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Nevadan at Work: To professor, casinos act as lab for studying motivations

Attending Harvard University gave Bo Bernhard new appreciation for Las Vegas.

Bernhard was captain of the Harvard baseball team in the mid-1990s when one of his professors attended a game. When the instructor heard the name of Bernhard's hometown mentioned during player introductions, he came up with the topic for his student's honors thesis: "The Impact of the Gaming Industry on the Lives of Las Vegas Residents."

Bernhard said many of his friends at the Cambridge, Mass., university didn't realize people actually lived in Las Vegas.

"I spent a lot of time telling people that my mother wasn't a showgirl and my father wasn't a mafia don," Bernhard said. "I grew up playing Little League baseball and going to Rebel basketball games. It was comical to everyone that I went to Bonanza High School, which they thought was the perfect name for my hometown."

Bernhard's professor challenged the student to go deep in writing and researching the paper.

While he now calls the research paper "awful" and "would be embarrassed if it surfaced," Bernhard said his interest in the subject matter helped push him into the world of academic research.

Today, Bernhard is executive director of the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which is part of the Harrah's Hotel College. The Institute is a nonprofit center that offers research and educational programs for the global gaming industry.

Bernhard, who graduated with a sociology degree from Harvard and earned his doctorate from UNLV, said he can't think of a better place than Las Vegas for a person who has made a career out of watching people and trying to understand the habits of gamblers.

Before becoming executive director last November, Bernhard spent 15 years as the institute's research director, overseeing more than $1 million in grant-funded research projects ranging from the socioeconomic impacts of gaming to the biological drivers of gambling behavior. Bernhard has lectured on his research on six continents and has addressed regulatory, government and gaming policy leaders.

But the simplicity of just watching gamblers -- in Las Vegas and international markets -- and trying to understand their habits is what drives Bernhard.

"It's one of the areas that fascinates me," Bernhard said. "One of the themes in a class I teach is how every community, every culture, and every jurisdiction has its own unique relationship with the gambling act."

Bernhard's roots in gaming run deep. His father, Las Vegas attorney Peter Bernhard, has been chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission since 2001. Father and son share something else in common; Peter Bernhard was also captain of the Harvard baseball team that went on to play in the College World Series.

Question: What interested you about gambling research?

Answer: I've always been interested in why people do what they do, and especially why people gamble, from both the molecular and global perspective. There are molecular reasons because it has something to do with the pleasure centers in the brain. There are global reasons and there are macroeconomic. There are the societal notions of risk and trying to get something more easily than society offers. We are taught to work hard and gradually obtain goods. But gambling offers a different path. I tell my students to look at the big-picture reasons, but also try and understand the large and small reasons as well.

Question: What is some advice you give students who are interested in gambling research?

Answer: We live in the largest gambling laboratory in the world. A sociologist who studies gambling in Las Vegas is probably like being a physicist and living in a vacuum. I tell all my students to sit on a bench and watch all the humanity. That's why market research firms like to come to Las Vegas. In an hour and a half, they can meet 40 people from 40 countries and states. Humanity comes here.

Question: What do you look for when you walk onto a casino floor?

Answer: You're struck by the similarities and differences in various markets. Las Vegas is a sea of slot machines with a smattering of table games. Macau is a sea of table games with a smattering of slot machines. As a social scientist, you watch the different behaviors. In Macau, no one is consuming alcohol. There is always a calculus going on, where gamblers are demonstrating math skills while hoping to be smiled upon by the gods of chance. What's fascinating is to contrast the Chinese gambler against the American or European gambler.

Question: You recently authored a report that said Las Vegas could learn much from Houston. How?

Answer: Houston suffered a downturn when its main economy, oil production, moved overseas and became a global industry. The slump ended when Houston began exporting its intellectual capital.

Las Vegas could do the same thing as gaming becomes more international. In some ways, our companies are already doing that. Las Vegas can become the global command center of the international gaming industry. One way you do that is education. Of course, I'm completely biased but the gaming institute can play a leading role in this transformation.

Question: Have you ever considered working in the gaming industry?

Answer: I've been approached on two occasions with some very generous offers. This may sound corny, but I'm a teacher and that's what appeals to me.

Question: Do you gamble?

Answer: I'm a huge sports fan and I do enjoy sports betting. Of course, when friends come into town, we go out to the Strip.

Question: The first executive director of the institute was the late gaming figure Shannon Bybee, who your father refers to as one of his mentors. Was he your mentor also?

Answer: He was my professor and he was a great educator. I was hired as the research director under him. I took every course from him that I could. He was a mentor figure to me much in the same way he was to my dad. Now I have his position, which is pretty humbling.

Question: What type of conversations do you have with your father about gaming?

Answer: They are very general as opposed to specific. Regulators and academics have much in common. We are charged with weighing evidence, taking in all the information and arriving at a better place. My dad is somebody who can cut through all the information and weigh it like a good judge. Actually, most of our conversations are about baseball.

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.

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