Dan Haar: MGM dealer school opens in Springfield with many from Connecticut
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Debra Cusson grew up in and around Waterford, worked at Foxwoods Resort Casino, then moved to Mohegan Sun from the time it opened in 1996 until she was laid off in 2012.
She migrated to a job at the Maryland Live casino near Baltimore, but never sold her Connecticut house in Uncasville.
Now she’s back — at MGM Springfield, preparing for work as a pit manager, overseeing dealers and supervisors for a section of table games when the $950 million complex opens in the fall.
On Monday morning, the cards, dice and roulette balls will finally fly as would-be dealers start classes for the first day of table games school. For Cusson, that means work as a trainer, a part of the business she very much enjoys.
And she’s once again a Connecticut resident, renting an apartment in Enfield while tenants remain in her house near the casinos of southeastern Connecticut.
“I’m very happy. I’m back with my family and working for a good company,” Cusson said. “I’m home.”
She’s hardly the only Connecticut resident filtering into MGM Springfield. Many of the supervisors, managers and student dealers — MGM doesn’t like to use the word croupiers — hail from south of the border.
Dawn and Kevin Dreyer also left Mohegan Sun for Maryland Live in 2012, when Kevin lost his job in the same downsizing. They’re back as MGM managers, living in Manchester, and they still own the house in Norwich where they raised their children.
As least one of those kids, now a 24-year-old casino dealer, hopes to join them at MGM, and another son might follow.
“I’m teaching my dog to deal so we can all be in this,” Dawn Dreyer joked, deadpan, in her native lilt of Edinburgh, Scotland.
As the school opens on the ninth floor of the old State Building in the heart of downtown — overlooking the entire MGM complex — it’s a milestone not just for the company but for the economy and culture around this development we’ve been talking about for years. And it’s a window into what we might see if MGM were to open its proposed casino in Bridgeport and training center in New Haven.
The mood was festive Friday, maybe some nervous butterflies as everyone squared away last-minute details for opening day. Around noon it was cake time as the place broke into “Happy Birthday” for one of the trainers in the group that seems close-knit, even though they just came together over the last two or three weeks.
“We call ourselves casino gypsies; we’ve moved all over the country for 35 years,” Dawn Dreyer said, naming the six states where she and her husband have opened new casinos, as far away as Louisiana.
But it’s Connecticut where they raised their kids while working at Mohegan Sun. “It’s just as much home as Scotland,” she said.
Angel Rivera, from Springfield, worked in Atlantic City, N.J., at the now defunct Sands, then Mohegan Sun from 2005 to 2016. Now he’s back home as a supervisor and trainer, hoping two of his children who live nearby join him in the profession. “I’m encouraging them both to sign up for classes.”
It doesn’t require much time to see that these casino veterans enjoy the work. “You meet a lot of interesting people, never a dull moment,” Cusson said. “Fun, fast, exciting. It’s entertainment at its best.”
Despite the brutal political fighting between MGM and the Connecticut tribes, the casino economy doesn’t recognize state lines for these veterans. It’s nearby work in the trade they love.
The classes are comprehensive, several hours a day or a night for five or six weeks. Students will pay, for example, $399 for black jack and $269 for roulette, and MGM encouraged multiple classes to assure students will be well trained. Passing the classes guarantees a tryout, which they call an audition — hey, it’s the entertainment business — and it’s a step toward a Massachusetts gaming license.
If it seems odd that MGM would charge to train its would-be recruits, it’s not MGM that’s collecting the money. This is a separate entity, the Massachusetts Casino Career Training Institute, run jointly by MGM, Holyoke Community College and Springfield Technical Community College.
Classes will be as much about the whole culture of gaming and hospitality as about the techniques of dealing. “I don’t know the games, but I know how to run a school,” said Michele Cabral, the director, who’s a certified public accountant, former community college dean and tech company executive.
Robert Westerfield knows the games. He’s the king of this castle as vice president of table games at MGM Springfield, a veteran of five casino schools — and, since he moved here in September, a Connecticut resident, in Windsor. “This is the nicest training school in the country,” Westerfield said. “You get better every time you do it, so each time we’ve improved on the time we do it before.”
The idea is to replicate an actual casino floor, complete with piped-in music, though without servers ferrying drinks. The first thing I noticed in the long room of several dozen actual casino tables was windows, with sweeping views of Springfield on three sizes. Unusual for a casino setting, I figured, out loud.
“That was everyone’s stereotype of the casino,” Westerfield said, “No clocks. Dark. That kind of left the industry, and we look more toward being an entertainment hub.”
And a career hub for the army of dealers and supervisors at the table games. In all MGM will need 450 dealers for 117 tables among its 3,000 employees, and the training center will produce many of them.
They include Tom West, a 57-year-old East Hartford resident looking toward an enjoyable job, part-time at first, until he retires as an accountant. “I’ve always had an interest in the entertainment industry,” he said. “I enjoy working with people and around people.”
Another incoming student dealer, Andrew Fersch, grew up in Somers, and studied hotel management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He worked for Caesar’s Entertainment for most of the last 30 years, marketing hotel stays, not on the gaming side.
Fersch turned down an MGM management training opening way back, and always wondered whether that was a mistake. Now he’s back, living in Ellington, about to train at black jack. “Maybe I should have taken that job,” he said. “Now it’s a brand-new start.