Former Nevada Senator Harry Reid's Death Signals Transition Of U.S. Gambling Into Digital Age

January 4, 2022
The U.S. gaming industry is unlikely to ever have a more powerful government official as its advocate and defender than former U.S. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, who died of pancreatic cancer on December 28, just after his 82nd birthday.


The U.S. gaming industry is unlikely to ever have a more powerful government official as its advocate and defender than former U.S. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, who died of pancreatic cancer on December 28, just after his 82nd birthday.

Yet shortly before his retirement five years ago, Reid issued a warning about the gambling industry.

“I’m not sure it’s good for America or the world to have all this spread of gambling,” Reid told VIXIO GamblingCompliance in October 2016.

Reid cited a study showing the poor are more likely to gamble while governments and casino companies reap the benefits.

“That pretty well sums it up, doesn’t it?” he said.

A former chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, Reid never was convinced that internet gambling could be regulated effectively.

His death came at the end of a year which began with the death of another historic gambling figure, Las Vegas Sands CEO and chairman Sheldon Adelson, who spent billions in an unsuccessful campaign to outlaw gambling on the internet and targeted Reid as the pivotal congressional champion on the effort.

A reasonable argument can be made that the deaths of Reid and Adelson mark the end of an era when titans of brick-and-mortar casinos dominated the gaming industry.

Whoever fills that vacuum seems far more likely to come from the digital gaming market than land-based casinos.

The relationship between Reid and Frank Fahrenkopf, the man who founded the American Gaming Association in 1995 and served as its CEO for 18 years, was beyond remarkable.

Both endured difficult childhoods and played high-school baseball against each other in Nevada before coming to Washington, D.C. to become two of the most powerful figures in the nation’s capital.

Even though Reid was a Democrat and Fahrenkopf was a prominent Republican, they collaborated when Congress established the National Gambling Impact Study Commission in 1996 to conduct a two-year investigation of the gaming industry.

“I went to Harry immediately,” Fahrenkopf said. “The original legislation would have provided that they could have subpoenaed all the records of all our customers, and I said, ‘We can’t allow that.’”

Fahrenkopf and Reid also stifled the influence of anti-gambling members of the commission by successfully lobbying for the appointment of other members familiar with the casino industry such as Bill Bible, then chairman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

As a result, the commission’s report in 1999 is considered an insignificant relic which almost no-one remembers.

Democratic U.S. Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada, who joined Reid and Fahrenkopf in the lobbying campaign against the federal gambling commission, said those were the days when Nevada was considered “a pariah state” because it was the only one with legal and regulated gambling.

The task fell on Reid, Bryan and the rest of Nevada’s relatively small congressional delegation to protect gaming, which remains Nevada’s number one industry even as expansion to other states continues at a breakneck pace.

Almost by definition, a Nevada lawmaker supports the gambling industry, and the tradition began with Pat McCarran who was elected to the U.S. Senate one year after Nevada legalized gambling on March 19, 1931.

For years, Reid supported changing the name of McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas because of McCarran’s anti-semitic views.

On December 14, two weeks before Reid’s death, the name of the airport was officially changed to Harry Reid International Airport.

A former boxer with a bit of a mean streak, Reid reveled in his reputation as a political brawler.

He acknowledged threatening officials at banks and financial institutions in 2009 during the Great Recession to secure $1.2bn required to salvage CityCenter, a struggling MGM Resorts International development on the Las Vegas Strip.

“I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for those conversations,” said Joe Asher, president of sports-betting operations at IGT and a seasoned Nevada sports-betting executive.

Jim Murren, who was then chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts, was so grateful that he endorsed Reid for re-election in 2010 even though Murren was a Republican.

“MGM marquees publicly thanked Reid for his support during his re-election campaign, and that told you that the bosses understood what he had done,” said Michael Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

Green said Reid’s record on the environment will continue to yield benefits for Nevada’s gaming industry.

For example, Reid helped Nevada increase federally protected land in the state from 70,000 acres to more than 3.4m acres for national parks and recreation areas.

“As gambling has migrated into a lot more jurisdictions, Nevada has had to compete by offering something more,” Green said.

“The state long has promoted its natural wonders, and without Reid, we would have far fewer of those wonders.”

Green said Reid’s tenure as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, which was featured in the 1995 Martin Scorsese movie “Casino,” helped purge organized crime from gambling.

“As chair, Reid had to make or guide decisions that were very difficult. He faced public criticism and a lot of death threats,” Green said.

“He stuck with it … and Nevada and the gaming industry were better off for it,” Green said.

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