Back in the 1970s when he was a 9-year-old shooting dice in the back of the local butcher shop in Wilmington, Delaware, Joe Asher probably would’ve believed you if you’d told him he’d make a life for himself in the gambling industry. You could’ve told him he’d climb into leadership at a major global sports betting firm and that probably would’ve made perfect sense to him.
But the kid who sneaked into Atlantic City casinos at 14 probably would’ve put awfully long odds on what happened this month: The White House called to see if he’d chair the board of trustees of one of the nation’s most prestigious and important foreign policy think tanks.
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From slots to scholars
Yet as sure as Florida Atlantic is in this year’s Final Four, that’s what happened. Asher, president for sports betting at IGT and the former CEO of William Hill US, will be installed as President Joe Biden’s pick to preside over the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars for the next six years.
Let’s restate that: An executive of the once-scorned gambling industry has been tapped to oversee an outfit whose alumni include Gloria Steinem, Madeleine Albright, Thomas Friedman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and countless other Very Serious People. It was formed in 1968 as part of the Smithsonian and funded with some $15 million a year from Congress.
Asher, 55, is the first to admit he’s no pointy-headed scholar or that he has any real global policy experience. The closest he’s come, he says, is decades of international business travel and a lifelong interest in foreign news. But, as he did when he taught himself to count cards at age 12 or more recently oversaw the world’s largest slot maker’s transition to a major supplier of software for mobile sportsbook apps, Asher figures he’ll work this, too.
“I’m grateful, I’m humbled by it, it’s a new challenge to do,” he tells me. “I’m not a government official. I’m not somebody from academia. So I think it’s good to have somebody from the business community involved in a quasi-governmental way. I also think it’s good to have somebody from the West involved right to break through the DC-New York bubble.”
He might even be able to inject some scholarship about gambling into the Center, too, he says. But more on that later.
Asher and the Bidens of Delaware
So how does something like this happen? Well, it probably wouldn’t have were it not for the fact that Asher is from the center of the Biden world, a small city in the nation’s tiniest state. Asher says he’s known Biden, Delaware’s senator for 48 years, “for a very long time” and was friends with Biden’s late son, Beau. Asher, a lawyer by training, ran in the same legal circles in Wilmington as Beau, who was roughly his age, and became a big supporter when Beau ran and won the office of state attorney general.
Asher spent a decade as a practicing attorney, but it didn’t excite him the way the gambling world did. “I’d come home and I’d want to read the racing form or I’d read about the gaming business and my interest level would pique. So I started trying to figure out a way to get back into the gaming business.” Eventually, he moved to Nevada and, in 2008, launched the sports betting firm Brandywine Bookmaking. When it got bought out by William Hill in 2012, he became CEO of the firm’s U.S. operations. After Caesars Entertainment bought William Hill US in 2021, Asher landed at IGT.
So, yes, he had a personal connection to the White House. But lots and lots of people do. Asher has been a steadfast Biden supporter, to be sure, but not really some megadonor of the sort who would expect some political patronage job for all their financial input.
Nevertheless, last year he got a call from the White House sussing out his interest in being on the board of the Wilson Center. Then, more recently, that offer morphed into this one to chair the board. “There were obviously plenty of positions that the president looks to fill, and the Wilson Center, I had kind of heard of it, so I thought, ‘Let me dig into this more to really understand it,’ ” he says.
Here is how he understands its mission, now that he’s poised to ascend to its throne:
“It’s to independently research some of the world’s most complicated issues and present the results of the research along with recommendations to policy makers who can choose to enact policy and legislation as a result of these findings. The only objective I have is to do what’s best for the United States of America.”
He makes the point that he’s not the first from the industry to have a role in the national political world. Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn, he notes, were big figures in the Republican Party. Frank Fahrenkopf, the longtime executive director of the American Gaming Association, is the co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates. Heather Murren, the wife of former MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren, was a commissioner on the White House Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity.
“I’m not the China expert. I’m not the Middle East expert. What I bring is my life experience and my perspective. ”
An honor – and opportunity – for the industry
A review of the Wilson Center’s voluminous website and body of research finds it has done precious little, if any, scholarship on anything related to the gambling industry. Even as the export of Las Vegas-style casino-resorts has proliferated across the world and industry elites must bob and weave the same kinds of international crises as other sectors, very little has been written or researched on the matter by Wilson scholars or any others.
Asher is quick to assert he’s not the gambling industry’s envoy, but he does believe once he gets his bearings he may be able to make some suggestions. “Is sports betting relevant to the Wilson Center? Maybe in some tangential way,” he says. “There’ll no doubt be numerous areas where, as I get up to speed, I might think that it would be interesting if the Wilson Center looked into A, B or C.”
“There is gaming regulation in various places around the world. There’s equipment that gets exported. You got Macau. You got Singapore. Wynn is building in the U.A.E. There’s no shortage of things the Wilson Center could dig into and look at. If there’s a way that I can be involved in expanding that in some fashion, then that’s great.”
Several fruitful bets on Biden
That he’s parlayed his lifelong friendship with the Bidens into a prestigious appointment would seem like a good enough payoff. But Asher offers up an anecdote about how, while in London in 2018, he plunked 50 pounds down on Biden to win the 2020 presidential election.
When Biden came to Las Vegas in early 2020 for a fundraiser and campaign stop, Asher showed the betting slip to the candidate. It wasn’t looking great at the time; he’d just lost the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses and his campaign was weeks away from being resurrected by a massive win in South Carolina.
The future president told him to hang on to the ticket. And sure enough, his 5-to-1 wager was a 2,500-pound winner. “After he won, I had a few friends who were going over to London and who volunteered to cash it in for me,” he says.
I thought maybe he was going to tell me the ticket held sentimental value and he just couldn’t part with it. I even joked that he could save it for the Biden Presidential Library.
But, no. Asher is a true gambler. And true gamblers are not in it for sentimentality. “No, no, I wanted the satisfaction of doing it myself,” he laughs. “I wanted the money.”