Atlantic City, N.J. — Joe Nardell has staked his livelihood on the house side of a gaming table. Two years ago, this 24-year-old with liquid brown eyes and an earnest, open personality worked in a bank as a loan processor while going to school nights to learn accounting. Today, he toils at a casino craps table, raking in "tokes" (tips) and looking for the "juice" (personal contacts and influence) to get his career moving.
"I loved working in the bank," he says, nervously fingering the frilled shirt he wears at the crapts table. "But they told me I would need a degree in accounting to move up. Besides, the pay scale just didn't measure up."
When Joe Nardell (an assumed name for a real casino craps dealer) came to work at Caesar's on the Atlantic City boardwalk, he found that the earnings more than "measured up." He also found himself immersed in a competitive, driving world and what he calls "a tough life."
"I wouldn't want my fiancee working in a casino," he confides. "I don't mind the pressures. I know a few guys who couldn't handle it. But I like it, and I want to stay with it."
Like thousands of other young men and women who have left budding careers as nurses, teachers, carpenters, and other professions since casino gambling hit this town three years ago, Mr. Nardell is seeking greener pastures in the soft felt and hard odds of the casino industry. And, if states like New York and Massachusetts (currently considering legalized casino gambling) follow New Jersey's lead, many thousands more could follow them.
Here in New Jersey, the steady stream of job applicants has reached such a flood that one casino recruiter refers to them as "lemmings." The state's Casino Control Commission has received 60,000 license applications for a projected 37, 000 casino-related jobs. The applicants are attracted by the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a runaway industry.
But there is mounting evidence that many of these jobs seekers are taking a gamble nearly as risky as the customers who come here to wager their savings.
According to social-service agencies and volunteer counselors in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, Nev., the professional stresses, high-speed life, and personal associations that go with casino work can wreak havoc on marriages, families, and other relationships and bring about profound, unwelcome changes in the employees' lives. These hidden elements of casino employment are the dark underside of the job boom that casino promoters promise to states considering legalized casino gambling, the social workers say.
"There is a certain life style that isn't bargained for," comments Sabina Ubell, director of Jewish Family Services, which has counseled a number of troubled casino employees. "There are a great many pressures, long hours, short breaks -- especially for dealers. The whole business can be very stressful to the body and the mind."
Stresses to body and mind are not the hot topics of conversation at places like the Casino Career Institute of Atlantic Community College, where aspiring croupiers, cashiers, slot machine mechanics, and executives come to spend their time and money learning to deal games of chance.
To Francine Schultz, who stands placing practice bets at a training table for craps, her future as a dealer in a new casino means "lots of fun and a good job." She and her husband, a former plumber and carpenter, moved here from Pittsburgh a year ago so that he could bid on contracting jobs. But he lacked the proper licenses to ply his trade, and now both have been training to become craps dealers. with her long, straight hair falling around her shoulders, she leans nonchalantly against the craps table placing chips on the intricate grid of betting lines. She says she has a little girl about to go into school, and it "is about time to find something to go and do with myself."
Although there are trainees of all ages gathered around the regulation roulette, craps, and blackjack tables here, Francine falls into what seems to be the average age for aspiring casino employees -- 20 to 35 years old. Most, like her and her husband, seem to be shifting careers at a time when many couples and young single people are just struggling to get a start in life. and almost all seem to have one objective in mind: to make far more money than they could have dreamed of at their former professions.
A beginning dealer can make as much as $20,000 in these casinos; and, because new casinos will open every few months for the next half year or so, opportunities to hop from casino to casino, quickly upgrading salaries, are ripe. Within a couple of years, dealers who have acquired skills in two or three games can bring down as much as $32,000 a year.
That kind of arithmetic makes sense to people like Cindy Connor, a 21 -year-old woman who has bounced from one job to a half-year at college to other jobs. "If you're a factory worker," she says, "you work hard, and don't get nothin' for it. In the casinos you can make $20,000 a year, easy."
Jose Padro, a former county investigator with three years of college majoring in business, likes the numbers, too. Especially considering the effect casinos are having on prices here in Atlantic County.
"The way things are going," he says as he deals a practice hand of blackjack, "this is the only kind of job you can get around here that pays anything. Rents are going out of sight. And if you try to buy a house, it's going to cost you $ 600 a month plus taxes."
These financial pressures have forced many local residents in traditional professions to consider casino employment.
"We have wiped out every savings and loan, every bank and financial institution in town," Playboy's human resources director, Frank E. Fraser, boasts, speaking of the casino industry's recruiting efforts here. "We gobbled them up because we have such a desperate need for cashiers."
The casinos have "gobbled up" other kinds of workers, too. "Great numbers of people who come here are changing careers," Mr. Fraser acknowledges. "Teachers, nurses, financial people, chemists. Everything under the sun. For many of them , the change can be black-and-white. Dealers can average $450 a week with no problem. That's big money around this town. When we first came here, you could buy half the town for $125 a week."
