Harrah’s: First in Casino Industry to Combat Problem Gambling, by Hana Gutierrez

Early hand-drawn illustrations from Harrah’s underage gaming prevention program from Harrah's Entertainment Corporate Archives. MS-00460. Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Early hand-drawn illustrations from Harrah’s underage gaming prevention program. Harrah’s Entertainment Corporate Archives, 1811-2004. MS-00460. Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The Harrah’s Entertainment Corporate Archives (MS-00460) contains the promotional and corporate files of Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. and its predecessors, as well as Bill Harrah’s personal papers and card game collection. The archives is accessible at UNLV Libraries, and documents the development of the Harrah’s hotel and casino empire, especially from 1940 to 2000. UNLV Libraries Special Collections and Archives staff are completing the processing of this collection thanks to a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). In this collection, researchers will find information about Harrah’s brand companies, employees, advertisement campaigns, and William Harrah himself.

The Harrah’s brand is known in the casino industry for being the first to make efforts to combat problem gaming. Problem gambling, colloquially known as compulsive gaming or “at risk” gaming is formally defined as a gambling disorder in the American Psychiatric Association diagnostic manual, the DSM-V. The disorder is characterized by a variety of symptoms including preoccupation with gambling, chasing losses, and lying to family and others about gambling (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). In the 1980s Harrah’s initiated a study of compulsive gamblers. This study would be Harrah’s first step in managing problem gambling. It would eventually lead to Harrah’s assisting the National Council on Problem Gambling with the creation of the first national problem gaming hotline in 1995.

Before the 1980s however, Harrah’s did not have a program for problem gambling. In the 1968 version of the Harrah’s brand employee handbook, the only customer-employee interaction with specified conduct is tipping. Employees are advised to avoid favoritism towards customers that are known for tipping and to comply with the Federal Government’s regulations on reporting tips. The only Harrah’s programs specified in the manual are a Wage and Salary program and a Clothing Program. These programs are not related to customer-employee interaction however, they refer to how pay shall be merit based and the clothing program refers to how employees should present themselves while at work.

Graphics from Harrah’s Project 21/18. Employees unsure of a patron's age are advised to look for signs such as “excessive makeup” or “immature facial hair.” Harrah’s Entertainment Corporate Archives, 1811-2004. MS-00460. Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

After contributing to the study of problem gambling in the 1980s and helping to establish a national problem gambling hotline in the 1990s, Harrah’s developed an in-house program to deal with problem gaming and underage gambling. In the 2000s Harrah’s implemented an industry model for casino problem gaming, with the programs Harrah’s Project 21/18 and Operation Bet Smart. The focus of Project 21/18 was to stop underage gaming. Harrah’s employees went to mandatory training courses where they were taught signals that could indicate that a patron was underage. They were taught common excuses to be wary of that may indicate if a person is under 21, or the legal gaming age in that area, and what forms of ID should be considered reliable for determining age. Employees are also provided with conversation starters to help them ask a patron for a form of ID if they suspect they are under the legal gaming age. In addition to deterring underage gamblers, the program was used to secure the casino floors and ensure minors and patrons’ children were not left unattended in the casino. 

In addition to Harrah’s Project 21/18, Harrah’s implemented the program Operation Bet Smart to combat problem gambling issues. The goal of the Bet Smart program was to help customers understand when their gambling habits ranged outside of an “appropriate” level and to assist Harrah’s employees in detecting customers that may have gambling problems. The Bet Smart campaign provided information pamphlets and phone numbers for national problem gambling resources. Additionally, the program had a self-exclusion policy program. Under the self-exclusion program, a customer could voluntarily sign a form to bar them from the premises of all Harrah’s casinos or from playing any games. It could also bar them from check-cashing privileges or promotional mailing lists. The exclusion from the premises could be indefinite or for a set period of time.

Operation Bet Smart poster. Harrah’s Entertainment Corporate Archives, 1811-2004. MS-00460. Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Harrah’s was part of a larger trend in the casino industry with the implementation of self-exclusion programs. Since the early 2000s, self-exclusion programs are the most popular and widely employed tools to deal with problem gaming throughout the casino industry. The programs originated from ejection policies that were designed to forcibly remove unruly guests from casinos (Gainsbury, 2013). Unlike these ejection policies, self-exclusion policies allow for patrons to actively participate in the managing of problem gambling rather than placing responsibility solely on the employees. While self-exclusion programs are very popular, they operate under a state of assumed effectiveness and have not undergone extensive testing. The programs often carry a large amount of embarrassment and stigma in enrollment alone. Additionally the primary method to identify persons in the program is picture match identification. This compromises any privacy those within the program have (Gainsbury, 2013). While self-exclusion programs are an important step to deter problem gambling these programs need further evaluation to become more effective.

Operation Bet Smart and Project 21/18 are just two examples of how Harrah’s led the way in innovation in the casino industry. We invite researchers to come to the UNLV Special Collections and Archives to look at the Harrah’s Entertainment Corporate Archives and learn more about Harrah’s industry innovations. In this collection researchers will be able to find additional materials about Operation Bet Smart and Project 21/18 such as pamphlets, posters, and training manuals. Researchers can additionally find information on Harrah’s stock performance, casino community reports, and company newsletters dating to as early as 1965. The Harrah’s Entertainment Corporate Archives will provide researchers with a unique opportunity to study the US casino industry from the perspective of one of its most prominent corporate players.

Hana Gutierrez is a recent graduate of UNLV’s Department of Psychology and one of the archival processors who arranged and described Harrah’s Entertainment Archives as part of the NHPRC grant-funded project “America’s Great Gamble.”


  • Gainsbury, Sally. 2014. "Review of Self-exclusion from Gambling Venues as an Intervention for Problem Gambling." Journal Of Gambling Studies 30, no. 2: 229-251. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed July 12, 2017).
  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.

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