Earning a Place at the Table

In a fluorescent-lit training room at the M Resort, class is starting. It’s not your usual HR-mandated training session on blood-borne pathogens or reimbursement protocols. Instead, this is Change Your Life 101, taught by table games supervisor Timothy Eastep. A selected handful of M employees are learning to deal blackjack.

It sounds easy—what’s so tough about learning to play cards?—but there’s a lot more to dealing blackjack in a Las Vegas casino than knowing the rules of the game. Dealers have to train themselves to perform the repetitious series of movements that make dealing look so effortless, absorb the unwritten etiquette of the game and understand the rudiments of game protection. It’s a lot to take in, particularly before your workday starts, or after it’s just wrapped up.

There are plenty of places to learn to deal in Las Vegas, but Eastep’s students are going to have a leg up on the competition when they’re done. They get to take classes where they work—no driving around town to school. But the real benefits start when they graduate. Most newly trained dealers start at “break in” houses, mostly downtown, with correspondingly low toke rates. The students learning how to pitch cards across from the M’s employee cafeteria, though, are going to break in at a mid-level casino with an average daily toke rate of about $145. Working full time, they’ll make $50,000-$60,000 a year, right off the bat.

The in-house dealing school is the brainchild of David Torres, M’s director of table games, who broke in at the El Cortez in 1990 and worked his way up the ladder at several casinos, including the Stardust and Rio. He’s proposed the school at many of the houses he’s worked for, but he says that his boss, M Resort President Anthony Marnell III, deserves credit for the school.

“He saw the value and the loyalty and energy you can create with a program like this: not just dollars and cents, but the impact business can have on a life,” Torres says.

Enrolling at an independent dealers’ school can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Torres’ school is free for M employees, but the selection process is rigorous, and not everyone who gets into the school graduates. Even though it seems like a relaxed atmosphere—lots of joking all around—Torres points out that this isn’t a family. It’s a team. Families have to carry the nonproducers. Teams don’t have that luxury.

Once the student dealers pass all of their tests, they get a baptism by fire on the casino floor. They start out as dual rates, splitting time between their existing positions and dealing cards with a full-time dealer backing them up. Once they’ve progressed to where they can deal on their own, the new dealers move up to the on-call board, where they can pick up full shifts. It’s not steady at first, but many make more as on-call dealers than they did working two jobs previously.

Last year, Sonia Hanson was working two jobs, in human resources and as a waitress. For three months, she attended Torres’ school three nights a week, learning to deal blackjack after her regular shifts. When she finished the course, she got a chance to break in at the M Resort, and she’s excelled as a dealer. She now makes more dealing than she did from both her previous jobs combined.

“It’s changed my life,” Hanson says. “My husband and I even went on a vacation this year.”

The school is good business for M on several fronts. First, it helps the resort identify employees with stage presence and get them into roles where they’re interacting with customers. Second, it helps boost retention rates; it costs money to hire new dealers, even experienced ones, and those who’ve come up “the M way” are more likely to stay with the company. Finally, as a casino that draws heavily on locals, it makes sense to give employees a shot at moving up through the ranks. They’ll be likely to be much more enthusiastic about spreading the word about their workplace among their family and friends.

At a time when many employees feel disconnected with their workplaces, programs like M’s dealers school can help create real loyalty, which translates into better customer service—something that’s always needed in a casino.