Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

It was, fittingly, a game of chance that brought Nick Kallos to Las Vegas.

In 1971, Kallos was just back from Vietnam and growing fidgety in his sleepy hometown of Hastings, Nebraska, where he owned a bar with his father. One day Kallos sat outside with a cocktail waitress, discussing escape. They debated which would be the better destination: Denver or Vegas. Kallos flipped a coin. Vegas baby!

Like extras in a Fellini film, the men and women who spin wheels, deal cards, and pay out bets in Las Vegas go largely unnoticed in the great neon whorl. But in a city where the gaming industry generates billions of dollars and attracts tens of millions of tourists annually, the economy's health rests on the bright smiles and nimble fingers of its work force. Casino Gaming School mints dealers like quarters: training them in every nuance of gameplay, demonstrating how to spot cheats, helping with job placement--even giving advice on grooming. "I work my ass off for these kids to make sure they get the best shot on the planet," says Kallos, the school's founder and the town's unofficial Mr. Chips.

Over 25 years, the nine-employee Casino Gaming School has churned out roughly 11,000 dealers and other gaming workers, who are employed across the city's 75 casinos. New graduates typically start in smaller venues and work their way up. Kallos won't reveal his revenues or his placement rate. ("I do a very good job at getting my good students jobs," he says.) But casino managers will contact him when they have an opening or two--or 20 or 30 or 100. When a new casino opens or the World Series of Poker comes to town, demand skyrockets for Kallos's manually dexterous, mathematically adept grads.

Kallos also gets work directly from casinos, which sometimes pay him to cross-train porters, front-desk people, and retail workers who want to learn to deal. When the Playboy Club, formerly at the Palms Casino, decided its 48 Bunnies should add blackjack dealing to their resumes, Kallos got the nod. Mostly, though, Casino Gaming School prepares ordinary people for positions that can earn up to $58,000 a year with tips, according to H Careers, a hospitality employment website.

Bill Zimmer, recently retired, has been vice president of casino operations at such Las Vegas properties as Wynn, Bally's, Paris, and Harrah's. After learning about Casino Gaming School in 1994 from a faxed advertisement, Zimmer asked Kallos to send him candidates for six openings at O'Shea's, a small downtown operation he was running at the time. Kallos sent him six candidates, and Zimmer hired all of them. In the ensuing years he has hired hundreds of Casino Gaming grads. He's even hired them for large properties, highly unusual in a system where small casinos act as farm teams for the big guys.

"Being an operator, I want a dealer who creates a great experience for the customer, because the more fun you have at the table the longer you play and the more money I make," says Zimmer. "Nick spends a lot of time training them on attitude and customer service. And he motivates them to go out there and be the best they can be."

Getting in on the action.

Growing up in a farm town, Kallos heard the same thing repeatedly: "If anyone doesn't belong here, it's you." Still, he made the best of it, peeling potatoes in his father's restaurant as a kid, and later working as a car salesman and a bail bondsman. He bought a pinball arcade, a gas station, and the bar. But his father controlled the money. When Kallos left for Las Vegas, he had just $57 in his pocket.

Kallos drove west, accompanied by a bartender and two cocktail waitresses who had worked for him. Their first night in Vegas, someone broke the back window of their station wagon and stole everything. Two of Kallos's traveling companions fled back to Nebraska. Kallos and one waitress stayed on. "If I'd gone home, the embarrassment in front of my dad would have been too great," says Kallos. "If I would have starved and died, I still would have stayed out here."

For the first five years, Kallos held two full-time jobs. At the Union Plaza Casino he "dumped coin"--snaking his small frame under slot machines to extract buckets full of nickels and quarters. At Caesars he was a porter, scrubbing pots in the kitchen, and later tidying the lobby with a diminutive broom and dustpan. His favorite task was sifting butts from the standing ashtrays, smoothing the sand when he was done, and stamping it with the Caesars crest.

By the late '70s Kallos was manning Union Plaza's main cage, a hectic job in which he processed the casino's cash and chips. But he wanted to deal. His boss gave him six months to prove himself on the Big Six Wheel of Fortune. The Wheel wasn't a popular game, "but I'm a carnival guy," says Kallos. "I can get you to my table and get you interested." Once Kallos became sufficiently skilled he was promoted to blackjack, craps, and other games.

"I would pick the best dealer in the building to learn a game from," says Kallos. "I'd ask them, 'How do you do this move? How do you handle the dice like that?' Then I'd go home and spend my nights and weekends shuffling decks and pitching cards. I wanted no one to be able to touch me."

