At dealer school, job seekers roll the dice for a casino gig


The Washington Post

There was nothing unusual about the bet that led to Cara DeRosa’s meltdown.

It was a standard wager she’d paid out countless times during her first six weeks at Maryland Live Casino Dealer School, where she was taking a crash course in craps. But now all those odds that DeRosa had spent so many hours committing to memory were escaping her. So, too, was her composure.

All around her were other anxious job-seekers competing for potentially transformative casino dealer gigs: An unemployed mother who hadn’t received a paycheck since being laid off from Verizon Wireless 19 months earlier. A Giant pharmacy tech who hated his dead-end job. A Cheesecake Factory waitress who coveted the casino’s excitement.

More than 8,600 people applied to work in the new gambling pits at the Arundel Mills casino in Maryland, but only 831 had been invited to attend the three-month dealer school. Two-thirds might be offered full-time jobs paying $45,000 to $55,000 a year.

With the April 11 launch of live-action table games at Maryland Live just weeks away, some of the novice dealers were cracking under the pressure of performing — even in a mock casino with fake money.

Hand selected by their instructors, the craps students were the gifted and talented whiz kids compared with the multitudes who spent much of their time studying blackjack.

But they also faced the greatest challenge in learning the iconic dice game. With countless odds and procedures to remember and an enormous number of bets to track, craps is the most complicated casino game to deal.

And one day in late February, DeRosa, a 37-year-old group fitness instructor from White Marsh, Maryland, was overwhelmed — muttering, sweating and shaking as she struggled to pick up the clay casino chips she would need to pay the winner, whatever that amount might be.

“Come on, Cara, you know this,” her teacher said encouragingly. “You’ve got this.”

To become a dealer at Maryland’s largest casino, DeRosa would have to pass her audition. To pass the audition, she would have to pay the bet.

Instead, she froze. Then she sobbed. Then she held out her hands and rotated them for the surveillance cameras that didn’t actually exist in the classroom. Then she ran for the exit.

“What is going on here?” barked the teacher, Albert Foschini, as somebody went to console DeRosa.

Foschini called off the tryouts. He couldn’t bear to observe more implosions. “It’s like death, watching you guys audition,” he said. He puffed his cheeks like a blowfish and exhaled. “Just get back to practicing.”

DeRosa eventually returned to the tense classroom and the laborious business of learning.

“This may be fun and exciting for the players,” she said later. “But it’s not playtime for us on the other side. Dealing craps is difficult. It’s stressful.”

But, she vowed, “it’s what I want to do.”

As Maryland voters considered a dramatic expansion of commercial gambling last November, the pro-casino forces pushed two selling points: tax revenue and jobs. Legalizing blackjack, roulette and other table games would generate as much as $51 million in additional annual revenue, supporters promised.

And it would create 1,600 jobs statewide — an appealing prospect in a state still recovering from recession.

Maryland’s unemployment rate in February was 6.6 percent, more than a full percentage point below the national average, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that still translated to more than 200,000 people looking for work.

So demand was overwhelming when one of the largest commercial casinos in the country began advertising hundreds of jobs with middle-class paychecks, benefits and the prospect of something increasingly elusive: advancement.

“I want to deal for a while and then move up. This is a career for me,” said Karl Kim, a 46-year-old from Glen Burnie, Maryland, who was out of work last year when he applied online. He survived the initial screening process and wound up learning craps. Just in time, too: His girlfriend lost her job as he was finishing his training.

“I really want to be able to provide,” he said. “I need a decent salary.”

The school was no minor commitment for Kim and the other students. They agreed to spend four hours in class every weekday for 12 weeks, with no guarantee that they would be offered a job — or be able to obtain the state license necessary to work at the casino. There were also optional Saturday sessions at the school, and everybody was instructed to practice at home.

“If they were to tell me I’m behind, I’d practice all night,” Jason Wiener declared one day before class.

Wiener, 30, was working as a supermarket pharmacy technician in Baltimore County. He’d quit once before, and he was ready to quit again. “It’s pretty tedious, and I’ve gotten about as far as I can get without being a pharmacist,” he explained. “I actually hate my job.”

Dealing craps, he said, “would pay a lot more than I make now, and I love the atmosphere. Casinos are interesting to me, and the job has real growth potential. I’d eventually like to move up to management from dealing.”

Maryland Live executives predicted that some new dealers would be offered supervisor positions within two years and be promoted to pit managers within five.

But Wiener was getting ahead of himself: “I need to get through school first.”

