a faculty member and in general, luck favors the prepared. I like that life tip, too.