Making the News

The News Journal-Wilmington, DE

Originally Published:Sunday, May 23, 2010
http://www.delawareonline.com/article/20100523/news02/5230348/let-the-table-games-begin

Gambling in Delaware: Let the table games begin
Launch comes with the promise of jobs, revenues

By Aaron Nathans
The News Journal-Wilmington, DE

HARRINGTON The newly minted pit bosses crowded around the craps table like it was a lab bench in science class, straining to hear Darrell Barber over the dings and chirps.

The stickman, who runs the game, must be on the lookout for cheats who replace the dice when no one's looking, said Barber, a new assistant shift manager at Harrington Raceway & Casino.

"You need to rotate the dice every time," and look for the casino's logo, said Barber, who joined Harrington a month ago from a tribal casino in California.

The complex and exacting effort to launch table games in Delaware culminates this week, when the first of Delaware's three racetrack-casinos sweeps the tarps off the tables for craps, poker, roulette and other games. It's a debut viewed as an important leg up for an industry lagging under the strain of stiffening competition from bordering states Pennsylvania casinos begin table games this summer and the lingering effects of the recession.

Table games will deliver an immediate benefit in the form of about a thousand new employees, a needed boost in a state where 32,000 people remain unemployed. The games are expected to rake in $40.5 million in revenues for a state struggling to balance its budget.

The barn raising, appropriately, happens first in this rural community, home to the Delaware State Fair every July. Low-limit test games at Harrington will start Monday, running every day through Thursday, from 2 to 10 p.m. Pending a green light from state inspectors, Harrington plans to go live when the Memorial Day weekend starts Friday.

Games at Dover Downs and Delaware Park will come just a few weeks later. All say they will offer a full array of games.

"For Harrington, for the state and for the taxpayers, it's to replenish our revenues, to gain back some of what we lost," said Patti Key, Harrington's CEO.

Table games, she said, will help Delaware casinos recover from when the state claimed a larger share of their slots revenue last year, she said.

It will also help keep jobs in Delaware.

Easing Delaware's job woes

State officials hope that, unlike Atlantic City in recent years, they'll be able to hold onto these new employees. Atlantic City casino revenues have been in a slump for three years, as officials there have dealt with new competition and the recession.

Racino jobs fell by 8.5 percent in Delaware last year, according to the American Gaming Association.

But with table games, Delaware casino payrolls are increasing. Harrington has hired 251 new people, primarily dealers, and will hire about 75 more. Most of the dealers are local residents, many out of work, Key said. Many of the supervisors, like Barber, came with out-of-state casino experience.

Delaware Park, which is clearing out some slot machines to start table games around June 18, has identified about 371 new employees. And Dover Downs, which will start around June 21, has extended offers to about 300 new employees.

One of the new hands at Dover Downs is Joe DiPalma, a longtime casino worker in Atlantic City. With the economy down, his schedule at the Trump Plaza had been pared back to three days a week, with no benefits.

So when the job of pit manager came open at Dover Downs in March, he jumped. He moved near Dover, and within the year his wife and two young daughters will join him.

Last week, he was guiding his new dealers through rounds of Pai Gow poker at the Dover campus of Delaware Technical & Community College. It's a four- to eight-week program all of the new dealers will have to take before the games start for real.

DiPalma showed his group how to tap the felt when a customer has a "push hand" when they neither win nor lose to demonstrate for the cameras that their money is supposed to stay in the pot.

DiPalma also taught them to make sure the players lean forward, hands in front of them, so they can't pass off cards or grab their chips back.

As James Easthan of Milton shuffled and dealt, Khalik Cummings of Dover joined fellow dealers in playing a hand.

Easthan is a veteran of the Iraq war who lost his job as an airfield technician in Georgetown more than a year ago. Cummings was an Army recruiter whose contract ended in December.

"I played poker a lot. This is actually right up my alley," Cummings said, winning a pretend $130 as his pairs of eights and twos beat the house's pairs of sixes and aces.

The full-time dealers are expected to make about $40,000 annually in salary and tips, plus full benefits, the casinos say. Dover Downs CEO Ed Sutor said the "vast, vast majority" of new dealers at his casino are Delawareans.

Delaware Park's new crop of dealers is 35 percent to 40 percent from in-state, said Andrew Gentile, chief operating officer.

The state allocated $300,000 for displaced Delaware workers to take the DelTech course. But many couldn't afford the roughly $1,300 tuition after the state assistance ran out, Gentile said.

