More than just a job: Rivers Casino employees embrace the gaming industry

December 9, 2023 1:35 PM
Photo: CDC Gaming Reports collage of Courtesy photos
  • Rege Behe, CDC Gaming Reports
December 9, 2023 1:35 PM

There have been many memorable days since Rivers Casino Pittsburgh opened 14 years ago.

Aerial of Rivers Casino & Hotel

August 9, 2009, the launch of Pittsburgh’s first legal gambling establishment, packed with avid gamblers and the curious.

The early COVID-19 pandemic days when closures reduced the staff to a skeleton crew, with the casino floor cast in an eerie light from silent slot machines.

August 25, 2022, when the largest bad beat jackpot in American history – a little over $1.2 million – was hit in the poker room.

General Manager Bud Green

And any day, the hometown Pittsburgh Steelers are playing at nearby Acrisure Stadium, and the casino is brimming with gamblers and sports fans.

But everyone who works at Rivers Casino remembers January 13, 2023. The day a refrigeration pipe burst in the ceiling and the casino floor became a sodden mess – on a Friday, of course.

General Manager Bud Green was in his office when his phone “blew up” with messages that there was a problem on the casino floor.

“They didn’t make it sound like it was a big event,” Green says. “I finally figured out I’d better get down there and assess it.”

Shannon Redmond, regional vice president of marketing

Green found team members from almost every department in the casino already in action, wielding squeegees trying to mitigate the damage spreading on the floor. It seemed like everyone working that day rushed to the floor to attack the problem.

“To this day I get chills remembering how this property and the team members came together,” says Shannon Redmond, the regional vice president of marketing for Rivers Casinos in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. “There were people from finance, people from marketing, from every department on that floor taking care of what needed to be taken care of without a second thought. I’ve been doing this for my whole life, pretty much, and I don’t know another place where everybody jumps in like that.”

*****

Workplaces are microcosms of society, “one of the most important sources of community” in American life, according to Forbes. They reflect the highs and lows, the mood swings, the joys and heartaches that are a part of everyday life.

But sometimes, a workplace becomes more than just a place to put in an eight-hour shift. Green says employees help create an atmosphere that transcends gambling. Some patrons frequent spots where their favorite bartenders are working. Slot attendants often interact with the same customers, and other employees receive Christmas gifts from patrons.

“It’s a real family here,” says Green. “And that’s all part of the experience. It’s not just coming here to gamble. It’s getting a little bit of an escape, talking to your friends, getting a meal, seeing a show. It’s just not only the gambling aspect.”

*****

Russell Knox thought he was ready to retire. He had worked loading trucks and traveled across the country as a salesman before becoming a table game dealer at Rivers Casino in June 2010. About a decade later, he thought it was time to retire for good.

Russel Knox, table games dealer

That retirement was brief. He jokes that he started working at the casino again because he felt useless sitting around all day.

“You can’t have this much fun sitting on your couch at home,” Knox says.

Effervescent and engaging when dealing blackjack, Mississippi stud, or any other table game, Knox has aphorisms that he abides by:

I tell my guests you already tipped me when you came in the door.

If the customer doesn’t win, how can I win?

As bad as life can be, and we all have our trials and tribulations, it’s not that bad.

Knox admits that he’ll eventually retire – he jokes that he’s 108 — when age eventually catches up with him. But for now, he has no plans to quit.

“Who can leave something like this?” he says. “I look in the mirror, and I just start hugging myself. I’m just a happy camper.”

The gaming floor

*****

Neither Kara Chappell or Derek Peluso knew much about the gaming industry when they started working at Rivers Casino.

Chappel, a PR/advertising manager, was hired in 2009 when the casino opened. She met co-workers in the marketing department who have become steadfast friends, and who know more about her than some family members.

And Chappell has become accustomed to the casino’s workflow “where every day is different,” she says.

“It truly is a second family,” Chappell adds. “I’m so used to the fast-paced environment of it all, and I truly can’t picture myself doing anything else. I’m so used to it, and I love that feeling of something different every single day.”

