The Holiday was built to look and feel like a Mississippi riverboat. In fact, its marketing moniker was “The Ship on The Strip”. It was a pretty cool little place, known for its cheap but quality buffet, loose dollar slots and friendly employees. Still a pretty nifty marketing strategy, now that I think about it

I had gone to work at the Holiday after six years of being a craps dealer at the Stardust, loosely the setting for the movie “Casino” and since imploded to make room for progress that has not yet progressed.

After several months as a dealer at the Holiday I did what is affectionately known in the business as “putting on a coat”. That is, I entered management. I became a floor person, assigned to supervise a number of games and dealers. I quickly found the job to be a lot less exciting than being a dealer, with less of a paycheck as well (one of the things that is backward in our industry - dealers making than their supervisors, after you factor in tips).

It was at this point, after spending 10 years in gaming, that I seriously considered leaving it. I thought about becoming a stockbroker (another form of gambling). Or selling insurance. Or (Heaven forbid!) pursuing law school once again. But no industry, then or now, seemed as interesting to me as the delightfully screwy casino biz.

As fate would have it, before I made a rash career move a position opened up at the Holiday called “Captain Casino” (I am not making this up), one of the first live games instructor positions in the industry. The job was to present an eight-hour schedule of table games lessons to interested beginners, including lessons in roulette, baccarat, craps and blackjack, and soon thereafter, poker, pai gow poker and other specialty games.

I applied for the Captain Casino job and got it. I should also mention that no one else applied for it, which should tell you how that job, which had been in place for about a year, was perceived among the Holiday’s table games professionals.

Captain Casino was seen as a “carny” job. You had to wear an outlandish uniform, the ostensible purpose of which was to make you look like a ship’s captain but in reality conveyed more the impression of being a refugee from the “Love Boat” - tuxedo pants, bow tie, a reclaimed room service jacket with gold bars Velcroed on the shoulders and an uncomfortably hot “Captain’s” hat made of vinyl.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to create the Captain Casino program, it had already been running for a year. But I did have to market it better, for it had a low profile, little customer participation and not much support from the table games traditionalists in the department.

So here’s what I did, and what I learned (and if it sounds like a comprehensive strategy, it wasn’t).

First of all, the actual lessons weren’t much fun. So I adopted a “Captain Casino” persona that was witty, and I incorporated some old gambling jokes into my patter. During the craps lessons I’d force one of the students to play the role of the stickman - it was hilarious to watch a novice try to rake the dice back to the middle of the table after they had been thrown.

Basically, I made the lessons a show rather than a class.

They were not very easy to understand either. So I reached into my teaching background, reduced the games to their simplest form and structured the lessons to proceed from the most basic knowledge building blocks and go from there. If there was confusion in the audience I didn’t move on until basic concepts were understood.

One Captain Casino feature that I employed got me into hot water, but I didn’t care. That involved being mathematically honest with my students. Most gaming lesson programs (even now) may impart some basic ways to play various table games, but they rarely touch on the best way. I thought that was dishonest so I included basic strategy for blackjack, optimal craps bets information and other mathematical inside tips in my lessons. The players loved the straight talk even if they didn’t always grasp it or implement it.

And from management’s perspective I knew it was important to show value in the lessons. So I handed out business cards to students who were tourists not staying at our hotel and asked them to call me for future reservations. I opened up the table games for live play right after each lesson, inviting the students to play on real games with real money (for low stakes), keeping track of their initial buy-ins and sharing that information with the table games director. I shared letters from grateful students who said they were now Holiday customers because of their “classroom” experience.

Was Captain Casino the perfect job? No, the hat was too hot, my fellow managers thought I was a clown, and the shtick got old after a year. But it was my first marketing experience and the start of my career.

And I can now say that I’ve had a parrot on my shoulder at work. But that’s another story.