Michael Hochman, a veteran Canterbury Park table games executive, discusses business strategy, the obstacles of running the pit during COVID and some of the uplifting results
Michael Hochman is vice president of casino operations and a 20-year veteran at Canterbury Park, a cardroom casino with 28 poker tables and 50 table games at full capacity, which has been pared back to 14 poker tables, 36 felt games and two electronic table game stations during the pandemic.
He recently spoke with Casino Journal Executive Editor Charles Anderer about how his lifetime passion for table games translated into a career with stops in Las Vegas, Washington state and now Minnesota, how he and his team have successfully navigated through COVID-19 and why the most recent period may have changed some things forever. What follows are some excerpts from this conversation:
Everyone in the industry has a personal gaming story. What’s yours?
HOCHMAN: If I had to describe myself, I’d be a poker guy. I’ve always been fascinated by cards; my family were card players. My Dad was a salesman and I remember he won a trip to Florida that included a casino night when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. And that did it. I played roulette at this casino night for raffle tickets and I won a TV/radio-thing of some sort, which may as well have been a Lamborghini for a kid like myself. I was hooked.
I played cards and shot pool a lot in college as a journalism major at the University of Georgia. And I was making so much money shooting pool and playing cards that I did what every good journalism major should, dropped out and moved to Las Vegas to seek my fortune playing poker, where I got broke pretty quick. I auditioned for a job at La Mirage, which was across from The Continental; Steve Wynn actually bought the name and it was changed to Anthony’s Club. It had two blackjack tables, a roulette wheel and half a craps table. I auditioned for a job as blackjack dealer and they hired me. I was at the same time begging the cardroom manager at The Sahara where I played poker for a job as a poker dealer. He finally broke down and said, “if you learn to muck Pan, I’ll hire you on graveyard shift.” Pan was a popular game in Las Vegas during the 1940s and 1950s, but by the time I got there it was only at The Sahara and the Union Plaza. However, it was a staple at that particular cardroom at the time.
This was the late 1980s?
HOCHMAN: Yes… it was the Sahara and it was the coolest job in the world. It was like family and I loved it. I was there for four years and then a friend of mine was opening the Luxor as the poker room manager so I went there in 1993, where I stayed until 1996 when I decided to move to Washington state and help the Suquamish Tribe open their poker room. It’s the Clearwater Casino now and it was the Suquamish Clearwater Casino back then. I went there with a buddy as a dealer and I ended up getting the cardroom manager job after about a year and stayed for four years. Then another friend was opening a cardroom in the Midwest. We flew out in the winter of 2000 to check it out; I met the people who were opening the room and really like them. They hired me and I expected this to be the same kind of thing I’d done before—work for two or three years and then go somewhere else, and 20 years later, here I am.
When did you assume your current responsibilities?
HOCHMAN: When I was hired at Canterbury, they looked at my resume and saw that I had dealt Super Pan 9, Caribbean Stud and Pai Gow Poker at The Sahara. They asked me to help teach those games so I trained the group of dealers that we were going to open the room. Being one of the only people on-site who knew those games, I got put in charge of the table games department pretty quickly. I was director of table games until 2009 and then I was named vice president of the cardroom and took over poker operations as well. I’m in charge of poker and pit, all of the games, dealers, floor people and pit bosses.
Your players have alternatives, what are some of the reasons they might choose Canterbury Park?
HOCHMAN: We’re five miles away from Mystic Lake which at one time was the second or third largest Native American casino in the U.S. I think poker put us on the map; there was no legal poker room in Minnesota when we opened and we opened a robust poker room. When I say we had 40 tables, during the poker boom, we had 40 tables going with lists. It was crazy. Two years after I moved here, we were the biggest poker room in the Midwest. Poker still separates us from Mystic Lake—they only have blackjack whereas we have baccarat, Ultimate TX Hold ‘Em, Blazing 7s Blackjack, and all of the carny games.
Would you say you have a more dedicated or hard-core table game player?
HOCHMAN: We’re limited by state law to a $300 maximum bet, I’m not sure what Mystic’s limits are, but they’re significantly higher than ours; as a sovereign nation they’re not subject to state rules. We have a different breed of table game player than Mystic because they’re limited to blackjack. They have hard-core and recreational blackjack players. We get that as well as a ton of frequent carnival game players. On this particular property, the poker-based carny games, probably because of our strong poker backbone, do really, really well.
How do you compete on the VIP side?
