Designing Games in Las Vegas Pays Off

By Alaina G. Levine

Olaf V web

Olaf Vancura
Lady Luck doesn’t always smile on physicists, but for Olaf Vancura, she not only grinned, she handed him the jackpot.

In the early 1990s, Vancura, whose PhD in physics is from Johns Hopkins University, was minding his own business probing the dawn of matter and time as a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). He enjoyed his cosmic endeavors, but was also titillated by casino games, brought on by a lifelong interest in cards and card counting. While still employed at CfA, he created and began teaching a course at Tufts University on the mathematics of gambling.

It became one of the most popular classes offered as part of Tufts’ “Experimental College” and inspired him to write a textbook, Smart Casino Gambling, in part because “I couldn’t find [a textbook] without junk,” he says. “I didn’t want to expose my students to the nonsense” that existed in current tomes about card counting.

Vancura invited the casino director of Foxwoods, a major casino complex in Connecticut, to address his pupils. As fate would have it, he soon began consulting for the industry and found himself spending more time thinking about the mathematical problems associated with gambling.

In 1997, he left astrophysics and joined Mikohn Gaming, a game manufacturing firm. He advanced through the ranks, earning the title of vice president of game development, and from 2004-06, he served as chief creative officer at Progressive Gaming International.

Today, he is the vice president of Game Development at American Gaming Systems, a leading designer, manufacturer and operator of gaming machines for casinos. Based in Las Vegas, Vancura oversees all product development for the company, including game development, operating systems, software and hardware advancement, platform progression and integration with third-party content providers. He directs a 40-to 50-person team and is involved in all elements of new game creation. The company’s portfolio includes both table and slot machine games.

Vancura gets his greatest satisfaction from helping to design and develop a particular game, a process which he views as a marriage of art and science. He refers to the original specifications for the game as a recipe, which comprise the mathematics that will be used to determine how the game will be played. “You must understand the game mathematically,” he explains, “but then you have to step back and ask how would an average guy play? What are the emotional issues I will guide them through? That’s where the art comes in.”

Depending upon the type of game he is designing, the math involved could be as simple as basic algebra and calculus, to more complex optimization, probability and statistics, and of course, game theory.

“As an inventor I have to be humble,” he says. “I am not designing for [someone with] a PhD in physics, but rather a guy who wants something entertaining and exciting,” and who will find it interesting enough to keep coming back.

Alaina G. Levine is a science writer and president of Quantum Success Solutions, a leadership and professional development consulting enterprise. She can be contacted through Copyright, 2011, Alaina G. Levine.

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