SCHENECTADY — The title is new but the role is familiar for the recently appointed general manager of Rivers Casino & Resort.
Rick Richards is about two weeks into his new job and about 40 years into his casino career. He was GM of a small casino in his mid-20s and has since held other management roles at numerous other casinos, including a few other stints as general manager, but he started at the bottom.
“I’ve done everything in the casino business from cleaning rooms to slot machines and table games to restaurants and serving and cooking,” he said Thursday.
The one thing Richards hasn’t done so far is lead a casino back from a crippling pandemic. The closest he’s come was a nine-day shutdown when a fire broke out next door to the California casino where he was GM.
His most recent job — at a casino in Tblisi, in the Republic of Georgia — ended abruptly when COVID-19 hit and left him stuck there for two months.
“We closed March 16 and I couldn’t get out until the end of May,” Richards said.
He said he literally kissed the ground when he landed — there’s nothing like being stranded in a Third World country during a crisis to appreciate the United States. After waiting in vain for Georgia to emerge from crisis mode and for business opportunities to reappear, he looked elsewhere.
The previous GM of Rivers Casino in Schenectady, Justin Moore, had previously worked with Richards in Nevada. When Moore left Schenectady to run a Philadelphia casino also owned by Rush Street Gaming, the two spoke.
“This was a great opportunity,” Richards said.
Rivers Casino reopened in early September after a six-month shutdown; some of the last state-mandated and self-imposed restrictions have been ending this month as the gaming hall continues to rebuild its operations.
As of Thursday, it had 760 employees, roughly three-quarters of its pre-COVID workforce. The parking lot and casino floor were somewhat crowded at midday. Revenue figures posted by the state show the facility has rebounded to 2019 levels in the last three months.
But other aspects are not fully back to normal, including live entertainment.
Richards said the full return to normalcy will be measured and deliberate.
“We want to make sure we’re still clean, safe, friendly,” he said.
“Some of the [sanitary measures] we created during the reopening we’re going to keep. But we’ll bring things back as the volumes increase.”
What the process and result will look like is not yet determined, Richards said.
“I think during COVID, a lot of casinos, because of the closures, because of the restrictions, probably learned to operate a little differently. It’s unprecedented times we went through.
“We really don’t know what the normal is going to be. For us it’s step by step.”
Richards, 61, has three grown children with his ex-wife. He was born and raised in Nevada and has called it home his whole life, even as his career took him elsewhere.
“My dad was in the business, my grandfather was in the business, so I’m third-generation,” he said.
Richards worked in restaurants as a youth but he also had a blackjack table in his childhood home.
“I’ve known how to deal blackjack since I was in elementary school,” he said.
That became his first casino job back in 1981 — blackjack dealer.
Richards has moved up, down and laterally through the ranks and through the industry since then, but his last stint on the gaming floor rather than in an office was more than 20 years ago.
He’s worked in an unusually large number of casinos in an unusually large number of places (12 states and two foreign countries) either on their payroll or through his own consulting and management company.
“I’ve probably worked in close to 40 different casinos — and not too many people can say that — only because I consulted or ran different casinos,” Richards said. “The consulting was a big part of it.”
Each new jurisdiction is a learning experience, Richards said. Indian nations for example each have their own set of rules and those rules can change quickly when leadership changes. Louisiana had an odd rule that riverboat casinos had to be underway half the time — so Richards oversaw a two-boat operation in his time in Lake Charles. One boat would dock for 45 minutes while the other was sailing, then they’d trade places.
“When you go into a different jurisdiction, one of the first things you do is learn what that jurisdiction is about, learn the rules and regulations on what you can and can’t do,” Richards said. “New York is going to be different just like the Republic of Georgia was different.”
He said this range of experiences was both a goal and a result of moving around so much.
“I’m not saying I know it all but I’ve got a lot of experience and I try to bring that to the table.”