Sometimes I think it was inevitable that I ended up in the gambling industry, or more commonly referred to as the gaming industry. A term that has brought mass confusion since video gaming became a thing.
I grew up in New Brunswick with tales of my Grandfather (Charlie), and his brother disappearing for two day card games. I recall stories of winning various odd items including livestock (Granddad didn’t have a farm) and a small plane (he didn’t fly). I don’t recall hearing stories of losses, but I’m sure there were plenty to be had. One story in particular that stands out is they won a horse during a poker game. At this time, my Grandfather lived in a downtown house with no facilities for livestock. The horse roamed the backyard and was welcome in to the kitchen, much to the chagrin of my Grandmother. This turned out to be the first horse of many. The family eventually moved to a farm and continued to amass horses. The family eventually getting in to equestrian riding and harness racing.
I believe many of those card games took place at a gentleman’s club called the City Club. A facility where business owners gathered to drink whiskey and undoubtedly get away from their families. This likely sounds terrible to many but this was late 70’s/early 80’s, it was a different time. An era much more closer to “Mad Men” then you would think the 80’s would be. Although children were generally discouraged from being at this club, on occasion my sister, cousin and myself were invited in. You could only leave your kids in the car so long, even in the 80’s. These were always magical days for us. There was a huge banquet room with a giant TV (maybe 25″) which had all the channels (about 13). Compared to our 19″ TV at home with 2 channels, this was heaven for an 80’s kid. There were also various games like bar top shuffleboard that kept us busy. Most intriguing to me was the games room. A small room in the back that had a handful of slot machines. Our goal as kids was to have as much fun as we could on these special days without being seen or heard by the “grumpy old businessmen”. One day when I was about 5 or 6, there must have been some credits left in one of these slot machines. My cousin and I, enamoured by the flashing lights, were randomly hitting some buttons. Suddenly, coins started falling out of the machine, loudly clanging against the metal tray. We had never seen so much money in our lives. In retrospect, it was likely about $10 in quarters. To our small minds, it seemed like a massive treasure. Needless to say, our goal of being unseen and unheard was a failure. Some old guys came in to investigate the noise. It was all a bit surreal for me and certainly led to many questions. I had never seen a machine just give out money as ATMs were still a few years off. Sadly, they didn’t let us keep the money and I think we were in some mild trouble for playing in the games room but the flashing lights and sound of coins falling from heaven, stuck with me.
I spent much of my youth on Thursdays and weekends at the harness racing track. Gramps would drive his car right up to the track with the rest of the horse owners. My Mom would occasionally sell tickets and my Dad was the photographer that took pictures of the winning horses. With everyone busy, us kids would often wander the stables, sometimes watch the races and spend countless hours picking up losing ticket stubs. The excitement of horses running around the track, the jubilation, or cursing of the winners and losers are sights that I’ll never forget. Perhaps the most fun were the celebrations in the stables whenever one of “our” horses won. Everyone enjoying themselves, drinking some beers and congratulating our jockey, “Johnny”. Christmas break was often spent in Florida where my Grandparents wintered, racing the horses at Pompano to escape the Canadian winter and the short track season we had.
My last trip to the track was when I was 14. I had moved to Ontario by then and was back visiting the family for a couple of weeks in the Summer. My cousin (12) and I realized that for the first time, we could actually bet on the horses. The betting age was 14. Like I said, it was a different time. We had little luck for most of the program but in race 7, hit a trifecta (they called a triactor) and turned $2 in to $400 and change. Once again, it was my cousin and myself striking it rich, further cementing my love of horse racing and gambling.
A couple of years earlier, I was visiting my other Grandparents in Nova Scotia. They were both heavily involved with the local legion and my Grandmother was a mainstay at the weekly bingo night they had. The minimum age for playing Bingo at the time was 12 so instead of leaving me home alone, I was dragged to Bingo and given a few cards to dab away at. Midway through the night, I won not one, but two full card jackpots in a row, totaling almost $600. Collecting my cash to the jeers of dozens of angry older women was both scary and exhilarating. I used the funds to buy a high-end walkman on my way back to Fredericton. I probably pissed the rest away on candy and coca-cola. Perhaps this is when my affinity for gaming was born…
I lived my teen years in Thunder Bay, Ontario. A nice place in the Summer. That’s all I have to say about that.
At the age of 14, I got a job working at a bingo hall. Mostly selling coffee and snacks but occasionally selling bingo cards as well. The best nights were when somebody won on a card that you sold them and kindly gave you $10 or $20 to share their winnings. It wasn’t quite gambling as I never had to put anything in but my time, but the rush of winning was the same.
When I was 16, I was finally able to drive and afforded the freedoms that came with it. My buddies and I would frequently miss a bit of school and drive down to Grand Portage, Minnesota. It was about a half hour drive from Thunder Bay and there was a border casino there. The gambling age at the time was 16 and we would head down for a couple of hours in the afternoon and play the slots. We were still too inexperienced to try the table games. Occasionally we would hit for a couple of hundred dollars. Our goal was always to win enough to buy our girlfriends something nice on the way back home. Looking back now, the fact that a few high school kids could drive across the border and legally gamble astounds me. In this post-911 world, such things would never happen.