Throughout the '80s, Kallos worked in casinos up and down the Strip, rising to shift boss and eventually to general manager. He tells tales of celebrities hiding out from clamoring fans in the deli at Foxy's Firehouse; of a guard caught in flagrante delicto with a cocktail waitress in a kitchen cooler, and of mob guys doling out favors--like the one who flew Kallos back to Nebraska on his private jet just in time to say good-bye to his dying father. The mob-run casinos, Kallos says, "took very good care of their people."

But Kallos wasn't happy. Las Vegas was growing more corporate, and Kallos is not a corporate guy. Plus, he was simply burning out. "If you are the manager of a casino, you are being paid good money to have a heart attack for the owners," he says. "You eat, drink, and sleep casino."

One part of the job that Kallos still relished was working with young dealers to improve their skills. "I'd help a kid, and the next night his shuffle was better or his payoff was smoother," he says. "It was gratifying." Kallos decided he was done with doing. Now it was time to teach.

Playing the odds.

Kallos launched Casino Gaming School in 1991 with his friend Gary Dallinger, another former Midwestern farm kid who ran the Pai Gow table at the Mandalay. They moved into the second floor of a building downtown, furnished with gaming tables Kallos built himself. Over several months the partners developed a thick manual. One would write while the other demonstrated moves: dropping and squaring and boxing the cards and breaking decks in half. For sustenance, they split Happy Meals.

Then an early mistake nearly ended things. Kallos and Dallinger had already rented a space and racked up other expenses when they learned the government bureau that oversees postsecondary education would not be licensing new schools for six months. The situation looked bleak until inspiration struck. "I said, 'Let's [cross] out 'Casino Gaming School' and put in 'Casino Gaming Seminars,'" recalls Kallos. So that's what they did: handing out fliers at the bus station that offered individual lessons for $5 or $10 a pop. That ploy sustained the business until the founders could obtain a license. Six months later, Casino Gaming School was in operation. (Dallinger died in 2006.)

Casino Gaming School offers courses in blackjack, craps, poker, mini Baccarat, roulette, and Pai Gow poker, which is a card-based variation on Chinese dominoes. Prices range from $299 for blackjack to $799 for poker, which Kallos calls "an exact science." Each course typically takes 80 hours and extends over three weeks, with programs customized to suit student schedules. "I never charge you twice for the same game," says Kallos. "That means if you are going to audition at the Bellagio in a year, you can come back and practice your shuffle, your strip, your pitch, your spread--whatever you need. My school is at your beck and call."

Kallos requires his instructors--virtually all of them former students--to have five years of experience at the tables and to be employed at a casino. "I work all my people very short hours to keep them fresh," he says.

Suiting up for the Strip.

Students begin by learning discrete hand skills: stripping cards from the top of a deck, pitching cards to players. Later, sitting around ornate game tables (which Kallos acquired from the Imperial Palace after that casino got a makeover and a new name), they learn things like paying out bets, pacing games, and offering insurance when the dealer turns up an ace at blackjack.

But table skills are only part of it. "Appearance matters, too," says Kallos, who is not shy about telling male students to lose the earrings and shave and encouraging all his young charges to conceal their tats, if possible. Even more important: "Personality," he says, "is everything." Students must be magnets who can attract gamblers to their tables and hold them there. "If I'm going to lose my 10 bucks or my 20 bucks, show me something," says Kallos. "Make me laugh. Make me smile. Make me feel good about being in Vegas."

While his students practice, Kallos wanders the room enforcing the personality principle. "I will walk by a table and the girl dealing the cards is frowning," he says. "And I will say, 'You can't do this on a real game. When you walk in a casino, I want you to be like a light switch. Turn the personality on! You are in the tips business, for god's sake! If you have a bad attitude then you are costing me and everyone around you money."

At the end of a course, students receive certificates for the games they've mastered. But before they head out for their first interviews, they sit down for an hour with Kallos, who distills for them his 45 years' worth of industry wisdom. He warns them to resist the siren song of drugs and alcohol. He offers grooming tips. "Some of it is boring," says Kallos. "Some of it is war stories. All of it is meant to help you get the job.

"I don't care what you've done before. Vegas is a different breed of cat," says Kallos. "When I send kids out there, they are 100 percent ready for anything."

 

Published on: Aug 3, 2015