HOCHMAN: I put in EZ Baccarat in 2007. At the time, we were still taking a collection, similar to what California did at one time, where you’d pay 50 cents to $3 a hand no matter what; win, lose or draw. When I put in baccarat under those restrictions there was a game called EZ Baccarat that didn’t have commission, because I didn’t want to beat the players up both on commission and collection. That game did extremely well; we still only have that version of baccarat on our floor in the felt games. So 60 percent of what I’d call VIP play is baccarat and maybe 40 percent blackjack. With the $300 max bet we’re not attractive to what a lot of people would call VIP players, but I still have players that have very high ADTs at a $300 max bet house.
How would describe your competitive advantage? What do your players like best about Canterbury?
HOCHMAN: It’s going to sound corny because I’m sure everybody says it, but the thing that set us apart when we initially opened was the staff. Before we opened, we looked at the landscape here and the dealer atmosphere at competitive properties was very stiff; nobody smiled and there was no interaction. I was coming from Bainbridge Island, Wash., where things were at the other end of the spectrum. We were high-fiving, knuckles for everybody… it was a lot more relaxed and a lot more fun. So we really made an effort to bring that to this state and it was very, very different. For years, that’s all I heard; it was like, “I can’t believe it, it seems like your dealers are even rooting for us to win.” That was a big deal, so that was our niche. I suppose it’s still our niche, even though other properties have adopted that, for sure. They’re not as stiff as they were 20 years ago.
Do your dealers go for their own on tips?
HOCHMAN: They do and it has been wonderful. I have several dealers who make over $100,000 a year every year. It’s a good dealing gig.
How much work was it just to get in a position to reopen from COVID-19?
HOCHMAN: The three months we were closed—from mid-March to June 13—we met as an executive team probably six hours-plus a week, planning and planning. We didn’t know what to plan for so we created all these plans based on different sets of restrictions, such as whether to use plexiglass or not or what the mask policy would be. It was grueling work when we were doing it; I spent a lot of time in my garage on Zoom meetings and that I didn’t really love at the time. But when it came time to open, all that planning worked. All the stuff that we talked about and prepared for worked and that was a big deal. I’m very proud of the work the executive team did prior to reopening.
How did things go?
HOCHMAN: When we opened, it was so good to see everybody. We’re not a destination casino; we’re a locals place and a lot of my management staff and dealers have been with me for almost 21 years. So it was kind of like a teary, “oh my God it’s so good to see you guys,” both with the employees and the guests.
As much planning as we did, we learned a lot within the first 16 hours. We opened initially with limited hours and it didn’t take long to realize that was kind of silly and to just stay open 24 hours, which we did within a couple of weeks. We had a lot of arguments about plexiglass—do we put it in, do we not put it in, do we have it at every table. I kind of fought against it but our chief executive officer said, absolutely not, we want to protect our staff. So we got plexiglass, and that really scared me. Players and dealers love it; I thought it was going to be miserable—we’re going to have to clean it all the time, we’re not going to be able to hear everybody; those were my arguments against it. But what I heard from everybody once we opened was, “I didn’t think I would like this environment at all, but we feel safe here.”
You have compulsory mask policy. How has that worked?
HOCHMAN: Masks are mandatory—all dealers, all players, all the time. We had that as a rule before it was a state rule. I expected that to go poorly. You see the stuff on the media about fistfights and screaming and yelling. We took a really hard line when we first opened and I think that has served us well, because we don’t constantly have to deal with asking people to pull it back over their nose. We do deal with that but it’s nothing like what I expected.
Can you share some results with us?
HOCHMAN: Head count is down, that’s easy to say. We opened our pit games as four-handed—that was our own restriction. We expected game speed and hands-per-hour to go up a little bit. We talked a lot about dealing the games properly. I didn’t want to open up any $5 blackjack tables because I expected to lose money on that. Our table minimums went up. I was a little scared of that because like I said we are a locals joint and I didn’t want to alienate the $5 and $10 players, but we did yield the games all up a bit. I was expecting yield to be better per player; it was a lot better per player. So even though our head count may be down 35 percent, maybe we have 60 to 75 percent of our body count back, our cash drop is actually within single digits of what it was last year.
When I wonder if that’s sustainable, our marketing guys remind me that players are not going to the movies, concerts or the theater, so the player’s entertainment wallet is bigger than what it used to be. In the pit, it costs a little bit more labor-wise since my ratio of players to dealers is smaller, but the yielding of the games has been amazingly successful.
What group of players hasn’t come back?
