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Casino schools bet on gambling

It's one of those deals that sound too good to be true _ make big bucks with little effort while having fun.

"I'm ready to work as little as I can and make as much as I can and still meet the public. It sounds real exciting to me," said 35-year-old Deborah Eckstein, who had just signed up for a five-week course on how to be a blackjack dealer.

The woman who works in the service department for a car dealer in St. Petersburg says she wants to get a job on one of the many gambling ships that operate out of Florida ports and be ready for a land-based job when the state approves casino gambling.

Note that she said when the state approves casino gambling, not if. Eckstein and the people who operate the casino dealers schools that are popping up across the state are betting on some changes in Florida's gambling laws in the near future.

But first the schools may have to deal with some legal challenges from the attorney general.

Schools proliferate

Eckstein starts classes today, the first day of business at the Florida Casino Dealers School, 14100 U.S. 19 N, Suite 126, Clearwater. For prices ranging from $600 to $1,000, the school's Atlantic City-trained instructors will teach blackjack, dice, roulette and baccarat in five- to nine-week sessions.

"You'll earn the (tuition) money back in the first week you work," said Jo-Ann Bullock, one of the owners of the new school.

She and her partners are going through the necessary steps with the state to open schools in Pensacola and Hollywood that will teach the same games, said Bill Pedersen, who works for the state board that oversees such schools.

The TGIF Blackjack Dealer and Bartending School, 11000 66th St. N, Largo, has been teaching blackjack since last spring. Owner Ken Taboh says several hundred people have graduated, with 86 percent of them finding jobs.

Taboh is going through the steps to open blackjack schools in Orlando and Miami, said Pedersen, whose agency is called the State Board of Independent Postsecondary Vocational, Technical, Trade and Business Schools under the Department of Education.

Casino Career Academy recently got approval to start a school teaching poker, blackjack, craps and roulette in Hollywood, state records indicate. Casinos Austria is taking steps to open a blackjack and poker school in Hallandale, near Miami, the records say.

Though the schools are making their way through one government agency's regulations to get licenses, they still may face another challenge, this one from the state attorney general's office. The legal arm of the state may try to prohibit the schools from using some of the gaming instruments some instructors say they need to teach casino dealing.

Schools welcomed

Meanwhile, the schools are forging ahead. Some of the people who hire dealers for casinos on cruise ships based in Florida say they are glad the schools are opening. They say they've been importing dealers from Las Vegas and Atlantic City and from foreign countries and they need a supply of local folks who can deal.

A 300-passenger cruise ship based in Key West that makes nine trips per week into international water so customers may gamble would make five more trips a week if it could get enough dealers, said Andrew Rufo, general manager of Europa FunKruz's Europa Sun.

Rufo, who said he has 13 years of experience in the casino business, believes dealers need to go to school to learn the job.

"The public doesn't realize this, but every blessed move has been choreographed," he said. Rufo estimated beginning dealers make $25 an hour for the hours they are dealing, including tips.

The company that operates the casino on the Europa Sun is Casinos Austria, which also runs casinos on five other ships in Florida and 13 international vessels. Casinos Austria won't be guaranteeing jobs to graduates of the school it is planning in Hallandale, and it may hire graduates of other schools, said Jean Walder, executive assistant of the company based in Madeira Beach.

"We have so many vessels. I don't know that we wouldn't hire from more (other) schools," she said.

The gambling-dinner cruise ship that started in Tarpon Springs last month hired four of its 24 dealers from the school in Largo, said Mollie Kolokithas, one of the ship's owners.

She said the training the schools offer is necessary and the job opportunities are great. "Why graduate from high school and go punch a cash register at Kmart when you can have a career that you can make good money at?" she said.

She said she has a son and daughter who each have high school diplomas and make more money as dealers than another daughter does with a nursing degree.

Need not so great

for everyone

Some of the others who hire dealers for ships are a little more hesitant, saying they think the schools really will be needed only if the state approves casino gambling.

"A lot is dependent upon legalized gambling in Florida," said Charlene Wallace, director of casino operations for Cardinal Trading Ltd. of Miami, which operates casinos on three ships for Regency Cruises, including the Regent Rainbow in Tampa.

She said there always is a need for dealers and even though her company generally hires only dealers with at least two years' experience, she would give some newcomers from the schools a try.

Carnival Cruise Lines of Miami hires most of its dealers from other countries and only takes a handful of students straight out of schools each year, said Rodney Dofort, senior assistant director of casino operations for the company. He said those come from schools he knows and trusts in Vancouver, Ontario and London.

"I'm not sure where these people are expecting to get a job unless casinos come to Florida," he said. "I really don't need any more applicants."

Troubles ahead

The state attorney general's office may cause the schools some difficulties soon. An opinion from the office says it's okay to teach gaming, but it's not okay to use gaming equipment in the process, said Assistant Attorney General Edward Hill.

That is because a state law prohibits anyone from possessing gaming equipment, such as roulette wheels and baccarat tables. Cards and dice are allowed, but not other items that would be used in a casino. Hill said the law is aimed at making enforcement easier _ if there is no gaming equipment, there is no chance that anyone can violate the law banning the use of gaming equipment.

The state board that regulates such schools previously denied licenses for casino dealers schools because of the law against possessing gaming equipment, Pedersen said.

But when some people who wanted to start the schools said they could instruct dealers by using smaller, imitation versions of gaming equipment that they can buy in Florida stores, the board decided that would be okay.

The attorney general's office says it's not okay. Hill says the imitation gaming equipment is illegal too.

The attorney general's office will pursue the matter, possibly starting by notifying the schools that they can't use the equipment to see if they'll voluntarily comply with the law, Hill said.

But if that doesn't work, the office could seek a court injunction or prosecute violators with criminal charges, he said.

Taboh, who owns the blackjack school in Largo, says he can teach blackjack without the tables he is currently using that have special markings on them. But Bullock, one of the owners of the new school in Clearwater, said she needs the imitation gaming tools to teach the more complicated games.

Why the recent proliferation of efforts to teach casino dealing? The people who are starting the schools say they are motivated by more gambling ships starting up in the state and by the legalization of casino gambling in nearby Mississippi and Louisiana. They also say they think and hope that casino gambling will be legalized in Florida soon.

"I'm very confident that it'll go to ballot and pass," Taboh said. "But then, I voted for Perot."

The Florida Casino Dealers School can be reached at 532-8111. The TGIF Blackjack Dealer and Bartending School can be reached at 546-4707.

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