Last month one very lucky winner walked away from the cash-out counter in Atlantic City’s Tropicana Casino counting a record-breaking $5.8 million in winnings.
Down the road at Resorts International, two April gamers each took home $1 million in a single day’s play. The stunned casinos’ CEO’s blamed their unfortunate turn of fate’s wheel on their recent high-stakes table games strategy, aimed at recouping the current revenue shortfall — down $22 million from last year.
When Casino gambling was first unleashed in Atlantic City’s boardwalk in 1976 pundits touted it as the savior of everything from tourism to the state’s deficit. Today the 11 seaside casinos’ income are established state revenue sources. Thus, when 2010’s slot and table earnings fell to a mere $289.4 million from the previous year’s $311.5 million, the administration began to quiver.
To help better show what legalized gambling means to the state, the Association for Corporate Growth, New Jersey Chapter, has invited James Maida, president and co-founder of Gaming Laboratories International, to speak on “New Jersey’s Gaming Industry: The Past, Present and Future Growth Opportunities” on Tuesday, May 24, at 6 p.m. at the Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village. Cost: $105. Visit www.acg.org/newjersey.
There’s good reason why Maida was chosen among the “Most Influential People In Gaming,” by Global Gaming Magazine in 2009. Few folks on the legal side of gambling can claim as much knowledge of the tools, odds, and systems as he. Growing up in Pennington in a multigenerational family of lawyers and CPAs, he absorbed much of the legal and mathematical capabilities from them. But it was his Lehigh University experience — he graduated in 1985 with a bachelor’s in computer science engineering — that added technology to his skills.
Maida began testing gaming equipment with the Division of Gaming Enforcement in Atlantic City. Two years later he earned his law degree from Rutgers University, and with Paul Magno co-founded his independent testing firm, Gaming Laboratories International, based in Lakewood.
Gambling’s safe seal. Gaming Labs has tested more than half a million machines and gambling devices. Its 700 examiners connected to its 17 global offices test the functionality and fairness of all gambling equipment before it is sold and, with random checks, during its use in the casino. “It’s just like a toaster,” says Maida. “Before it gets sold, we inspect the software to make sure everything is upright, according to state standards, and no user gets burned.”
Basically, it all boils down to software. Inspectors test and debug every piece of software in each device prior to its leaving the factory. Similarly, they run random checks at all casinos throughout the U.S. and many nations worldwide. When a flaw is determined the problem is posted globally among casino owners and the potentially problematic software is either replaced or repaired.
Maida’s continuous jaunts through the gambling centers around the globe have given him a unique perspective, allowing him to compare Atlantic City’s casino system against the competition.
New Jersey’s headstart. In 1976, when the first casinos appeared in New Jersey, the Atlantic City boardwalk provided the sole legal gambling dens on the entire east coast. And so it stood until the mid 1990s. “This 20-year headstart,” says Maida, “really allowed Atlantic City to thrive in a way almost unseen since the dawn of Las Vegas.”
Additionally, Atlantic City boasted a long history as a tourist destination, with a century of amusements, beach-and-sun facilities, and more than five decades of Miss America pageants. All within easy reach of Philadelphia and New York.
“However, for the last 17 months,” says Maida, “casino revenues have dropped significantly every month.” Much of this he blames on the economic downturn. Gambling is absolutely linked to the economy. “It is an entertainment involving disposable income,” he says. “If your house is in foreclosure, or you have just lost your job, you’re not going to gamble.”
Casinos, like restaurants and broadway shows, feed on folks who are feeling flush. And Atlantic City has done an excellent job of luring the flush carrying change. Of the $289.4 million spent at Atlantic City’s gaming parlors last year, $208.6 million came from the slots.
One ironically bright ray of sun breaking onto the A.C. boardwalk has come from the higher gas pump prices. While competition now exists in farther venues, New Jersey’s gamblers are seeking shorter, more thrifty excursions to dispose of some income.
Reversing the snake eyes. New Jersey’s current decline, Maida feels, stems only partly from the economy. The big challenge is the new competition. A.C. is going to have to transform itself from a place that merely has big casinos into a multifaceted travel destination — not just a place to visit for the day, but a place to vacation for a week, Vegas-style.
“I’ve just gotten back from Vegas,” he says. “At all hours you can walk outside and see people just strolling up and down the streets. Mobs of people come to take in the spectacles it provides. New Jersey needs to beef up its amenities.”
The state government has gotten behind this push. Ex-Governor Jon Corzine greatly expanded air facilities and roadways into the Atlantic City area. Governor Chris Christie has declared Atlantic City an official economic zone, easing the tax burden and providing aid to entrepreneurs.
Even if the odds remain with the house, we want to know that the potential — the possibility however slight — remains to smugly stuff $5.8 million in your hip pocket and purchase a limo to drive you away from the horde of slack-jawed owners and other envious gamers.
Maida, unfortunately, cannot join us in our fantasy. “I’m not really allowed,” he says. “After all, it’s not the best image to have the guy who tests the machine stand next to you at the table and make a killing while you are losing your shirt.”