It’s a strange summer for everyone. It’s especially strange for Mark Grochala.
A few days before the Fourth of July, he’s enjoying bayside views at the Jersey Shore, a seemingly normal summer pastime.
But it’s surreal for Grochala, who has been working at casinos for 37 years.
The summer and holiday weekends, like Independence Day weekend, usually are busy times for casinos. But Grochala, like many other casino workers, has been furloughed since mid-March.
Table games supervisor shares his story
Grochala is a table games supervisor at Rivers Casino Philadelphia. It was one of 12 PA casinos to close in mid-March to slow the spread of coronavirus. That’s when Grochala was furloughed.
The 61-year-old Trenton, NJ, native shared his story with PlayPennsylvania.
A near-death experience
After graduating from The College of New Jersey in 1981, Grochala was unsure of his next step. He thought he might go into sales or go to law school.
One September night in the early ’80s, Grochala and a friend were out at a few bars. When they headed home that rainy night, the car spun out and they ended up stuck in a marsh. EMTs had to cut Grochala out of the car. He ended up in the hospital, semicomatose, with a collapsed lung, loss of hearing and other injuries.
When he returned to home to start his rehab, a friend said he was moving to Atlantic City to become a dealer at a casino. The friend explained that his brother was already a pit manager in AC, the bars were open 24/7, there were beaches and there was money to be made.
Grochala was immediately sold on Atlantic City:
“’Screw school. I’m in. Let’s go.’ I never looked back.”
The Wild West on the East Coast
Grochala started as a craps dealer at Resorts Casino in 1983. He would finish his shift around 4 a.m. and recalled going to the bar after work and driving home as the sun rose. His day ended when others’ days were just starting, as he saw people headed to work clutching their Styrofoam coffee cups. In the summers, Mark and his friends spent their days in front of Lucy the Elephant in Margate.
About Atlantic City in the eighties, Mark says:
“It was the Wild West. It was hedonistic, to say the least. I had fun, and I indulged. I didn’t have a care in the world. It was a playground.”
Once home, he would draw his cheap vinyl shades in an attempt to block out the sunlight to get some sleep.
“There was always one little pinhole where the sun would come through and hit you in the eye while you were lying in bed. You get used to it all, and it becomes a way of life.”
Casinos then and now
Grochala’s father passed away, and Grochala admitted that he didn’t have a lot of guidance. After college, he assumed he would go into the business world, but he didn’t have the passion for it.
Grochala listened and learned while working as a craps dealer, and it came easy to him.
“Being quick with my hands came relatively easy, too. It was all about fun. I lived for the day. Back then, I really didn’t think about the future.”
However, the future is here, and it isn’t the same as the mid-’80s in Atlantic City. Grochala talked about the difference between dealing craps and casinos then and now.
“The people who broke me in, they came from out West, and they ran a tight pit. When you first start, you’re intimidated. You’re dealing with people’s money, and some of them are yelling and cursing at you. But then you learn and get better. It was a fun time. Now, it’s a different scene. I don’t even know if there was a human resources department then. HR is prevalent now, and you have to be careful what you say to everyone.”
Other differences Grochala has observed:
“A big difference between now and then is when you first started dealing, it was on the low-level pits and you worked your way up to the high-level action as you gained experience. That’s not so anymore. With so many employees using FMLA, we often have to put inexperienced dealers on high-level games. That can be challenging for the dealer, supervisor and player.
“Back then, we controlled the game pretty well. People didn’t have options like they have now. If we said ‘No, you don’t have a bet,’ they didn’t have a bet. It’s different now. Casinos are almost like CVS, where there is one on every corner. People have a choice.”
How to be a craps dealer
After nearly four decades of working at casinos, Grochala shared advice for people who want to become a craps dealer:
“You have to practice and have good hands. Craps is all procedure. If you know your procedure, it’s a pretty simple game. There is a lot of stuff going on, and you have to follow procedure. Working at a casino is not a bad job, because you can go (pre-COVID) anywhere and get a job. You can go to another state or country and find a job as a casino dealer. Opportunities are there.”
How to learn to play craps
He also offered insight to those who want to learn to play craps but might be intimidated:
“It’s a fast-moving game. Once people learn it, they love it. It’s hard to stand there and watch and figure it out. There are online sites that teach craps step by step. Start with the basics, the pass line and take odds. Pick your favorite number and go that way. Bet small. Don’t bring the lot with you. The best way to learn is to lose your money. If you lose your money, you’re going to learn real fast.”
First casino opens in Philadelphia
Grochala started working at SugarHouse (now Rivers Casino Philadelphia) when it opened in September 2010. Located about an hour from Atlantic City, it gave city residents a closer-to-home option.
“It was different because all the players knew each other. We were in their neighborhood. I know all my players. We talk to them all the time. It was packed. The craps player was a different type of player than Atlantic. They didn’t know the game as well. They knew how to bet the field and the don’ts. I don’t think they were as disciplined a player as when I started in the eighties. They went for the high-risk, high-reward bets.”
“A View From the Pits”
This is the longest Grochala has gone without working. He misses it. Even during Rivers’ closure, Grochala’s mind was with the world he spent so much time in.
He started a podcast, “A View From the Pits,” with Wade Lescord, a friend/entrepreneur/occasional gambler, on the premise of casino people talking about casinos. Grochala said:
“Not many people know the inner workings of casinos. I thought it would be fun and interesting. We’ll see what happens, and hopefully it will catch on.”
Ready for a safe return
Coronavirus stopped everything at casinos and anywhere else people gathered to have fun. Grochala, like many others, enjoyed going to New York and taking his girlfriend out to dinner. Now, he isn’t sure when it will be safe to do those things again.
“It’s sad. It’s the end of fun.”
Philadelphia is opting for a slower transition to the “green” phase, so Rivers Casino Philadelphia has yet to announce a reopening date. Grochala has heard rumors from co-workers that they will be called back to work in the next few days.
He is confident that the casino will follow the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board protocols.
“I think Rivers is going to be very careful, and I know I’m going to be very careful.”
His girlfriend has a respiratory issue, and his biggest worry is getting her sick. But Grochala is planning to return to work.
“I don’t have a choice; I have bills. I keep buying lottery tickets, though.”
And he is, like the basis of his podcast, a “casino person.” He thrives off the energy, enjoys the interaction with customers and, 40 years after his near-death experience, it’s become a way of life.