The VT Interview With David G. Schwartz, UNLV Gaming Historian

Cutting the Wire and Rolling Bones in Suburban Xanadu

Posted by Chuckmonster

VT: After reading your book and other writings/presentations you've given, I'm curious to better understand your love/contempt relationship with Las Vegas' gaming industry. Shortly after finishing your Ph. D., Suburban Xanadu: The Casino Resort on the Las Vegas Strip 1945-1978 was published (in a spiffy pink cover) and has since become a must-read document on the history of the Las Vegas Strip and the rise of the gaming entertainment industry.

With all this fascination and effort in understanding and documenting the history of Las Vegas, i'm surprised to see that a large chunk of your writings and interviews cast the gaming industry in suspicious light. We are aware that life is full of contradictions, but are curious if you can distill for us the positron and negatron forces that draw and repel you so deeply into and against the "Suburban Xanadu" of Las Vegas?

DS: I need to borrow some carny terminology here (after all, Steve Wynn called the Strip the biggest carnival pitch in the world). I understand the industry, and I'm occasionally impressed by it, but I'm not a mark for it. I understand that its a business, not a charity. I think casino execs would be the first to tell you that. I'm fascinated by the lure that gambling has for millions of people: they know the odds are against them, but they continue to play. A lot of my attitude probably comes from my work experiences: after seeing thousands of hours of gambling, there's not too much that can inspire awe. In general, though, I think its a business like any other, with some things that are praise-worthy, others that are not so exemplary.

VT: Is this philosophical dichotomy a microcosmic example of the continuing struggle between academia (Gaming Studies) and entertainment (the rush of Vegas)?

DS: There's a definite tension there--I've gotten flak from academics because I "support gambling." In fact, I strive to be really balanced. Maybe if I hadn't grown up in Atlantic City, it would be easy for me to make reductionist arguments about "the sinister gambling interests," but I've seen too much of the industry to think that there are easy answers. I see my job as a historian as telling the story of gambling's past: how did it get the way it is today. I'm not supposed to pass judgement.

VT: Is it possible for you to enjoy the gaming industry as a consumer as opposed to a sociologist/historian - can you drop your day job and play some craps, go to a show, lounge by a pool with Pina Colada in hand?

DS: At this stage, I think it's impossible. If I may, I think there's a story about W.C. Fields that's applicable. When he was young, he worked on the Atlantic City beach as a professional drowner. Basically, he would wander out into the surf and pretend to drown. Some passers-by would heroically rescue him, and he'd suggest that to celebrate they go to a nearby bar. He was basically a shill for the bar. Years later, he had a mansion with a huge pool, and someone asked him whether he swam. "Once you've done it for money, it's no fun," he replied. That's how I feel about gaming, personally. Maybe if I hadn't spent a year watching people play blackjack at 4 in the morning, I'd be able to get psyched about playing. Plus, I think I'm more in the mold of the old time "gamblers," like Arnold Rothstein, who didn't like to gamble unless it was a sure thing. There's no such thing as a sure thing in honest play, so I don't gamble. I still really like the energy sometimes, though. There's something about the sound of the casino floor that is almost theraputic for me. It's comforting to know that, no matter what happens, the games go on.

VT: As a historian, do you find it difficult to be objective when critiquing local gaming properties for fear of losing whatever "access" you may have as a respected documentarian of the gaming industry (in much the same way the White House press corps refuses to challenge the current Administration or the recent Vanity Fair spat related to the opening of the Wynn Las Vegas)?

DS: Not at all. I've had this discussion with some people in the industry, and I think that they know that I'm a responsible researcher. If I say something, it's got to be based on real research. While they may disagree with my analysis, they can't deny that the methodology itself is fair. I think that fairness is very important. I've read a lot of "academic" work on gambling that is remarkably biased. Some people just start out with the perception that gambling=bad. I tend to think that it's a neutral. I think that as long as I make clear where I draw my conclusions from, I'll maintain my credibility in the industry.

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damn good interview.

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