The Little Casino That Could?

Blue Lake Rancheria hopes laptop gambling will lure younger players



Maryann Six and Treg Combs leaned back against a cushioned divan at the Blue Lake Casino Saturday night to try their luck at a new software package that turned the iPad on their laps into the gambling equivalent of a 300-pound slot machine.

This new system, dubbed iSino, was recently approved by state regulators, making it one of the first laptop gambling devices being used in the United States according to Nelson Rose, an Encino, Calif., attorney who tracks the gaming industry through his blog, "Gambling and the Law."

"Most of the innovation in electronic gambling is being driven out of the United Kingdom, but in the U.S. context, the Indian casinos are among the early adopters," Rose said.

The new lounge at the Blue Lake Casino, where Six and Combs toyed with their iSino Saturday night, may be a glimpse into the future of casino gambling: in contrast to the frenetic, bell-ringing ethos of Las Vegas, the low slung seats and coffee-table layout of this smoke-free environment is designed to convince couples and small groups that it can be a very 21st Century experience to explore the deep-rooted human fascination with games of chance.

 "After a while you just kind of forget what's going on outside," said Combs, 49, as he and Six, who is 51, practiced the side-sweeping gesture that is, to the iSino, like pulling the lever on a one-armed bandit.

The Blue Lake Casino, which unveiled the iSino in January after a whirlwind nine-month development process, hope this high-tech gadget and its anti-Vegas ambiance will make their club a destination for couples and small parties who don't typically think of gambling as a night out on the town.

"I look on the iSino product as the natural evolution of gambling," said Eric Ramos, president of business operations for the Blue Lake Rancheria, which runs the hotel and casino that have become one of Humboldt County's fastest-growing enterprises.

It was Ramos who steered the iSino system through California's industry-friendly regulatory approval process according to John and James Acres, the father-son team who wrote the underlying laptop gambling software for the iPad hoping to capitalize on the device's innate popularity with younger Americans.

"A year ago people were making fun, like the iPad was a woman's sanitary napkin," quipped the elder Acres, a former math major who parlayed his love of numbers into a career in gaming technology, starting with his invention in 1981 of a card swipe system that would allow casinos to reward gamblers who played a lot.

"It was like frequent flyer miles for gamblers," the silver-haired 57-year-old said, adding with a smile, "Gaming has been very, very good to me."

According to James Acres, 32, the iSino collaboration took off in the spring after Ramos, seeing a demonstration and sensing the system's potential, decided that tiny Blue Lake Casino could become the pioneer of laptop gambling.

"California has one of the most favorable environments in the world for innovation in gaming," the younger Acres said.

Why? Nevada and New Jersey, which had both legalized gambling far earlier, both created state-run gaming commissions to protect consumers from rigged games, in the same way that regulators routinely inspect gas pumps to make sure that drivers are not shortchanged by tiny but fraudulent mechanical tricks that would have the same effect as boosting the price per gallon. Only in the gaming context, one level of consumer protection comes from making sure that the random number generator, which is at the core of all such gambling devices, actually generates an unpredictable number and doesn't favor the house.

But gambling product vendors like the Acres' have long complained that these state-run agencies were too slow, and so California and other states that have legalized gambling more recently have adopted what is essentially a self-regulatory system in which the casino operator -- the Blue Lake Rancheria -- asks a private-sector certification company to inspect new gambling devices and make sure they are programmed to make even-handed payouts. Once Blue Lake's designated test-lab made that certification late last year, the federal and state rules governing Indian gaming made final approval by the California regulators almost a formality.

But while industry-friendly rules make gambling vendors love California, critics might wonder whether gambling -- a habit as venerable as tobacco smoking -- ought to come with a regulatory warning label rather a rubber stamp.

Ramos, the tribal leader, sweeps such objections aside: "I always have a problem when someone makes a value judgment about the types of entertainment other people choose," he said.

And while Ramos hopes laptop gambling will help make casino as hip as they were back in the days when Frank Sinatra ruled the pop charts, there was no evidence of an upwelling of interest at the Blue Lake Casino last Saturday night, where a handful of couples stroked their iSinos as they sipped drinks.

"This is an interesting device but I don't know how much it will affect people's attitudes toward gambling," said Pat Ghezzi, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who is an expert on the development of behavioral traits.

As Ghezzi explained, the "gateway" activity that is most likely to lead young adults to form a gambling habit is sports wagering, which touches so many people through workplace pools that are fun and harmless -- except to that fraction of humanity predisposed for whatever reason toward an unhealthy fascination with the odds. Although the iPad is undeniably cool among the young adults that Ramos would like to reach, the casino still has to get these prospective patrons through the door -- the iSino device works on a special wireless link that loses its signal outside the tiny players lounge, because one of the iron-clad rules that the state does enforce is a lid on the number of machines each casino can have. The Blue Lake Casino is allowed 805 devices, of which 52 are now iSino tablets as opposed to one-armed bandits.

"This game product excites younger players," Ramos said, because it builds on both the physical technology and the giggly groupthink inherent in social media such as Facebook or YouTube, which involve sharing entertainment around a video screen.

Wishful thinking on the part of a tribal leader who worries that the gray-haired patrons at Blue Lake Casino -- like newspaper readers -- will eventually die and thus starve the cash cow on which thousands of Humboldt County jobs depend.

Ramos and other Indian casino operators face another challenge aside from the aging of their clientele. Two separate bills now awaiting action in the state legislature would legalize online poker but in different ways: one would require future 'Net-based casinos to team up with currently licensed tribal or card-room operations; the other would let new entrants, including innovators from Great Britain, jump right into the digital gaming fray.

Even if state legislators can agree on an approach -- taxation of online play would help the state raise money -- any California compromise would have to be reconciled with federal rules in this regard, creating a rich feeding ground for lobbyists and a huge unknown for local casino operators who are increasingly vital parts of the North Coast economy.

Ramos said the Blue Lank Rancheria issued thousands of W-2s in 2010, citing this year-end tax reporting document as evidence of the tribe's impact.


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