Peluso was studying finance at Point Park University in Downtown Pittsburgh in 2012 when he heard about an internship that the casino was offering.

“I found out it was a paid internship, and I was a broke college student,” Peluso says with a laugh, noting he’d never been inside a casino before then. He didn’t envision staying long, but 11 1/2 years later, Peluso is the manager of slot operations, where he does a lot of behind-the-scenes analytical work.

Peluso also oversees the Rivers Casino sportsbook, a role that often requires being on the floor when sporting events, especially those featuring the hometown Steelers, Penguins, Pirates, and University of Pittsburgh Panthers are played.

Rivers sportsbook

“All the stuff you imagine that’s going on at the stadium is happening here,” Peluso says, noting that profanity and spilled drinks are just part of the atmosphere.

Peluso admits he’s had opportunities to “branch out” into other industries but says, “this place keeps pulling me back and keeping me. We have a really great team and it’s fun to come to work every day… If you’re in this industry, you love this industry. Technology has made this a 24-hour job, and people can always reach me at any time of the day, and they try to. I’m always thinking about it. But this place has been really good about making sure we have a good work-life balance.”

Chappell and Peluso are not alone in their belief that Rivers Casino is a good place to work. There are 346 team members, approximately 25% of the workforce, who have worked at the casino for more than a decade.

That continuity, Green says, helps make his job easier.

“We try to give team members the resources that make them successful, make them smile when customers come their way,” Green says.

*****

The 30 tables in the Rivers Casino’s poker room are behind glass in a corner of the floor. The poker room has hosted numerous tournaments and events, such as Poker Night in America, the Rush Street production that brought noted players, including Joe Cada, Matt Glantz, and Jennifer Harman, to the room.

The room garnered national attention in 2022 when the largest bad beat in U.S. history, $1.2 million, was doled out.  Unfortunately, poker room manager Leslie Brittain wasn’t there that day. She’d worked every day since the poker room had re-opened in 2021 after being closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and decided to take a day off.

The Poker Room

“I was not there, but from talking to everybody – and I was on the phone – it was super exciting, not only for the patrons who won the jackpot but for the entire room,” says Brittain, who started working in the poker room when the casino opened in 2009. “It is a community, and everybody celebrated together.”

The community aspect of the Rivers Poker room –and most other poker rooms – is unique compared to other sections of any casino. The players are sequestered in a unique space. Many players are regulars, some of whom play every day. There’s a palpable sense of camaraderie in poker rooms, even as players are trying to beat their fellow competitors.

Brittain appreciates the regulars who frequent the room. But she’s even more appreciative of the dealers, noting that about 22 team members have worked in the room since it opened.

“We don’t have turnover,” she says. “They take pride in their work. Yes, their incentive is money; they keep their own tip, so they know the better they develop relationships with the patrons, the better the tips are.”

But what pleases Brittain most is when out-of-town visitors compliment her team.

“I always knew they were great,” she says. But when you have all these people telling you how great your dealers are, it’s really rewarding.”

*****

Tempers occasionally flare at casinos, and the loss of money occasionally creates a volatile atmosphere. Rivers Casino is not immune to heated situations. Two pair gets beaten by a flush in the poker room. A blackjack player splits aces and draws deuces on both hands. A patron will get upset when a slot machine refuses to pay out.

For Knox, the solution is simple: he “kills them with kindness.”

“When somebody is mean to you, you say `I’m sorry,’ and that makes them fall back,” he says. “I’m taking your money, and you don’t have to be happy about it, but you fall back.”

Brittain has witnessed arguments in the poker room but never anything beyond heated exchanges. Her solution when people get upset?

“I basically let them talk, kind of let them take it out on you,” Brittain says. “You empathize with your players, and I can pretty much talk them down. I can honestly say I’ve been able to defuse every situation. We’ve really made it through the last 13 years without ever having an incident in our room.

“And at the end of the day, everybody’s got everybody’s back in there, and so everyone, whether it’s random patron sitting at the table or a regular, they see this too.”

Rege Behe is lead contributor to CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at rbehe@cdcgaming.com. Please follow @RegeBehe_exPTR on Twitter.