Since opening in June, Maryland Live has been doing a booming slot business. Last month, it generated almost $45 million in gambling revenue — a record for the property. The addition of 122 table games will probably generate as much excitement as revenue for the casino. Or as one executive put it: “Tables are for show, slots are for dough.”

Maryland Live spent some of that dough — about $1.5 million — on its dealer school, choosing to make the training free because it needed so many employees so quickly. In most states, aspiring dealers pay several hundred dollars to learn the trade.

Maryland Live’s boot camp was set up in two converted retail spaces on the ground floor of Marley Station Mall, about 15 km from the casino. One of the classrooms was next door to lingerie retailer Frederick’s of Hollywood.

There were no chairs around the 30 tables in the classrooms because there are no chairs for dealers on the casino floor. Maryland Live officials wanted students to get used to being on their feet.

Some couldn’t deal with all the standing and dropped out within the first few days. One woman quit because she didn’t want to cut her fingernails, which interfered with her ability to handle chips.

By the end of the first week, in early January, 10 percent of the students had stopped showing up. Many more would quit or be cut as classes progressed, predicted Neal Sloane, the casino’s vice president of table games.

“Some of the students here have no clue about casinos and gambling,” Sloane said. “A lot have never been to a casino.” But for those determined to land casino jobs, “We’ll be able to make good dealers out of them.”

He glanced at a blackjack table, at which several students were fumbling chips, then revised his prediction: “We’ll make good dealers out of most of them.”

Twelve students ringed their usual craps table, nine of them wagering pretend money on the outcomes of individual throws of the dice and rounds of multiple rolls.

Each time the dice landed, one of the three student dealers called a number, announced what to do with the bets and collected the dice with a 1.2-meter rattan stick.

Taysha Shaw and a second-base dealer then dragged in the losing bets, paid off the winners and began booking new wagers for the players.

At least that’s how it was supposed to work.

“You left one out there,” instructor Letitia Hilferty said after Shaw forgot to collect a losing bet.

“Nope,” Hilferty said when Shaw placed an incorrect payout on the felt. “Every $5 is going to get $7.”

“Nope,” she admonished again. “Wrong.”

Shaw sighed.

“Why aren’t you using both hands?” Hilferty asked. “Keep the red [chips] in that hand and get some white in your other hand. Then put the white back and get some green. Come on, I need to see you do this.”

Shaw thought she was a quick study, but the game was coming too quickly. Like most of the rest of the craps students in the room, she was struggling to keep up.

“It’s coming together,” she said. “But it’s harder than I thought. There’s a lot to remember.”

The vivacious 38-year-old mother and grandmother from Prince George’s County, Maryland, didn’t necessarily need the casino job. She owns a successful hair salon. “But you can never have too much money,” she said — and she wanted the casino’s benefits package and its glamour, too.

“I’ve been doing hair for 16 years,” she said. “I need some more excitement.”

So she came to dealer school every day from noon to 4, even on the day her uncle died because, she said, “I can’t afford to miss any time.”

She was still seeing clients at night and on weekends at Hair Xpress, and she was still taking care of her three children — ages 2 to 21 — plus a grandchild who wasn’t yet 1, plus her 71-year-old mother. “I’m overwhelmed,” Shaw said. “I’m running around like Benny Hill.”

There was barely any time to study and practice — a common lament at dealer school. Students looked for ways to improve whenever and wherever they could.

DeRosa, who was still trying to master the complexities of craps after her February meltdown, would shake a dice-rolling app on her smartphone and make the corresponding stick call while watching movies with her fiance. Mike Lukoski, a 36-year-old Essex, Maryland, bartender, used an online craps game to roll the digital dice and paid out bets on a piece of felt stretched across his ottoman. Dana Trantham, the 37-year-old from Greenbelt, Maryland, who had been unemployed for 19 months, tried using speed-math drills on YouTube and enlisted her 13-year-old son to play craps in their kitchen. Maggie Neiss, the 23-year-old Cheesecake Factory waitress, was constantly fiddling with chips at home in Glen Burnie.

Many of the students visited casinos in nearby states to observe live-action games — and to gamble. One won $1,900 playing craps on a group trip to Atlantic City in March. His haul was the talk of the school the next week.

About 20 percent of the students had been selected to learn craps, based on the results of a math test and a series of dexterity drills using stacks of 320-gram casino chips. They’d each been given a 51-page manual, which included 29 stick calls and all the odds and other game details they would have to absorb.

Shaw had played at the Borgata Hotel Casino in Atlantic City and loved it. Craps is a glamour game that helps full-fledged casinos look and sound the part, with dice flying and gamblers exulting — or cursing — the results at high volume.

“I can deal this,” Shaw thought. But when she opened the manual, she realized she’d have to study as much as she could.

