Abarbanel helping IGI at UNLV keep up with the changes in technology

Abarbanel helping IGI at UNLV keep up with the changes in technology

January 10, 2017 3:01 AM
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Technology is changing the gaming industry rapidly.

Brett Abarbanel’s job is to make sure the International Gaming Institute (IGI) at UNLV never falls behind through all of these changes.

“One of our main missions is to be a leader in gambling research, education and innovation,” said Abarbanel, in her first year as the research director for IGI. “We’re really working hard to make sure that we stay at the forefront. We want to be a big part of the gaming innovation.”

Abarbanel’s interest in the industry goes back to having grown up less than a mile from the Del Mar horse racing track near San Diego. She received a bachelor’s degree in statistics from Brown University, an Ivy League school in Providence, R.I., but returned home and worked as an intern at Del Mar for two summers during college.

“I sought it out because I found it interesting,” she said. “I thought it was a really neat application of the statistics major.”

Her favorite part of the job was spending time in the press box, including during the early morning workouts for the horses. Abarbanel even wrote a senior thesis on predicting the results of races.

“It was a pretty successful algorithm, but only for very specific types of races,” she said. “For mid-range allowance races, it was very good.”

While in college, Abarbanel also got involved in some poker games. She used the money she made on the side grading math papers for her initial bankroll.

“It’s a type of critical thinking that I really enjoy,” Abarbanel said of her interest in picking horses and playing poker. “It’s a fun mental exercise.”

She said she doesn’t have much time for either hobby these days, which she admitted “bums me out.”

Abarbanel moved to Las Vegas with her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Jared Okun, because he wanted to be a professional poker player. Okun has competed in the World Series of Poker tournament, but he’s been spending more time day trading lately.

After earning a master’s degree in hotel administration in 2009 and a Ph.D. in hospitality administration in 2013, both from UNLV, Abarbanel spent three years in Los Angeles as a research scientist at UCLA. She returned to Las Vegas and took over the research job at IGI in August. She’s also an assistant professor in the hotel school at UNLV, not to mention continuing a research role at UCLA that finds her back in Los Angeles for a week every couple months.

“It’s been non-stop and wonderful,” Abarbanel said.

IGI, located less than two miles from the Strip in the Stan Fulton Building, is planning to renovate its casino lab to convert part of the room into a space that can be used for eSports competitions, observation and research.

The growing popularity of the eSports video game industry “has been a huge hot topic” in the gaming world, Abarbanel said.

“It was the catalyst for change,” she said of the renovation plans.

IGI has already started a project examining problem and responsible gambling among eSports enthusiasts. The new lab set-up will help show how to integrate eSports into casino environments, which likely will happen in the very near future.

“Las Vegas has in some ways, through trying but also in some ways without even trying, become a little hub for eSports events,” Abarbanel said. “I think we’re really building toward that.

“The Internet is always going to be the global hub for eSports simply because this is a phenomenon that takes place so much online. But it would be neat to be the city that is the first one on everybody’s list when they talk about bringing in eSports events.”

Among the other projects IGI is currently working on is a comparison of gambling trends in different cultures around the world, especially between Las Vegas and Macau, China.

“We seek out academic grants,” Abarbanel said. “We work with private industry if they have research questions where they want an objective source like a university to find an answer for them.”

Abarbanel also serves as the executive editor for the UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal, which is published twice a year and available online at http://digitalscholarship.unlv.edu/grrj/.

The topics range from research on policy to research on problem gambling to research on the industry in general, or, as Abarbanel said, research on “anything that is in some way related to gambling.”