Casino Class Prepares Students For Work In Region's New Casinos

Mar 24, 2015

Credit Jessica Bloustein Marshall/WAMC News

With developers in New York and Massachusetts preparing to break ground on casinos approved by voters and state-appointed commissions, and lobbying under way for more casinos in Connecticut to combat a loss of revenue they fear will come with new casinos in neighboring states, it’s all but certain that there will be a sharp rise in the need for casino employees in the region’s not-too-distant future. 

A community college in upstate New York is getting ahead of the game. A unique program at Schenectady County Community College aims to prepare students to work in all aspects of a casino operation, from dealing cards to serving food and beverage to running security.

How does one learn this trade? In “casino class."

Sinatra is crooning from a boombox in the corner of the Mohawk Room — reminiscent of a 19th century parlour — deep in the bowels of Schenectady County Community College. In the center of the space, several dozen people are crowded around a craps table, blowing on dice and hoping for snake eyes.

No, it’s not an illegal underground casino. It’s casino class.

One of the students, 33-year-old Saratoga Springs native Michael Santangelo, leans over the edge of the craps table, concentrating fiercely on the board.

"When you play these, you’re playing against everyone else at the table," Santangelo observes. "So if you win this and get excited, people don’t like it, because everyone else is losing when you’re winning."

He has played craps many times before. It’s pretty clear he’s not watching to learn. He’s watching to spot the cheaters.

"Part of getting a grade is learning how to cheat, I know that sounds really weird, but that’s how it goes. That’s kind what’s cool about this whole process."

The class is a laboratory held about four times a semester, Professor Kim Otis explains. Weaving around the gaming table, she checks in with students to see how they’re doing with the fake money she allotted them at the beginning of class.

"They act as the dealers, they act as the players. Some of them I have stealthily trying to steal from other people so we’ve got the security aspect," she explains. "We have the entertainment aspect of it, we’ll be playing Frank Sinatra. We have food and beverage too so it kind of gives that whole feeling so they can kind of get used to that noise."

Otis says her students come from all walks of life—from bright-eyed college kids to older adults looking for a second career. At the end of the two-year Casino and Gaming Management program, Otis says, they’ll all be ready to get to work.

"It’s a very sexy idea that we’re going to have this casino and it’s so fancy and what a great life. But the reality is that we’re working when everyone else is playing."

On the other side of the room, another student, retired Naval officer Michael Favada of Niskayuna, strolls past groups of students working in teams to learn the dice game Chuck-a-Luck.

But Favada hangs back, lending a few of his chips to a fellow student to have at it. He seems more interested in making sure his classmates are learning and having fun. It’s almost as if he’s the floor manager. But he won’t say whether he’s playing a role in class tonight.

"It seems that no matter how good times are economically or how bad times economically, people are always going to casinos," Favada says. "And with a casino coming here to Schenectady, it appears to  be a growth industry and there’s something to be said for job security, so I think the whole dynamic, how many things it takes to make a casino work is just fascinating to me."

Less than a mile from casino class, on the banks of the Mohawk River, is the site of a $450 million proposed waterfront development – the Rivers Casino and Resort of Mohawk Harbor.  The plan for the casino, co-engineered by the Rotterdam-based developers the Galesi Group and Chicago’s Rush Street Gaming, includes 66 gaming tables and 1,150 slot machines. Developers say the outfit will create 1,200 high-quality jobs.

The promise of the Rivers Casino and Resort is also what drew 20-year-old Rotterdam native Sam Cook to enroll in casino class. She says she wants to go into the entertainment industry side of casino management.

Cook says she has learned a lot about that aspect of casino management from the program’s required internship with Saratoga Casino and Raceway. After graduation, she says she wants to take her act to Schenectady, or even to Las Vegas. For now, though, she tentatively peers at the action on the craps table.

"I have to watch a few rounds before I can actually do it," she admits, smiling.

Professor Otis gives Cook a reassuring pat on the back. She knows her students will get the hang of it. At the end of the semester, she says, they’ll be ready for their final project.

"We do a big comprehensive gaming night and all of our students invite their families in and they become our guests, and we run the facility," Otis explains. "We keep track of all the finances and we make sure that everything balances out, and it’s really terrific."

SCCC’s program is one of only a handful to award an associate’s degree in gaming industry management. Also in the region, Morrisville State College in Central New York offers a program, and the University of Massachusetts offers a casino management certificate online.

Back at the craps table in the Mohawk Room, Michael Favada is still making the rounds.

"This seems to be an industry, the people I’ve talked to in it, they love going to work every day. And while I loved being a Naval officer, there were some very trying days," Favada says. "I had promised myself that whatever career I chose next, I was going to love to go to work every day, so the people that I’ve talked to up at the casino at Saratoga, I’ve gone to Mohegan Sun, I’ve gone down to Newport, Rhode Island. Everyone that works at the casino genuinely seems happy, so I think it’s an industry I’d like to be part of."