CHESTER - To be a good blackjack dealer, it helps to be good at math.
Just don't spend too much time counting to 21, advises Bob Mann, a West Virginia Northern Community College instructor who teaches table game classes at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort.
"There is a science to dealing, which is the math, but there's also the art of dealing, which is the people skills," said Mann, 55, of Cadiz, Ohio.
Martin Roth, 56, of Salem, Ohio, distributes chips, known as checks, at a demonstration blackjack table, while instructor Bob Mann, left, looks on. Mann teaches the blackjack dealer class for West Virginia Northern Community College. -- Stephen Huba
Mann, an expert who learned the art of dealing in Atlantic City, N.J., said it's up to him to teach the basics.
"Where you really learn to deal is at the table - nothing beats experience," he said.
Mann's four-week blackjack course at Mountaineer has six students who say they're looking forward to finding employment in the gaming industry - whether in West Virginia or elsewhere. With a two-week "Intro to Gaming" prerequisite out of the way, the students are on track to receive their West Virginia gaming certification later this month and get started on a casino career.
"For me, it's about making more than what I'm making now," said Rebecca Huff, 34, of Wellsville, Ohio, who works at Mountaineer as a cashier in the employee cafeteria. Huff's boyfriend is a dealer/floor supervisor at Mountaineer - something she also aspires to.
"I'm enjoying learning the blackjack skills, and I want to learn the other games as well," she said.
Mann also teaches dealer classes in craps, pai gow poker, mini-baccarat and secondary games such as Caribbean stud poker, Let it Ride and Texas hold 'em. The craps course alone takes eight weeks.
Interest in the West Virginia Northern table gaming courses is on the rise again, Mann said, after a year-long dry spell.
"A year ago, we were getting the vast majority of our people hired," he said.
The blackjack class comes at a time of increasing competition for the West Virginia gaming industry from surrounding states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Fourteen competing gambling facilities have opened in West Virginia border states in the past four years.
On Wednesday, state Sen. Rocky Fitzsimmons, D-Wheeling, co-sponsored legislation that would reduce significantly the taxes and fees that West Virginia's four racetrack casinos, including Mountaineer, pay to the state as a way to keep them more competitive. Fitzsimmons' senate district includes Hancock County.
"Our tracks are getting crushed by out-of-state competition that did not even exist when we started table gaming (in 2007)," Fitzsimmons said in a recent newspaper article. "We have to continue to support our businesses."
But Mountaineer, which collaborates with West Virginia Northern to develop a pool of qualified candidates, says it's hiring and sees a strong employment outlook for the near future.
"Sometimes people assume that there are no (job) opportunities, but that just isn't the case," said Vince Azzarello, senior director of human resources at Mountaineer. "We're always recruiting. We're always looking for good people who can help us take care of our guests."
Azzarello said the employment picture at Mountaineer has stabilized in the last few years. Mountaineer announced layoffs of hourly and management employees in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Among Hancock County's biggest employers, Mountaineer currently employs between 1,270 and 1,300 people, he said. That's down from about 1,900 employees in early 2009.
"We'll look to have some new folks come on as we get more towards the summer season," Azzarello said.
Mountaineer's Web site (www.MoreAtMountaineer.com) lists about 44 current job openings at the casino, racetrack and resort, but only two in the table gaming area - part-time positions for a casino dealer and a poker dealer. A job fair is scheduled 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 17 that will include on-site interviews with hiring managers.
Poker dealer Martin Roth, 56, of Salem, said he's taking the blackjack class for continuing education and professional enrichment purposes.
"I want to know how to do everything here," he said.
Roth, a self-described lifelong poker player and horse racing fan, said he got hired at Mountaineer in 2007 after attending a job fair and getting certified in poker. Of the 200 people who got hired with him, some are still there and some have moved on, he said.
"Our business is significantly lower than what it used to be - before the other casinos opened," he said.
Huff, who has worked at Mountaineer for seven years, said she has noticed that things have picked up recently.
"It was definitely a lot busier when I first started here," she said.
Still, Roth said he loves his job and couldn't imagine doing anything else.
"It's just a fun atmosphere, an exciting atmosphere," he said. "The patrons are just terrific."
Mann said he also tries to prepare students for patrons who aren't so terrific. A good dealer must be able to display mental toughness, manual dexterity and self-confidence, he said.
"You're going to be dealing with people who, more often than not, are losing money," he said. "You'll be in close proximity to every kind of person imaginable and every kind of mood imaginable."
More than just a body dealing cards, the dealer is there for the guest's entertainment, Mann said. So it's important to engage the customer, even while dealing cards and handling chips, he said.
"You're not the party - but you're part of the party," he said.
(Huba can be contacted at email@example.com)