For all the promises of high salaries and career advancement, Atlantic City casinos offer very uncertain futures to the people training at casino Career Institute, sources say.Turnover in the industry, is rated as "phenomenal" by informed observers, although it is difficult to get precise figures. And the institute's director, Frank Crevelling, acknowledges that "there must be a lot more people training for the field and dropping out than we had imagined there would have been."
Many of these dropouts are "no-shows," who get a license and hold onto them for a rainy day. But many others have succumbed to the intense pressures and unaccustomed life style of the casinos, which, social workers say, can turn employees with normally manageable personal problems into troubled people.
These troubled people show up in places like the paint- faded converted-motel headquarters of the Family Services Association on the outskirts of the city; or at Jewish Family Services in nearby Ventnor, N.J.; or at weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings in a tiny room tucked away in the nave of an old stone church , two blocks from Atlantic City's first casino.
In such places, you hear stories of people who came here with dreams of fast, easy money and a chance for the good life -- people who are now struggling to keep their marriages together and their lives from breaking apart:
* One young couple with shared ambitions came to Atlantic City to make more money. He trained as a casino dealer and wound up dealing blackjack on the graveyard shift, getting off at 4 in the morning. Still keyed up after work, he started going out with his new friends, and began to change his whole life style. The strains on his marriage grew, and he eventually began to abuse his wife.
* A local lawyer who showed up a Gamblers Anonymous meeting had given up his law practice to work for the casinos. A moderate gambler in the past, he suddenly found himself drawn in by what one Gamblers, Anonymous official refers to as "the Cinderella atmosphere" of the casinos. He began to bet heavily at other casinos, which is a violation of casino employee licensing provisions, and got caught. Now he has lost his job and his savings, his marriage is in divorce , and he is in danger of losing his casino license.
* A casino pit-boss (senior floor supervisor) and his wife, a dealer, came to the Family Service association because the stress of their jobs had carried over into their relationship. Their new life style had had a damaging effect on their children, who are often left alone because their parents, work on the swing shifts common to casino employees. The family is in desperate need for help.
* A 50-year-old man who had never gambled in his life went to work for the casinos. He eventually lost $40,000 of his own money and is now $10,000 in debt , according to gamblers Anomymous officials.
How common are such problems among casino employees? The Family Service Association handles an average of 50 such cases, 20 percent of its caseload, during a six-week period. This would seem to be small potatoes in an industry that currently employs 26,741 people. But the agency's director maintains that this number "just scratches the surface of the problem."
Sitting in the plywood-floored anteroom of his reconditioned motel office, Oliver Gerland, the association's director, observes that in these families that already have some kind of internal stress or friction, "the work pressures, life style, irregular hours, and plastic world of the casinos" tend to breed acute family traumas. Another social service director, Ubell of Jewish Family Services, says it is too early to tell whether the casinos are totally responsible for changing people's lives. It may be, she thinks, that casinos tend to attract people who are predisposed to certain types of behavior.
Her opinion is contested by Michael Frank, assistant professor of psychology at nearby Stockton State College, who is participating in a study of the social impact casinos have had on Atlantic City. While Dr. Frank says there are no hard data to define the types of people who are attracted to casino employment, he reports that 20 or 30 interviews with casino employees lead him to believe that the majority of casino employees are hardworking, upwardly mobile people."
"People in the surrounding area are attracted by high salaries," he observes. "There is very much a feeling of rush, a 'do it now' kind of momentum among the populace here, now."
He says this momentum has swept a broad cross section of humanity into casino employment, people who would otherwise be pursuing careers in a multitude of other fields, and probably, in many cases, succeeding in them. "It appears to me that the demographics of casino employees are no different from the rest of the whole population," he observes.
Because these new casino employees do appear to represent the mainstream of young, upwardly mobile society, many social workers worry about the potential impact of thrusting them into the high-pressure, chrome-and-plastic world of the casinos.
If the track record in Las vegas is any indication, the fast pace and frenzied life style of gaming grounds for numerous social ills. Michael Gorman, executive director of that city's Family Counseling Service, which handles 240 to 300 casino-employee family crises a year, cites such factors as spouse abuse, isolation of children from parents, a distorted sense of values, unrealistic attitudes toward money, and numerous other unstable elements as natural, if unintended, byproducts of casino life for many people.
"We see increased drug use, alcoholism, a cheapening of values, and multiple marriages," he says. He adds that the problem for casino employees is that theysomehow insulate themselves from the depressing realities of the casinos. "You are getting swallowed up by that environment. coming down from it is very difficult for some people."
A spokesman for Resorts International, the first of the Atlantic City casinos , maintains that such problems are minimal. Most of the people who would have had difficulty dealing with casino life left a couple of years ago, this spokesman says. Those that remain are experienced dealers, competent at coping with the pressures and unusual job environment of casino.
Two of Atlantic City's six other casinos, Bally's Park Place and Harrah's, have tacitly acknowledged that casino work can lead to special stresses by initiating stress consultation programs. Another, Caesar's, has held seminars on dealing with stress. But social service workers charge that these are "small , lip-service programs" and that the underlying attitude of the casinos is that the pressure and stress of casino life is the employee's problem, not the casino's.
