In the war against problem gambling the good guys were able to open a new front this year, thanks to more than $800,000 in grants from the U.S. casino industry for the establishment of the country’s first Centers of Excellence in Gambling Research.

Sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Responsible Gaming, the industry’s clearinghouse for funding for research, education and training in the areas of problem and addictive gambling, the mission of the Centers of Excellence - one at Yale, one at the University of Minnesota - is to expand our understanding of the nature of these afflictions through long-term, multidisciplinary study, the goal being to assist in the development of ever more effective way to prevent and treat them.

Christine Reilly, who heads the Institute for Research on Gambling Disorders, the arm of the NCRG charged with distributing its grant monies, says the centers mark a “new era”. She sees them as “a true evolution in our approach to funding research.”

The centers, fittingly enough, are co-sponsoring the NCRG’s upcoming Conference on Gambling and Addiction, which is held in Las Vegas every year just ahead of G2E. The conference, which brings together the best minds in the field - academics and clinicians, health care professionals, government officials, regulators and of course representatives of the industry - begins Sunday, November 15, at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino and concludes on the 17th (the first day of G2E) at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The conference is all about exploring the ways that science can be applied to real-world gambling problems, which is what makes the conference so unique and so important. Take this year’s theme: “Money, Money, Money: Current Issues Affecting Research, Recovery and Responsible Gaming”. Sessions will examine the latest research into the mechanics of decision-making and informed choice; they will look at how financial management can be integrated into treatment regimens; and comparative research into other compulsive behaviors will be explored.

“Understanding the gambler’s relationship with money is essential to understanding how gambling can become an addiction, and money-related issues also have a real, tangible impact on the ability of states, treatment providers, the gaming industry and others to address gambling-related harms,” Reilly says.

The NCRG, founded in 1996, was and is one of the industry’s best ideas. It sponsors a number of innovative training and education programs, but most of its funding (which, it must be mentioned, comes entirely from casinos and their leading suppliers) goes to the institute to support research. To this end it has distributed more than $7 million.

Unfortunately, with the toll the recession has taken on casino revenues, the NCRG is facing its own money problems.

This is, in fact, “one of the most financially challenging times this field has seen,” says Glenn Christenson, the former CFO of Station Casinos who succeeded Phil Satre as chairman in January of this year.

And yet 2008 saw the industry pledge another $1.2 million, most of it in the form of multiyear contributions.

“The gaming industry has always been highly supportive of what we try to accomplish,” Christenson told me recently. “But it’s more difficult today to fund than it was five or six years ago. No donors have dropped out, though, and there’s been no reduction in support. But the timing in some cases has been adjusted.”

Which is an extraordinary thing to consider in these extraordinary times and a tribute to a collection of businesses which in most mainstream discussions about problem gambling tend to be identified with only the “problem” part.