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All hands on deck: live gaming approved by state

coverAfter nearly a decade of negotiations and broken promises, the state finally approved an agreement that allows table games with live dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

The Eastern Band has worked since the early 2000s to get the state’s John Hancock on a live gaming compact, and now, it’s just a matter of weeks before the longtime dream comes to fruition.

Although tribal leaders have expressed a desire to offer table games as early as July 4, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino will not likely deal its first hand until mid-August, said Brooks Robinson, general manager of Harrah’s Casino.

Live dealers and table games not only mean more money for the tribe but also more jobs and more visitors for the region.

The casino plans to go from 2,100 to 2,600 employees and hopes to increase visitation from 3.6 million to 4 million within the first year.

Harrah’s Cherokee began planning for the addition of table games last fall after realizing it would finally become a reality, although the final steps of the political process took longer than expected.

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Ramping up for table games will be no small feat. The biggest thing on the to-do list: hiring 500 new employees. The majority of those will be dealers.

The casino will also hire another 120 people for other areas of its operations. To handle the influx of more guests, the casino will need more security personnel, beverage servers and surveillance as well, among other positions, Robinson said.

The casino will over hire, bringing on board more than 600 new employees, with the anticipation that some won’t stay, and then settling out at the 500 mark.

“We are going to have some turnover,” Robinson said.


Ramping up dealers

Existing employees and inexperienced new dealers must undergo eight weeks of training to learn how to handle cards, proper shuffling techniques, chip handling and how to instantly recognize card combinations. That way, they are not spending too much time counting the cards.

“You look at a group of cards, and you automatically know an eight and 10 and three is 21,” Robinson said.

In the last month, Harrah’s has picked up its training and preparations to ensure that they are ready when the seal on that first deck of cards is broken in the casino.

“We feel very confident that we have put a lot of time and effort to get this thing right,” Robinson said.

Robinson envisions a soft open for the table games so as not to overwhelm themselves in the first few weeks while dealers are still acclimating to the new games.

“There is going to be a lot of nervous dealers out there,” Robinson said.

Harrah’s plans to advertise the new games among individuals who frequent casinos run by Caesar’s Entertainment, its parent company.

“We are going to be cautious initially,” Robinson said of their marketing strategy. “The fear would be that we would be hit too hard.”

Robinson is not unfamiliar with the dealer position himself. One of his many jobs with Caesar’s Entertainment was as a card dealer.

After the soft open, however, all bets are off.

“When we are ready, the floodgates open,” Robinson said.

Just a short drive down the road on U.S. 19, Cherokee’s Tribal Bingo has been transformed into training HQ for the casino. Employees gather inside the building and rotate around three craps tables, eight Blackjack tables and a couple games of roulette, slowly mastering each.

The casino already has video blackjack games. Players sit at table as they would at a typical casino. However, rather than being dealt actual playing cards, a Harrah’s employee presses a button that distributes virtual cards via screens built into the tables.

Games like roulette and craps, however, consume a bit more of the dealer training since Harrah’s does not offer any version of them, and employees must understand each games strategy, which is more difficult than learning the basics of shuffling and dealing properly.

In addition to the other games, Harrah’s has constructed a World Series of Poker room on its second floor, where it plans to host tournaments. It will even be able to hold regional World Series of Poker competitions, and the top player or players from that will have a chance to participate in the World Series of Poker game in Las Vegas.

“That is going to be key for us,” Robinson said. “There is something exciting (about a tournament).”

Even if people don’t come to play, they’ll come to watch.


Widening the reach

Table games open the casino to a previously untapped market. As a mostly slot machine operation, Harrah’s average players are females in their late 50s. But, table games draw typically younger males around age 30 or 35.

“It brings a different clientele to the casino,” said Tribal Council Chair Jim Owle. “It’s a great thing for the casino and a great time for the tribe.”

To help draw more and a greater range of players, Robinson said the casino plans to host some practice games and training sessions for people who want to learn strategies for different games. This will help people who might otherwise be intimidated by table games, Robinson said.

With the addition of table games, Harrah’s will gain the ability to open lines of credit for customers. This allows people to place larger bets without the burden of traveling with copious amounts of cash.

“It’s really a convenience thing for most players,” Robinson said. “They want to play at a higher value, but they don’t really want to carry cash on them.”

Much of the hubbub surrounding changes to the casino has revolved around live gaming, but the slot machines will also undergo a transformation.

“The change in our slot floor will be as significant,” Robinson said.

Currently, if gamblers win $600 or more, their slot machines lock up. A Harrah’s employee must come by and pay them their winnings, which unlocks the machine.

The compact, however, raises that bar. Now, similar to other casinos, the machines will only lock up if a player wins $1,200 or more. This allows them to play longer without having to cash out. It also opens the door for new games that the casino could not previously offer.

The casino will be able to purchase “the newest, latest, greatest slot themes,” Robinson said. “That’s exciting.”

Tribal Council member Adam Wachacha is keenly aware of how long the tribe has lobbied for live gaming. The issue was important to his father, Abe, who served on the council in the 2000s.

“It’s a great feeling,” Wachacha said to be part of the historic moment.

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