The Gaming Life: Robert Sobczyk

An ex-military man, Robert “Bob” Sobczyk knows all about hard work, discipline and perseverance. It is probably these qualities that led him on an unexpected but successful path into the gaming industry, and got him to his current position as vice president of Ameristar’s casino operations.

It is immediately apparent that Sobczyk enjoys his job and the people with whom he works. He particularly enjoys traveling to the various properties and talking with Ameristar’s players and team members, claiming “this is truly where the rubber hits the road.” When asked if the casino industry has led him down the perfect career path, Sobczyk joked that it comes second only to the profession he chose as a child. “I actually wanted to be Superman until I was about 8 years old, so a casino job has been a bit of a letdown,” he said. He may have been joking, but truth be told, his jobs before entering the gaming industry weren’t too far off from his childhood dream. We assumed we would have to pry his story out of him thinking a military man/almost-superhero would be quite mysterious. But Sobczyk proved his complete unpredictability—“I am always talking so I have very few secrets,” he told us.

Sobczyk graduated from a small Catholic high school in Omaha, Neb., and went on to do the expected; he enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. But it turns out the conventional track was not for him. As he tells us, his first semester of college was a disaster. He shares, “I didn’t know you can get an ‘I’, but I got a lot of them; so I quit and just found work.”

Over the next two to three years, he was dissatisfied with the odd jobs he was able to pick up and chose to go back to school—a smaller one this time. He applied to Bellevue College and credits a meeting with a counselor there for turning his life around, but not in the way one would expect. Sobczyk explains: “She was the rudest person I have ever met, and when I exited her office in disgust I saw an Air Force recruitment office right across the street. I hadn’t thought about the military until that moment. I went into the office, took a test and joined the Air Force within a three-hour time period.” And that’s when fate set wheels into motion.

It was the Air Force that truly changed his life. During his seven-year commitment, Sobczyk became a technician working on secure communication devices and earned a Bachelor of Science in Electronic Management from Southern Illinois University. He loved the military, the values it instilled and the people who surrounded him. In fact, it was during this time Sobczyk met his wife, a member of the military in the same career field. They got married quickly and started a family soon after.

When Sobczyk left the military, his plan was to work for a defense contractor in Richardson, Texas, doing the same thing he’d done in the military—but without the combat boots. During his interview, the company learned that both Sobczyk and his wife had the same qualifications and offered each a position in San Diego. Neither job was available for six months, so the pair opted to move in with Sobczyk’s wife’s parents in Vicksburg, Miss., with the plan of working temporary jobs until the company was ready for them.

Sobczyk took a job as a technician at a Harrah’s property, working to help get it open. Although he enjoyed the experience, he was still focused on the position that was yet to start. He told us, “I remember telling Steve Tank, the director of slots at Harrah’s, that I was only going to be there for a few months because I had a commitment in San Diego.” Shortly after the Harrah’s property opened, VP of Casino Operations at Ameristar Izzy Falcon recruited Sobczyk to the Ameristar team as their technical manager. And he accepted. Though at first a difficult decision, the choice became clear as he realized that it would be better for his children if he stayed in Vicksburg near family—and easier for him and his wife.

This was more than 18 years ago, at a time when Ameristar was just gaining momentum. After going public in 1993, the newly named Ameristar Casinos Inc. opened its Vicksburg casino, the first investment outside of the town of Jackpot, Nev. It was in 1994 that Sobczyk joined on as a technical manager. Both he and the company have evolved since then. He shared: “I started my career with Ameristar at our Vicksburg property more than 18 years ago. Ameristar was in its infancy and I grew right along with the company.”

By means of hard work and dedication to his tasks, Sobczyk was promoted a number of times within the company. After just two years, he was promoted to director of slot operations. Sobczyk remembers the invaluable experience he was able to gain during this initial period. He also recalls the tough work involved. “I remember spending six weeks in Jennings, La., installing machines. That is the hottest place on earth and we worked our tails off to get it done,” he shared.

He also worked on getting Ameristar Council Bluffs opened, and it was shortly after that task that Craig Neilsen, (then) CEO of Ameristar called Sobczyk and asked if he could come out to Las Vegas for “two weeks” to help open the Reserve. As Sobczyk tells it, those two weeks turned into forever. He became the vice president of slot operations at the Reserve until it was sold to Stations Casinos, and was then transferred to the company’s corporate office, where he was responsible for slot operations. Sobczyk held this position until four years ago, when he was promoted to vice president of casino operations, the position he holds today.

When asked what personal characteristic helped him get that far he said, “I don’t take myself too seriously.” While that is certainly true, it doesn’t mean he lets himself slack off. “I like to have fun, but as my dad always told me, never let anyone outwork you. Hard work pays off and nice guys sometimes finish first,” he explained. And it seems that dad was certainly right.

This nice guy also manages to finish first with his family, making sure to achieve a balance between his personal life and work. At the beginning of his career, he struggled a little with the concept, once leaving his wife in the emergency room while he went to attend a meeting at work. “I don’t remember what she was in for, but she won’t let me forget that I did it,” he shared with a laugh. “The casino industry is very demanding and sometimes your priorities get out of balance,” he continued on a more serious note. Striking this balance has been one of his greatest challenges, but he has learned to make it work. And it’s all made easier by a company that respects personal time off, an understanding family and a wife who truly supports him.

Sobczyk chooses to be with his family in his free time and claims his children are his hobby. “When I am not at work, I am with them. I have four kids ranging from 15 to 22 (three girls and one boy), and as they grow older it becomes more challenging to stay involved, but I try to ‘stalk’ them as much as possible without being creepy,” he said.

In the 18 years Sobczyk has worked for Ameristar, he’s witnessed the industry evolve a great deal. Two major changes stand out to him: the globalization of the industry and the various options now open to slot operators. On the topic of the latter, he explains: “Eighteen years ago we really only had two manufacturers—IGT and Bally—and two game types—reels and video poker—from which to choose. Today we have five major manufacturers and three game types, with the addition of video reels to our mix. The casino floor of today is 40 percent, 50 percent and sometimes even 60 percent video reels. This game type didn’t even exist 18 years ago.”

There’s one other looming change that he views as our industry’s biggest challenge. Sobczyk agrees with the many other industry professionals who think that online gaming is a complex inevitability. The challenges it will bring, however, he sees as surmountable, and he thinks it will be fun for the industry to figure out all the associated details and specifics. His attitude is not at all surprising, given his attraction to the unconventional.

So what else in store for this industry veteran who fell into gaming quite by chance? For now he sees himself making sure his children get through college … and after that, he says we may just see him collecting aluminum cans for cash on a beach somewhere in Mexico.

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