LAKEWOOD, Calif. – It’s the middle of the afternoon and Tony Fernandez, a long-time poker enthusiast, is already ensconced at the card table.
But Fernandez isn’t playing. He’s dealing—or training to, anyway. He’s one of dozens of students enrolled at Casino College, here, hoping to one day graduate to the big time in Las Vegas.
"I like the bright lights and the bling, bling," says the 50-year-old Fernandez. "I’m going to try and move to Vegas. If my family wants to come with me, they're welcome to, and if not, well, I guess they won't."
Fernandez’s story is a sadly familiar one in Southern California. He lost his 23-year job servicing refrigerators for 7-Eleven in 2005 and then lost two houses after a failed attempt to start his own refrigeration business. "I'm like dirt now," he said.
Like others here, enrolling at the poker-dealing course at Casino College is his last-ditch effort in a string of unsuccessful tries of getting back on his feet. Though the chips here have no cash value, by enrolling in the school, Fernandez is making a bet that there’s a job on the other end. The problem is, landing a full-time dealing job in Las Vegas right now is a moon shot.
For years, Las Vegas wasn't just a sought-after gambling destination. It was one of the few places where people without a college degree could land a decent job with benefits, either working in a casino or building one of them as a construction worker. People from all over the country poured in to get a piece of the action.
The population of Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, grew by almost 42 percent to nearly 2 million between 2000 and 2010. In 2000, the unemployment rate was 3.6 percent, compared with 4.7 percent for the rest of the country. Today, it’s stuck at 13.1 percent.
Though the dream jobs may have vanished, the dream of landing one hasn't. Fernandez has heard stories of dealers taking home $1,500 a week, mostly in tips, which multiplied out over a year, makes for a $78,000 annual income.
"In refrigeration, I was making $33 an hour," Fernandez said. "Why would I ever go back to that when I could make $60 an hour dealing on a good night?"
Kanie Kastroll, a self-described "career dealer" and president of TWU Local 721, the Las Vegas dealers' union, thinks the latest batch of graduates from Casino College are making a bad bet, at least if they want to come to Las Vegas.
"Now is not a good time to get into dealing," she said.
After 20 years in the business, Kastroll remembers thinking she had finally "made it" when she got a job dealing at Wynn in 2005. She was still making minimum wage, $5.15 an hour at that time, but the tips were good enough to help buy a 3-bedroom $324,900 house July of that same year.
Now, minimum wage in Nevada is up to $7.25, but the tips are way down.
"Meanwhile, my friends working at In-N-Out are at least getting $10 an hour," Kastroll said.
Fernandez, however, isn't deterred by the stats. Neither are his fellow classmates at Casino College, he said.
"After all, we're gamblers," he says.
Right now, he only sees his wife, who lives in Santa Clarita, on weekends. During the week he stays with his parents, 20 minutes away from Casino College. He comes into the school four days a week and collects unemployment.
Of the eight students in the school's training area on a recent Monday afternoon, only two are in their early 20s, embarking on their first real career. The other six are all past middle age, making a mid-career switch or coming out of retirement to give dealing a shot.
Aaron Bronsal, the managing instructor at Casino College, makes no bones about telling his students how tough it is to land a job. He acknowledges that anyone new to the scene will be working part-time swing shifts. Still, if you can manage to score a gig dealing at a big event like the World Series of Poker, he says it's possible to make a lot of cash in a short amount of time.
Bronsal's pitch clearly works. For the eight years he's worked at Casino College, enrollment has been steady. Students take anywhere from six weeks to six months to earn their dealer certification, and with 80 to 100 students on the school's roster most of the time, classes continue to be full.
David Bruun, a 47-year-old from Fresno, lost his job in the electrical industry in 2008 after the housing crash. When his son in Los Angeles was deployed with the Marines, he moved down to help take care of his grandkids and started attending Casino College, thinking it could be a way to turn a hobby into something more profitable.
He earned his dealer certification in March of 2011, but had no luck finding work until he scored a job dealing at the World Series of Poker that summer.
Bruun has since landed a gig at the Club One Casino in Fresno, where he's now dealing blackjack and Pai Gow poker, another table game where players make two poker hands out of the seven cards they’re dealt. He’s working almost full time, but mostly graveyard and swing shifts, without benefits. He's hoping to be eligible for health insurance through the casino in a couple months.
"Most players don't realize how hard, how exhausting it is to deal," Bruun said. "You’ve got to keep track of all the money on the table at all times while you're also dealing with different personalities. At the end of a shift, you're mentally done."
About a month ago, Fernandez and five other Casino College students went to an audition at Hustler Casino in nearby Gardena. Fernandez was the only one who didn't pass, meaning we would not be added to their list of on-call dealers.
"At the audition, I wanted to be perfect, I didn't want to let down the school. And I failed on both counts."
Tony Fernandez is still hoping to pursue a mid-life career change in card dealing. He’s taking the bungled audition in stride, chalking it up to inexperience. His goal is to deal at the World Series of Poker in 2012, hopefully with some of his new friends from Casino College.
"I'll get it. I’m determined," he said. "I’ll be back here tomorrow."