HOCHMAN: We expected the older demographic to disappear and, while that did happen in poker, it did not happen in the pit. So when I say we’re 30-something percent down in head count, it’s basically across the board.
How about on the plus side?
HOCHMAN: We’ve seen more higher-end play than we saw in the past. Our baccarat play may be even better than it was last year.
What are you doing differently on the marketing side?
HOCHMAN: In the casino industry, we’ve had a lot of success in the past with “big days.” Now, we’re limited to 250 people in the room. Big drawing days, big giveaway days, big promo days, we can’t do those anymore because we run the risk of irresponsible, and in some cases, illegal behavior. So instead of creating promotions and events, we’re simply communicating with our players that we’re open and this is what we’ve got. We’re probably being more strategic and specific with our monthly mailers and our host program, as far as who we’re inviting back and who we’re courting. We just started up our weekly free play offers again, but we have to be careful to make sure we don’t create a day that we can’t handle. We don’t want to be over 250 people; it’s a weird dance.
How are the ETGs performing?
HOCHMAN: Before COVID, the idea we had was to be the best blackjack house in Minnesota. We wanted to have live blackjack, dealer-assisted, $100 minimum and $1 minimum. Interblock helped facilitate that. On March 13, we put it in a huge marketing budget behind it and then we closed the property on March 15. I guess we were fortunate to be able to pull the big marketing campaign, which was going to be TV/radio/billboard but we never got to do it.
Right now we’ve got two tables; one with 11 blackjack stations and the other with 11 baccarat stations. I would say that the blackjack has been successful. What it turned into was an alternative for those $5 players we were worried about alienating by upping our table minimums to $15. We added baccarat to the mix last month with the same theory; baccarat tables that used to be $5 are now $25. They’re two different animals. EZ Baccarat is a phenomenal brand that has certain bets that the players like—the panda and dragon prop bets. The dealer-assist game is not exactly the same. It has been a little bit slower but, again, we haven’t advertised it at all or put any marketing behind it.
So you’re pleased with how it’s going generally?
HOCHMAN: For sure. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there that we haven’t been able to tap into yet. On the weekends those games fill, particularly blackjack. It’s mostly 18- to 30-year-old males. The young guys who come in groups seem to love it.
How have you handled staffing during this period?
HOCHMAN: When we closed we furloughed everybody so full-time employees were able to keep their insurance. We absolutely did right by our staff. When we reopened, I would say we brought back 96 percent of our staff—the vast majority—and they were happy to come back to work. It was a weird dynamic because some of the part-time people were actually making more money on unemployment with the $600 a week super-bonus (Federal unemployment) than they were when working. But they came back and, in many cases, to make less money. Despite that, they wanted to come back, which was very encouraging.
How has Minnesota handled COVID? It doesn’t seem to be in the news as much as some of your neighboring states.
HOCHMAN: Well, we went down after May, June through August was low but I think we’re starting to reach our peak numbers again. South Dakota, North Dakota and Wisconsin are all hotbeds of COVID; we’re surrounded by it. The trajectory here has been great. Unless we have significant outbreaks or forced closures, I’m optimistic about the next few months. We poll our players regularly through e-mail surveys and they like what we’ve done. Every time a player leaves, we wipe down the plexiglass and the chairs. If you walk through the room it just looks like it’s clean.
When things do get back to normal—hopefully sooner rather than later—are there things you’re doing now that you will carry forward with you?
HOCHMAN: Absolutely. I can say that I’ve learned more about certain things in last six months than in the last 20 years. I don’t think I was intelligent about yielding the games by minimum bet and number of hands. I’ve sat through all the seminars but now I know it’s real. If I can get as much money out of significantly fewer customers, that’s big stuff. Game yield was a big eye opener for everybody here. We try to be cognizant of payroll all the time, but in spades now, so we’ve been asking our floor people to watch six-game sections and we’ve laid out our floor accordingly. So it’s one floor man for six instead of two for eight or ten. It’s a little uncomfortable having somebody watch six games but they’re doing a fantastic job. It doesn’t seem to be a point to where they’re overstressed. We talk about it a lot in our pre-shift meetings and maybe it’s because there are only four people at a table but they’re doing well with six games.
From an executive level, the fact that I’m meeting regularly through Zoom… I don’t ever want to go back to a boardroom for four hours and I’m sure I’m not alone on that. When I’m on a Zoom meeting I can multitask when the stuff that really isn’t pertinent to me is being discussed. I think the ability to meet remotely will be a permanent takeaway for everybody.