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Francesco Rodano: “I like to imagine a future without problem gambling. Scheinberg among those who I admire the most”

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Continuing our series of interviews on ‘responsible gaming’ topics, today we have the privilege to get some insights from a real institution of the gambling industry: Francesco Rodano.

For the few who are unfamiliar with his name, Francesco Rodano is the former director of AAMS (the Italian gambling regulatory authority), and currently holds a prominent role as Chief Policy Officer at Playtech. While at AAMS, Rodano reformed the Italian regulatory framework and oversaw the introduction of regulated online products, such as poker in 2008 and casino games in 2011, making Italy a successful case-study for other regulators whose countries were soon to be regulated.

Without further ado, here’s our full Q&As with mr Rodano:

  • Francesco, what is your personal relationship with gambling?
    FR: I have always seen as a fun pastime. I was born in Italy, where, at Christmas time, it is a very old tradition for family members of all ages to play some card games and tombola (the Italian version of bingo) among them. I am a very moderate gambler and do it for fun. I sometimes gamble online, and I don’t dislike visiting a casino and playing a few slots if there happens to be one in a place I am travelling to.
  • From a customer perspective, what is your favourite product?
    FR: I prefer slots, especially the modern hyper-technological ones that can be found in the big casinos, and which give you an “immersive” and quite entertaining experience.
  • What do you like the most about the gambling industry?
    FR: Like in all industries, there are great people around, from whom I can learn every day. I also like the challenges that this industry faces, being subject to an intense public scrutiny, and the possibility to use the technology to try to address the concerns and the issues that affect it.
  • And what don’t you like about the gambling industry?
    FR: Sometimes gambling companies tend to be particularly short-term oriented, by trying to maximise their profits as quick as possible, at the expense of the sustainability of the industry in the long-term, which would be bolstered by a more genuine approach to responsible gambling.
  • Who left the strongest impression on you professionally, and why?
    FR: I was fortunate to interact with so many people, most of which indeed left a mark on me. I’d like to mention just a few industry executives who, for different reasons, have shaped and are shaping the gambling sector: Isai Scheinberg, the founder of Pokerstars, who managed to create an online empire around a card game; Phil Cronin, the founder and CEO of Tombola, who devoted its professional life to bingo in the most passionate way; Richard Flint, the former CEO of SkyBet, whose vision about the long-term sustainability of the industry is unrivalled; Mor Weizer, the CEO of Playtech, who is the reason why I wanted to work for this company.
  • If there was some feeling or behaviour you could change in every person, what would it be?
    FR: It may seem trivial, but I would abolish anger. I struggle to think of examples in which anger actually helps achieve something. I am (probably naively) convinced that, without anger, most of the world’s problems would disappear.
  • What do you want your legacy to be?
    FR: First, as one who tried hard to be a good father, husband and citizen. Professionally, as someone who approached the regulation of a very controversial sector with an open mind and without prejudices, always willing to listen to and understand all the different opinions, even the most critical ones.
  • What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
    FR: Helping build a gambling regulatory framework in Italy which could balance the diverging views of the many relevant stakeholders, at a time when there were no other international examples to follow. Being patient and at times overcome frustration was particularly challenging, since the full regulation of the Italian online gambling market took more than 10 years.
  • What do you think will be the next big break-through in the gambling industry?
    FR: The use of Artificial Intelligence and technology in general to detect possibly risky behaviours at a very early stage and to interact with players so to educate and guide them. I imagine a future when gambling will just be associated to entertainment.
  • How do you see the future of casinos and sport betting in the long term?
    FR: Casinos and sports betting haven’t changed much in the last 20 years. Roulettes are roulettes, slots still have spinning reels, and betting just evolved towards in-play and mobile. I guess that in 20 years there will be more technology involved, which will further improve and update the entertainment component in line with the evolution of the consumers’ tastes and preferences.
  • Can you imagine a future without gambling?
    FR: Gambling is as old as the history of humanity and I am sure it will always be part of people’s lives. There are several theories about why people like to gamble, but ultimately it provides entertainment to millions and millions of individuals. I like to imagine a future without problem gambling, instead, and am confident that technology and research will make it possible.
  • Do you think companies should do more in the field of Responsible Gaming?
    FR: Most definitely. Over the last years there has been a lot of academic research on problem gambling, the causes and the possible ways and tools to minimise and eventually prevent it. Nevertheless, there still seems to be some reluctance from all companies to proactively experiment those tools, and, most importantly, to share the results of their own research with the rest of the industry. This is, I believe, due to extreme competition, costs issues and maybe the legacy of the “.com” era. Regulators, especially in the most mature markets like the UK, are trying to encourage the industry to be more effective, but without a genuine and indeed proactive commitment there is the risk that the public perception of the sector will further worsen in the future.
  • Several countries are shifting toward stricter regulations. Do you think the trend will continue?
    FR: Unless there is a change a pace in the industry approach towards responsible gambling, restrictions will be the only policy tool that governments use to try to quickly and visibly address the growing public concern. Unfortunately, I am afraid that those won’t solve the problem, as they risk pushing players back to the unregulated sector, where no control nor enforcement can be carried out by the State.
  • Do you think gambling ban is a solution for tackling gambling addiction?
    FR: I don’t think so. It would just steer vulnerable people towards the illegal gambling offer, which, as mentioned, cannot be controlled or educated. It would also remove an activity that is enjoyed responsibly by the vast majority of players. The usual comparison is with alcohol: enjoyed by most consumers, a serious problem for some, prohibition did not work.
  • So how can long term sustainability be achieved?
    FR: The first internet browser appeared in 1994, immediately followed by the first online casino, years before the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook were launched. The use of internet for gambling was inevitable, given the natural demand for this service. But I firmly believe that internet is more an opportunity than a threat when it comes to protecting vulnerable individuals. Unlike retail gambling, online gambling is not anonymous, and nowadays identification procedures are more and more sophisticated and effective. A correct identification let operators (and regulators) to precisely track all players’ gambling activity, which, in turn, allows them to detect and even predict the onset of risky behaviours. Artificial intelligence is proving very helpful in performing this kind of monitoring. In the future, AI could be also used to interact with those players in a personalised and efficient way, for instance by employing chatbots or conversational agents that use cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to teach people to identify, question, and change their thoughts and behaviours related to gambling. The use of CBT in problem gambling treatment is being studied, for instance, by The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada with promising results.
  • If you had one sentence to convince world leaders to legalize gambling in their country, what would you tell them?
    FR: Let your citizens, who are already gambling illegally, do it in plain sight, so that you can better protect the vulnerable ones.
  • What would you tell young talents that are thinking to start a career in the industry?
    FR: Be prepared to face a lot of – often justified – criticism from the wider society and use your talent and fresh ideas to improve the industry from the inside, driving it to a more sustainable and responsible way of doing business.
  • What would you tell your teenager child if you notice they start to show excitement toward gambling?
    FR: I would explain him that, while gambling is not negative per se, for some people it may transform into a very serious issue. I would show him some videos about stories of problem gambling and advise him to way until he turns 18 before trying to understand better himself and his own attitude towards gambling.
  • What advice would you give to current gamblers?
    FR: Every now and then take the time to ask yourself, seriously, if you really have fun while gambling. If you don’t have a clear and unambiguous answer to that question, seek advice, talk to someone, even a friend. Also, set your spending and time limits when you head is cool, and stick to it.
  • Thank you very much for your time, Francesco!
    FR: My pleasure, thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts!

Maurizio Savino