Interviewed in a makeshift office behind Playboy's employment center in a dressed-up row house, Mr. Fraser says frankly: "This is such a boomtown. People are like lemmings, going from one casino to another. The work force is highly unsettled. Until the work force stabilizes, I'm not going to be too concerned about [troubled employees]."
He's not the only one who is unconcerned. The underlying attitude of casino excutives and others associated with the casinos is that dealers are a highly expendable commodity. "In the beginning, when the casinos first arrived here, nobody knew what a dealer does," comments Frank Crevelling. "Now, people are learning the sad truth that the cheapest things in the casino are the dice, the cards, and the dealers." A Playboy executive put it more succinctly: "A dealer is a dealer . . . . It's not like one is different from another."
Different from one another or not, the dealers are the front line between the casinos and the gambling public; and this means they are subject to intense stresses in a high-pressure environment.
There is a briskness just this side of frenzy brimming from the banks of ringing and clattering slot machines, the endless clacking of roulette wheels, and the subdued, intense voices of gamblers. The mirrowed ceilings, plush carpet, indirect lighting, and gold-lame wall trimmings make it a kind of fantasy world.
But this is no never-never land. This is the real world. and you can see real-world tensions and anxiety written in the faces of the people at the tables.
At a blackjack table, a semicircle of unsmiling faces stares at the hands of a blondhaired yound dealer named Maggie. Her mouth, a straight unyielding line, is tight and serious, as she plays the cards out with a practiced sweeping motion, mechanically stopping at each player's hand, waiting for instructions for another card or a pass, and impersonally following those instructions. the game follows its own blind course -- win, lose, lose, win, lose, lose, lose, win -- in an automated, unfeeling way, as the players sit, almost motionless, watching their stacks of chips rise and fall according to the run of the deck.
A floorwalker stands behind the dealer, perhaps 12 inches from her shoulder, watching her every move. Above the table is a glistening plastic bubble concealing an "eye in the sky" television camera that feeds closeup coverage of the dealer's every move to surveillance teams in rooms nearby. Out on the floor are detectives from the division of gaming enforcement of the attorney general's office and inspectors from the Casino Control Commission. They all watch. And they record what they see.
Through it all, there are the eyes of the gamblers watching each card with searing intensity. There is the constant noise of the wheels and machines. There is the occasional pleading cry of a craps player calling to the dice.
It's heavy traffic, especially for an untried work force.
"These people are not accustomed to this kind of work," one casino recruiter acknowledges. "There's no such thing as Saturday and Sunday off, for instance. And the basic stress factor is much harder than in the hotel business as a whole. Our visitors are exuberant, charged up, extroverted. They're looking for excitement. These guests sometimes hit our people pretty hard."
Just how hard do these guests "hit" the dealers and other employees?
"Look, the casinos aren't just giving these high salaries away to be generous ," Mr. Crevelling says. "These are tough, demanding jobs. There are problems and aggravations. In blackjack, for instance; if I'm the dealer, I'm giving you the cards that are driving you into bankruptcy. I'm the one you are going to start directing your anger at."
Mr. Crevelling acknowledges that the school has no way to identify the students that won't be able to stand up to this pressure. The only way for them to find out is to ante up as much as $1,000 in tuition and try their hand at the trade.
Joe Nardell, the former loan processor, says handling this kind of animosity and the other pressures that go with his dealer job are not a big problem.
"The pressure doesn't bother me at all," he says, turning slightly in his seat. "And, if you're honest, all the watching and the 'eye in the sky' don't bother you, either. What does bother him is the occasional gambler who comes in and blows everything he has, because he is too consumed with gambling fever to stop himself. And he also says he misses his real friends, the ones he grew up with in Philadelphia. Somehow, they are different from the people here. Somehow, the world was less competitive there.
Forgetting about the casinos for a moment, he talks about the life he left to become a craps dealer. He had been an aspiring professional ball player, even played on a semiproteam, until a major league scout told him he lacked the speed to make a big league player. He had admired Roberto Clemente, " a quiet kind of guy who just did the job he had to do and didn't make a big thing out of it."
It was difficult for Joe to give up the idea of professional sports. And it was nearly as difficult to realize that he wouldn't be able to make it banking, because he "just wasn't very good in school," although he feels he is "smart enough to do a job for the bank."
But he had to find a way to make a good, honest living.
"My father was a narcotics agent in Philadelhia," he recalls. "He could have made a lot of money, if he wanted to be dirty. But my father lived the straight life.They don't have much to show for it. They're more in the hole than I'd ever want to be. But at least they can hold their heads up high."
Mr. Nardell wants to be able to do more than hold his head up high. "I want to make enough money so that my kid can have the same bike some other kid down the block has. So that my wife doesn't feel ashamed," he says firmly. "I think I can do that here. I want to make a lifetime thing of it. Maybe some day I'll be a games manager."
He looks determined. He looks as if he wants this more than anything else in the world. He looks as if he thinks he can win big here in the city of casinos.