Key said she had hoped to have 80 percent of her dealers from Delaware, but the number at Harrington so far is more like 60 percent, she said. The tuition was a factor, but it was more that potential employees were intimidated, she said.

"People think you need real strong math skills," Key said. "We did everything but beg, between job fairs and so forth."

Learning from Atlantic City's pain

Expanding gambling can be a job creator, but there are limits as well as risks, said James Karmel, associate professor of history at Harford Community College, and the author of a gambling blog. If Delaware's rollout of table games is successful, most of these jobs could be with the state for years to come, even with the added competition elsewhere, he said. In Karmel's state of Maryland, the first casinos will open this fall, without table games.

The market for gambling in this region is approaching saturation, he said. As Delaware lawmakers consider expanding the number of casinos, it can learn from the pain Atlantic City is experiencing, he said.

The Garden State last year reported a drop of 13.3 percent in revenue, with a decline of 18.6 percent in tax revenue contributions, according to the American Gaming Association.

As long as the economy recovers and people don't lose interest in the games, most of the new Delaware jobs will stay, said Richard MacDonald, assistant Delaware State Lottery director for table games.

"You'll always have a base of people who just love to gamble," said MacDonald, who will be in charge of overseeing table games.

MacDonald was a production supervisor at General Motors' Boxwood Road plant, which shut down last year. He says he's never been to Las Vegas.

But his business background in dealing with government regulation helps a lot, he said. He also knows a thing or two about launching new products, having worked on projects such as the Chevy Malibu and the Saturn large car series.

He's one of 29 new employees the Lottery has hired as part of the effort, said Tom Cook, state financesecretary. The new Division of Gaming Enforcement, which will field police officers at the casinos with arrest authority, hired an additional 10 people, Cook said.

An assistant attorney general was assigned to gambling matters, he said. All of the state jobs were reassigned from existing positions, he said.

The state has been working with Spectrum Gaming Group of New Jersey to help new employees work through the 400-plus page "minimum internal control standards." It includes such details as how many times a drop box, which contains cash and chips, must be picked up; the proper way to move money around; the design of the cards; the colors of the chips; and how many keys must be used to secure the chips.

"It's like the trade secrets for how they make Coca-Cola," Cook said.

On Tuesday, MacDonald was at Dover Downs as dozens of the new Lottery workers listened to a U.S. Treasury Department official speak of how to spot when a person from a foreign country is spending beyond their means, on credit.

The new hires included Tom Crowe of Dover, a seasonal toll collector who will serve as a state gaming inspector. He'll make sure the money is gathered properly at the end of a casino employee's shift, and put into the cages according to regulations.

Crowe said it's exciting "just to be a part of it. You're coming in on the ground level. You have a hand in itssuccess."

No cheaters allowed

At Harrington last week, Preston Boskett was working with his team to respond to requests from state inspectors. They had to provide more lighting in the high-limit table area to eliminate shadows, making it easier for surveillance to watch the games, said Boskett, executive director of table games operations.

Boskett said Harrington could have more camera angles than any other casino in the world. There are even cameras hidden in the wood paneling in the ceilings, and facial recognition software to find people who pilfered other casinos, he said.

"I wouldn't try to cheat here," he said.

Boskett arrived eight months ago from Michigan, where he opened two casinos. Although Harrington isn't exactly an opening, adding table games is a massive undertaking, he said.

"It's like waiting for a baby to be born," he said.

Harrington spent around $3.5 million for its capital upgrades and equipment. Dover Downs is spending about $4.5 million for the same purpose, and Delaware Park spent roughly $4 million, the casinos reported.

Sutor said table games will attract more men, to complement the more female-friendly slot machines, and bring in new customers. There are some gamblers who will not go to a casino unless it provides table games, he said.

"We're no longer a slot parlor. We offer the full breadth of the casino experience," Sutor said. "It gives us a better marketing tool to get new customers here."

Customers interviewed outside Delaware Park last week say the rough economy will try their willingness to part with more of their money, even with new games on tap.

Hope Jackson, of Smyrna, who was gambling with her boyfriend, said the new games won't change the fact that money is tight. They play video blackjack now. When the table games open there next month, they'll play real blackjack, but they won't spend more, she said.

"Whatever we bring is whatever we play," Jackson said.

Will Borys, visiting Delaware Park from Washington, D.C., said he worries table games will bring more crime.

But Vance Thorpe, a Wilmington retiree, said he's glad he won't have to go to Atlantic City anymore to find what he's looking for.

"I'll shoot craps right here," Thorpe said. "I'll be here all the time."

Contact Aaron Nathans at 324-2786 or [email protected].

 

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