After high school, I moved to British Columbia. I came out for the Summer with plans to move back, but the beautiful BC landscape and climate seduced me. With little plans after high school, I ended up in an IT program at the local university. IT was hot at the time with the tech boom looming and it seemed like a reasonable way to make a decent living. Being in a tech program during the advent of the Web, I was a pretty early adopter to what we now just call the internet. I’d wager I was one of the first few thousand, perhaps hundred people to ever try an online casino. Khanawake was early in their efforts to become an online gaming powerhouse and some admittedly dodgy online casinos began operating from there. I had my first taste and scare of online casinos when I won a paltry sum of about $120. Deciding not to press my luck on a questionable site, I tried to cash out via cheque. It took two months and many emails with support to get that money, although it did finally arrive. I quickly learned that online casinos were going to be huge. And that there would be many shady ones.
One of the largest employers in town was the provincial lottery corporation. A government owned entity that conducts the lottery in the province. Lotteries, although considered gambling, never excited me too much. However, this company was interesting as it had recently been put in charge of all gambling in the province. Including land-based casinos, bingo halls and of course, lottery. During university, it was always my goal to work for the lottery corporation. Instead, fate plunged me in to a tech job at a very large forestry company in town. I spent the first five years of my career doing various roles for this 40,000+ employee company. Starting in their Canadian head office working on the Order/Invoice system and eventually moving to system administration, server and desktop support and culminating in web development. I was offered a position in the US to be a founding member of the newly formed eCommerce team but decided to stay in Kamloops and thus, looking for a job. The lottery company had recruited me about a year earlier but at the time, they unfortunately couldn’t match my current salary. This time, I approached them and was able to negotiate a lateral move. Although I wasn’t making any more, I was staying where I wanted and was finally in the gambling field. My timing could not have been better as the lottery itself was beginning to work on offering online gambling and I was able to get in on the ground floor.
I was lucky enough to be a founding member of what we called the eGaming team. Our mandate was to bring gaming online in British Columbia. We started slow by offering various lottery games on the web and quickly accelerated to offering various games such as Bingo, Table Games, Slots, Mobile and eventually, networked poker in conjunction with other Canadian lotteries. I was able to spend the better part of a decade at the centre of the most advanced, government regulated online gaming in North America. An achievement that still stands today. No online gambling venture sanctioned by the host government has been as successful in North America as British Columbia. They truly are a team of innovators. During this decade, I was able to travel to Europe on a number of occasions as the Europeans have consistently embraced online gaming and have fantastic regulatory frameworks in place. I was also able to work with a number of online gaming companies throughout this period and made many friends along the way. The gambling industry truly is something special and an industry where there are more “frenimies” than true competitors as almost everyone ends up working together at some point.
During this time, like many, I was enamoured with the poker boom. I played a lot of online poker. Diverting myself from Sunday football to use up my qualifiers in the big PokerStars or FullTilt tournaments. Poker was always good to me and I vastly enjoyed the time I played. But, it eventually started to become a bit robotic and work-like and after Black Friday, the contests were never the same. The events that took place leading up to that day were further proof that any form of online gambling needs to be highly regulated. With gambling, there is too much money at stake to not have impartial regulators.
It was in late 2012 that I decided that I had given all I had in advancing online gaming in British Columbia. Although the team continued to innovate, I felt that I had more to offer by expanding my personal scope. So in early 2013, myself and a few others from the gaming industry started Open Gaming Solutions. Our goal was to offer online gaming services to regulated jurisdictions. We bring startup methodology to the gambling world and strive to turn new gaming ideas to proto-types within weeks and to money making products shortly after. Our fail-fast approach was created based on our own failings in the past, where new ideas required brand new development and painfully long development and certification cycles. We envisioned a multi-use platform that facilitates rapid development of new games with minimal re-certification time and expense. The past 5 years have been an amazing journey. We utilized our platform to ingrain ourselves in the growing fantasy sports industry and to become a global leader in white-label fantasy sports solutions. We have worked with most of the largest gambling technology providers in the world and are consistently on the forefront of new development in the gaming space.
My journey in gaming is a tale 30 years in the making and I can honestly say, I’ve loved every minute of it. I realised that it is part of my core being and will always have some part of my life. I rarely gamble much these days, limiting myself to some season-long fantasy sports and hitting the tables a few times a year in Vegas or at a local casino. But I still feel the same level of exhilaration that I always have.
I tell this tale to kick off my blog as I wanted to truly reflect on my long history with gambling. Some may take the moral of this story is that you should keep your kids away from gambling and that the age limits when I was a kid were far too low. This is probably good advice. It’s hard to say where I would have ended up without that exposure. However, my Grandfather lived a good life and I have lived a good life. Gambling in one form or another has sustained my wonderful family for the past 25 years. Gambling is as old as time and people will always wager when there can be multiple outcomes. The act is not a sin, but to gamble recklessly is. So always gamble responsibly and never bet more than you can afford to lose. Good luck at the tables.