She began reading the craps instructions to her 2-year-old son, Jack, at story time. Every night, she said, Jack heard tales about pass odds and yo bets and centerfield nines.

“I don’t know if I’m a bad mother or what,” Shaw said during a break in class one day in early March, “but that’s his story for the night now. I have to make it sound exciting for him, and that makes it fun for me, too. But I’m reading my dealer book, and my 2-year-old is learning craps. Is that crazy?”

She laughed in answer to her own question. Of course it was.

On the final Friday in March, DeRosa put on her new wheat-colored uniform blouse and black polyester slacks and returned to the room where she’d survived nearly 240 hours of vocational training.

The previous day, the state Lottery and Gaming Control Commission had conditionally approved Maryland Live’s table games operation. Now, on the last day of school, it was time for a casino-style celebration.

Cocktail waitresses in chest-spilling outfits stood at the ready with nonalcoholic beverages. A DJ wearing a top hat played Mumford and Sons songs. Stacks of Sbarro pizzas — $2,000 worth — were schlepped over from the food court. Supervisors handed out stacks of fake currency that listed “Ed E. Money” and “John E. Cash” as treasurers.

Of the 831 students who enrolled at Maryland Live Casino Dealer School, more than 30 percent had disappeared. Some had taken themselves out of the game. Others had been told not to come back.

The 510 students left were just days away from joining Maryland Live’s payroll.

DeRosa would be among them.

She made it along with 11 other students who had studied — and struggled — at her table, including hairdresser Taysha Shaw, pharmacy tech Jason Wiener, waitress Maggie Neiss and the desperate-to-find work Dana Trantham and Karl Kim.

They’d celebrated the previous night by doing shots at Ruby Tuesday, on the other side of the mall. Now it was Friends and Family night, a chance to show off what they had learned.

“Hands up, dice out!” DeRosa said as she held the craps stick close.

Neiss’ mother threw the dice across the table.

“Nine, mark the nine, single the field, the point is nine,” DeRosa declared confidently.

The base dealers quickly moved white, red and green chips around the felt. “Fun Nite,” it said on the chips. “No Value.”

DeRosa scooped the dice with the stick, then pushed them back to the shooter.

The cycle continued. DeRosa nailed call after call and easily handed the proposition bets that once vexed her.

A veteran casino supervisor who had just joined the staff gave her a thumbs up.

“Very good, Cara,” he said.

DeRosa beamed.

“The students should be really proud of themselves,” said Pat Brewster, one of the casino managers who ran the school.

Weeks earlier, Brewster had consoled DeRosa after her audition-day meltdown. During a long walk around the mall, he explained that she had all the tools and information she would need to thrive as a craps dealer. She just needed to get over her nerves and build her confidence.

“It gets easier,” Foschini, the teacher, promised her later. “Buttons are going to start clicking. ”

Now, on the final day of school, here was Foschini, grinning as DeRosa breezed through her turn at the table.

“I didn’t freak out,” she exulted.

Three rookie dealers were in position at Table 80, at the center of Maryland Live, on the morning of April 5. There were $184,400 worth of casino chips on the table, and state regulators were fanning out across the 30,000-sq.-meter casino to evaluate its table-games operation.

“This is just like the practice tables,” soothed Rob Norton, the casino’s president and general manager.

Britney Knauer, a normally unflappable 23-year-old from Derwood, Maryland, with a hospitality management degree from Frostburg State, tried to shake the nerves out of her hands.

This was not just like the practice tables. This was live-action dealing, with real money and real customers.

Just before 8:30 a.m., a doctor who lives near the casino dropped five $20 bills on the table. Knauer passed the money to a supervisor and sent a stack of chips back to the doctor, Bert Atienza.

“Good luck, sir,” she said.

Atienza quickly lost his first three chips, which Knauer swept off the table in a blur. Just as quickly, she paid out her first winner.

“Good,” said Walter Parraga, who had just been hired away from the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut to work as a boxman, a kind of craps table overseer.

The game progressed slowly but smoothly, with Knauer and the other rookie dealers making only a few minor mistakes.

When the full-blown table games operation launches at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, the casino — which hired more than 200 experienced dealers from other states in addition to all the newbies — will never have more than two rookies at one of its eight craps tables.

But on April 5, Knauer was joined at Table 80 by two other students, with Parraga serving as their chaperon.

“Relax,” he told Knauer. Suddenly, she was struggling to regulate her breathing, overwhelmed by reality.

Just then, the pop song “Don’t Hold Your Breath” began blaring over the casino’s sound system.

Knauer exhaled and laughed.