On a recent Monday night, the Lally Mohawk Room at Schenectady County Community College was converted to the gaming floor of a casino.
Dozens of students circled a poker table as blackjack tables on the other side of the room were prepped. With Art Stuart — who has dealt on one of the many professional poker TV shows — in the dealer’s chair, students fanned out around him.
And they played — cards flying across the table, chips clinking and clattering, and stacks of chips in front of each player increasing or decreasing in size.
“Once the money is in there, don’t think of it as yours,” Stuart said.
Some students were learning the rules of the game as they played hand after hand of Texas Hold ’Em. Others shuffled and rolled chips across their fingers, a clear sign of experience if not skill.
As he dealt, Stuart dished out nuggets of advice from a professional poker dealer. He touched on every aspect of managing a game: Tap the table when the cards are about to be dealt; divide up side pots before dealing out a final card; slow down and make sure players are on the same page before letting a game spiral out of control.
And that’s before he even got into the differences of how games are handled at different casinos.
“There are a lot of rules. There are a lot of rules in a casino — you will see that,” Stuart said. “Everything needs to be done in a precise way; everything needs to be done in the same way.”
It was just another day in class for the students of SCCC’s Casino and Gaming Management program, now in its third year.
“Some of the students have never been in a casino before so we are trying to give them a tangible foundation of how the games work, not teaching them to be dealers,” said Kim Otis, director and lead instructor of the program.
There are about 60 students in the 60-credit program right now. A diverse set of students, from 18-year-olds to at least one old enough to score the right to audit the classes for free, is looking to launch careers in the casino industry. Otis said students come to the table with interests ranging from entertainment and marketing to dealing and floor management.
In his fourth and final semester in the program, Eric Jensen helped run the mock casino, showcasing the skills of an experienced dealer. Jensen used to work at Turning Stone, an Indian casino in Verona about 90 minutes west of Schenectady.
But he has his sights set on a casino a little closer to home: the Rivers Casino and Resort at Mohawk Harbor in Schenectady, now under construction and expected to open in early 2017.
“I think we have a head start on the public who want to come in and get a job,” Jensen said of the new casino. “It’s a great opportunity for us, especially being right around the corner.”
The casino has already posted a handful of management-level positions. And Mary Cheeks, the casino’s general manager, said in a recent statement that the casino will begin accepting resumes for “select positions” in the coming weeks.
Jensen isn’t the only SCCC student interested in being among the first feet in the door at Schenectady’s new casino. Many of the gaming students see it as an opportunity to be in on the ground floor of something and possibly move up through the ranks quicker than they would at an established casino.
Philip Mandl of Clifton Park, Nina Johnson of Schenectady and Anne McMahon, who works as a seasonal surveillance specialist at Saratoga Race Course, all see it that way.
“I’d like to get in at an entry-level job and work my way up,” Mandl said. “That’s probably easier done at a brand-new property than an existing one.”
Johnson is interested in event management while McMahon has her eyes set on the security, surveillance and investigative side of casino work. A former Adirondacks guide who says she is now in her “city-girl phase,” McMahon has taken some of the casino courses multiple times (students over age 60 can audit classes for free).
“I like the cat-and-mouse game,” she said of the surveillance work. “I’m trying to understand casinos, because it’s a whole new culture.”
The community college has been in discussions with casino management about what a partnership would look like, but nothing official has been decided. Casino officials have said the operation will bring about 1,200 jobs to Schenectady.
“We would certainly like to see our students have opportunities there,” Otis said of the Rivers casino. “And they would definitely be impressed with our students.”
Already a partner
Stephen Smith, who graduated from the SCCC program in May, was hired at Saratoga Raceway and Casino in the summer as a Player’s Club representative — a point of first contact for casino patrons. Recently he was promoted to a supervisory position. He attributes his job and promotion to the contacts he made and relationships he developed as a student intern.
“You get to deal with something new every day. It’s never the same thing,” Smith said of his job. “I like the customer interaction and it’s a fun environment to work in. You have the slot machines going and people winning.”
The Saratoga casino, which is attached to a harness track but is barred from offering table games such as poker and blackjack, committed early on to providing paid internship opportunities to all the students who work their way through the SCCC program.
“There is no way you can get a better flavor for a casino than actually working here,” said Skip Carlson, a casino vice president who leads the internship program. “There is only so much you can get from a book.”
Student interns rotate throughout the different departments of the casino, experiencing nearly every component of the operation other than the surveillance team.
They spend time on the floor with video game attendants, and work on marketing plans and giveaways. They work a weekend shift at the casino’s Vapor nightclub and learn about promotions and graphic design.
Carlson said the wide-ranging experiences students gain through their internships gives them a competitive advantage when looking for jobs in the industry.
Interns are also useful windows into the minds of potential customers or may bring a different perspective to the table that others in the casino haven’t thought of, Carlson said.
“I would like to get them thinking outside the box, visiting other casinos to see what is and isn’t working,” he said. “I like talking to younger people to get their ideas. Sometimes they have a completely different way of thinking about something and we can a learn a lot from them.”
House always wins
Working for a casino may be the only sure way to make money at one, but average salaries range wildly across the different positions. While managers and supervisors can make between $80,000 and more than $100,000 on average, the average salary of all positions in “gambling industries” is around $30,000, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That includes low-paying restaurant, maintenance and housekeeping jobs.
When Jensen was dealing hands of blackjack during the classroom casino night, he unintentionally drove home one of the basic realities of the casino business: The house always wins.
A pair of students at the table drew 21s — the get-to number in blackjack — but when Jensen flipped over his hand he also had 21. That’s a tie for the players who would have won big against any other hand and a loss for everyone else at the table.
“That’s a push,” Jensen said before moving around the table to collect the imaginary casino’s winnings. “That’s a take. That’s a take. That’s a take. That’s a push, and that’s a take.”
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.
More from The Daily Gazette: