NORTHFIELD — Denise Hillery “Angel” Jones and her husband, Glenn, rolled the dice on opening a casino dealer school in 2020 — only days before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered their doors. Twenty-three months later, the need for dealers is on the rise again, and the Joneses are finding their luck turn around.
The Casino Dealer Academy, located in the Tilton Shopping Center, teaches people how to become dealers for casino games, including blackjack, mini baccarat, craps, poker and roulette. It teaches the basics of the game as well as more advanced topics, preparing people to deal at private parties and casinos. Both group and private lessons are available, as well as certificates of graduation for each game that students can earn upon passing a test the academy administers.
Denise Jones began working as a casino dealer in 1979 and as a dealing instructor in 1994. She said she prides herself on having excelled at both professions.
“Not everyone can be a teacher,” Jones said, recalling how her husband struggled to teach her how to drive a manual-transmission car even when he himself was an excellent stick-shift driver. “With me, I enjoy teaching.”
Kevin Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant to the United States who lives in Linwood, is a student at the academy. He was practicing roulette Wednesday, and he has already completed the course for baccarat. Nguyen said he was excited to learn to deal games and get a job as a dealer that may allow him to make more money. He said he enjoyed dealing because he likes meeting different people and seeing them happy and excited.
“I love (dealing),” Nguyen said. “You can talk to all kinds of people, you can see everybody happy winning money.”
Matthew McCormick, of Galloway Township, holds several part-time jobs and used to be a poker dealer. He has been at the academy for about four weeks and is learning how to deal blackjack and craps. He said he began attending the school on the advice of his fiancée, who is a dealer.
“She really does love what she does,” McCormick said of his fiancée. “So she said it would be a good opportunity for me.”
Jones teaches three games — baccarat, blackjack and roulette. Gary Johnson, who has 30 years’ experience dealing and about 20 years’ experience teaching, is the academy’s craps instructor.
“We want to make it easier for people to get a job,” said Johnson, of Absecon.
A third instructor, Justin Lester, teaches poker at the academy. Occasionally competing in tournaments, he said people can be hesitant to learn poker and that it’s important to have good poker dealers.
“They get a little intimidated sometimes with poker, but it’s nothing to be intimidated with; you catch on really quick,” Lester said. “It’s a good game.”
Jones said one of the best assets of the academy is its flexibility, with people available to teach on weekends and at unconventional hours.
The flexible schedule benefits many of the schools’ students, including Mark Manzoni, who works as a casino security guard.
“I work nights, I work this day, I work that day,” Manzoni said. “Thank God, Angel saved the day.”
Patsy Scrocca is a blackjack dealer at Caesars Atlantic City and is attending the academy to refresh on mini baccarat and roulette, the latter of which she fell out of practice with after she broke her shoulder. She had been dealing since the 1980s at casinos across the country with her husband, Thomas, a longtime pit boss and a U.S. Army veteran.
Patsy Scrocca has also been drawing blood for AtlantiCare for 20 years, and said the academy’s flexible hours give her an opportunity to go to lessons.
“When I go to deal, I can have fun, I can sing, I can dance, I can joke, unless it’s a high roller,” Scrocca said.
When the academy was closed due to the pandemic shutdown measures put in place by Gov. Phil Murphy, the Joneses’ plans were thrown into disarray. The academy had not been open long enough for it to qualify for federal pandemic relief. They were forced to close for months and struggled to make payments on the facility.
“It was devastating,” Jones said.
The academy returned from the pandemic layover about seven months ago, Jones said. Business is now starting to pick up. Casinos are beginning to actively recruit employees for their spring and summer seasons, with some casinos offering job fairs in the coming weeks.
Some casinos have recognized that schools like the academy can be an asset.
“During the school’s closure, training for these positions has largely been done in house, therefore we are looking forward to the return of this industry resource in our community, for those seeking a career in table games,” said Noel Stevenson, a spokesperson for Caesars Entertainment, which owns Caesars, Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City and Tropicana Atlantic City.
Outside Atlantic City, other casinos have expressed appreciation for dealer schools like the academy.
“At Rivers Casino Philadelphia, we recruit a wide range of dealers, from industry veterans to those newly certified,” said Justin Moore, general manager for Rivers Casino Philadelphia. “We’re open to partnering with third-party dealer schools, as long as the curriculum meets Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board requirements. We currently operate our own free dealer school, in which students are paid to attend and placed into great jobs immediately.”
Rita Colletti has worked for decades at several Atlantic City and Philadelphia casinos and has known Jones since 1979. She said good dealing had become something of a “lost art” and the academy was a great resource for casinos to find dealers who know the game.
“It’s very cost effective to have a dealer that knows what the heck they’re doing,” Colletti said. “It can’t be emphasized enough that you need good dealers.”
Read the article on the Press of Atlantic City website: https://pressofatlanticcity.com/news/local/casinos/casino-school-gives-strong-hand-to-aspiring-dealers/article_ce6bac4a-9028-11ec-a1a3-a776c79265f7.html