For casino professionals, a willingness to move is crucial to moving up

February 19, 2013

It wasn’t you, Delaware. It was him and his itinerant industry.

Last November, after Maryland voters approved a dramatic expansion of casino gambling that will introduce table games to the Free State, Dover Downs pit boss Al Foschini got the same call he had received so many times before. Would he consider moving to another area to help yet another casino get its blackjack, roulette and craps tables up and running?

Foschini — a natty, 56-year-old Philadelphian with a stone-serious aura and a high, raspy voice that’s straight out of casino-world central casting — had been lured to Dover by one of his best friends in the business. He liked the casino. He liked the area.

And then he left, because the Maryland Live Casino’s offer included a substantial salary increase and more potential for advancement at one of the largest commercial casinos in the country. Foschini took the money and ran, moving in mid-December to Maryland — his fourth state in roughly five years — to help train and manage hundreds of rookie dealers.

“I’m a professional casino opener,” Foschini said with a shrug one recent afternoon at the Maryland Live Casino Dealer School, where 20 well-traveled instructors have been working with gambling greenhorns since the start of the year.

Maryland’s gambling industry — previously limited to commercial bingo halls, racetracks and the lottery — has been in growth mode since slots arrived five years ago.

Seven thousand slot machines have been set up at three gaming facilities. Maryland Live, which opened June 6 at the Arundel Mills mall, is the newest and largest, pulling in an average of $1.1 million a day in revenue, according to the state Lottery and Gaming Control Commission.

Now comes a second boom. Harrah’s is building a major casino at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and another is opening near Cumberland later this year. Bidding for a sixth casino in Prince George’s County began this month.

Already, the casinos are allowed to operate round the clock; Maryland Live hasn’t closed its doors since Dec. 27. Soon, gamblers will be able to play live table games, too, with cards, chips, dice and licensed dealers.

Moving on to move up

Foschini has personally schooled several dozen students in how to deal the complicated game of craps. He’s also shared a bonus lesson with them: In the rapidly expanding casino business, a willingness to move around helps you move up as gambling management becomes an increasingly peripatetic profession.

“I really don’t like moving; I’d rather be settled in one place,” Foschini said as students gathered around three craps tables in the middle of an abandoned retail space at Marley Station Mall, a few miles from Maryland Live. “But the business has changed. Years ago, most people either worked in Atlantic City or Vegas. Now, all these new places are popping up like Wawas. And they offer you better opportunities because they need experienced people.”

Casino workers seeking promotions and pay raises have been bouncing across the country like roulette balls for nearly a quarter-century, according to David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. The patternless career path became prevalent in the late 1980s as tribal gambling halls came online and demand for seasoned dealers and supervisors began to spike.

“You’ve had people wandering around pretty much ever since then,” Schwartz said. “There’s always a new jurisdiction opening up.”

Thirty-eight states have legalized commercial or Native American casinos. Accordingly, nearly all of the Maryland Live Casino Dealer School trainers have ample mileage on their professional odometers — though perhaps none more than Paula Dwaileebe, who is overseeing the intensive, 12-week vocational school.

Maryland Live is her seventh opening (or so) and her 15th (ish) casino. So long is her résumé that when she was asked to recap it, she said: “Oh, God. How much time do you have?”

She broke in as a craps dealer at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City in 1984. From there, she said, she went to Laughlin, Nev.; then Las Vegas (“when Tiny Tim was there”); then Miami, to work as a dealer on a cruise ship that she thinks has since capsized; then Vegas again.

“Wait, did I go back to Vegas?” she wondered. She’s been around a few different blocks; it was hard to keep track. “You know what, I think I went from Laughlin to the cruise ship to Vegas. I only went to Vegas once.”

Then, she said: Biloxi, Miss.; Shreveport, La.; Milwaukee; Tucson and Scottsdale, Ariz.; Milwaukee again (she still owns a house there); Chester, W.Va.; and Erie, Pa., where she helped open ­Presque Isle Downs before bolting for Maryland Live with her boyfriend, John Petrovich. They’ll both serve as shift managers when the table games go live sometime this spring — a power couple for the high-stakes set.

“I’ve been more places than probably anybody here,” Dwaileebe said. “I always moved for a better job or better money.” But: “At my age anymore” — she’s 50 this month — “I don’t really enjoy it. I’m hoping this is it for me.”

She laughed, then clarified: That doesn’t necessarily mean the final stop. “Just the last company I work for,” she said of Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., which developed Maryland Live and has since applied for casino licenses in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

If Cordish wins a bid in either state, some of Maryland Live’s managers could be asked to open the new property. Their departures would set off a chain reaction that would probably include promotions from within the dealer ranks, Dwaileebe said. Afterward, she said, some employees could continue to ascend without ever leaving the massive casino at Arundel Mills. Imagine!

“You can move up without moving around,” said Rob Norton, the president and general manager of Maryland Live. But being open to moving generally accelerates advancement, Norton said. “This business is not Starbucks; casinos are not in every state, they’re not on every corner. The limited number of them, even with expansion, leaves few opportunities to grow at a single spot.”

Yearning to settle down

Norton grew up in the business with his father, longtime gambling executive H. Steven Norton. Rob Norton was born in the Bahamas, on Paradise Island, then moved to Atlantic City and eventually Las Vegas.

As an adult, he’s never stopped relocating, making 10 moves in 15 years. “It’s definitely not for everybody,” Norton said of the industry’s wayfaring ways. You go where the work is: Biloxi; Lake Charles, La.; Kansas City; Vicksburg, Miss.; Wexford, Pa.

He now lives in Severna Park with his wife and four children. Stability, he said, would be staying put “for the next five years or so.”

To be clear, the casino nomads don’t live like carnies. Some moved with young families to neighborhoods several miles from the casino. Others leased bachelor pads minutes from work.

Neal Sloane perfected the art of relocating decades ago, before he got into the gambling business. The casino’s vice president for table games — which makes him something like the dealer school’s rector — once worked in the travel business throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He found his first casino job in Britain (he’s Irish), then moved to the Bahamas and Budapest and, eventually, Mississippi. He has since been based everywhere from Bossier City, La., to Erie, Pa.

“When I was younger, I’d go everywhere; it was a lot of fun to travel around,” he said. “A job comes up, you say: ‘Well that’s interesting, I’ll go and try it if it’s good career-wise.’ But when you get older, you start looking for quality of life.”

He wasn’t finding it in Chester, W.Va., where he’d been working in senior management at the Mountaineer casino. “You’re either doing a 30-mile commute or you live in the boonies,” he said. When Norton asked him to come to Maryland Live, Sloane jumped.

“It’s a big improvement of quality of life,” he said. “It’s very comfortable here. Maryland’s a nice place — even though I haven’t had a chance to see much of it.”

Too busy, he said. He’s been plotting the new casino’s floor layout, writing state-mandated standard operating procedures, overseeing personnel decisions and making sure the newly designed gaming tables are delivered on time. He’s also ordering cards and dice and a staggering load of Maryland Live-branded chips, with values from $1 to $10,000.

He hasn’t had time to start house-hunting, even though he’s been here since April. The lease on his apartment, less than half a mile from the casino, is about to expire.

Maybe he’ll get around to buying something in Annapolis before then; maybe he won’t. But he’d like to settle here, he said.

“I keep saying this is going to be my last one,” he said of his frequent moves.

He laughed. Peripatetic people usually do.

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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