In 1986, I became a host at the Horseshoe Casino in Gardena, California, which was across the street from the Normandie Casino. I came out of retirement to seek my fortune, and with Texas Hold ‘Em approved, I saw this as my own personal gold rush.
The casino floor was visible from the Horseshoe’s restaurant. I noticed a young man – a porter – who was working very hard. He was Juan Contreras, from Purepero, Michoacan, Mexico, and he was no ordinary employee. It seemed like he did everyone’s job at once. I never saw anyone work with such enthusiasm!
Juan greeted players by name, knew which game they played, the seat they preferred, and how they liked their coffee. He was always friendly, efficient and humble, and treated everyone like a VIP. He had a knack for making players feel special, and you could tell he loved his job. I think many customers came to the Horseshoe just because of Juan.
After a few months as host, I became general manager. The first thing I did was ask Juan to be a manager. He was the perfect person to help me turn the casino around, and I needed all the help I could get, because this job was one of my biggest challenges.
He proudly recounted how he worked his way up from dishwasher to lead porter, and had been offered a floorperson position and was even given a blazer (which he kept in his locker), but he was happy being a porter. He thanked me, but declined.
I worked with Juan for the next two years, and we became good friends. I sought his advice on ways to improve the casino and our customer service. I wondered how he could work so hard; he ran 10 miles a day training for marathons and had three kids to support. Clearly, there was something special about Juan the porter.
Two years later, I became manager of the Regency Casino, and Juan left the Horseshoe, which was soon sold, to be a porter at the Normandie. I needed to improve Regency’s customer service, so I called Juan to offer him a job – any job he wanted.
Whether he came onboard as a porter or manager, I didn’t care. I just knew I needed him and his expertise to realize the vision I had for the Regency. Juan said he appreciated and carefully considered my offer, but he was happy being a porter at the Normandie, and graciously turned it down.
Later, as executive host at the Bicycle Casino, I tried to hire Juan again, thinking he couldn’t turn down a job at what was then the world’s biggest and best cardroom. But again, to my frustration and admiration, he declined, explaining he was loyal to the Normandie, and they were good to him. I understood, hoping one day he’d change his mind.
In 2000, I helped open Hustler Casino, just a mile away from the Normandie. I knew the one employee I had to have was Juan. He knew everything about Gardena, and knew every customer. Juan was smart; he knew Hustler would take business away from the Normandie. He had to take this opportunity, didn’t he?
We met several times, and I was ready for Juan to join Hustler’s staff, but he came in and said, “Robert, I haven’t slept for a week. I know Hustler will kill our business, but the Normandie has been so nice to me, I can’t leave them.” I respected and admired Juan’s loyalty, but it sure made it hard to hire him!
In 2006, while meeting with Normandie’s marketing director to discuss an ESPN billiard tournament I was producing, I ran into Juan. I told him I was still poker manager at Crystal Casino, but I wasn’t happy. He knew I worked at Crystal, because naturally, I had offered him a job there, too. Juan asked, “How would you like to be manager here at the Normandie? They need a lot of help.”
I said, “Juan, who would I talk to?”
He told me, “If you want it, I’ll make it happen.”
Twenty-five years after meeting him, Juan the porter is offering me a job!
He arranged a meeting with Normandie’s owners, the Miller family, and I got the job just as Juan said I would. In my interview, I told the Millers how many times I tried to hire Juan, and they started laughing. “You’re the reason! We had to give him a raise every time you offered him a job! We own the casino and Juan makes more than we do!”
Juan is living proof that you should always be nice to people on the way up, because you may need them on the way down.
Now a food server at the new Gardens Casino, I asked Juan why he became a server instead of a porter. He laughed. “They don’t have porters here. We do the porter’s job, too.” I wonder if they know what a great employee they have. I sure do.
Next time you’re at the Gardens, keep your eyes peeled for the hardest-working food server in the casino, and check his name tag. Odds are, it’s Juan!
Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and billiard marketing expert, best known for inventing the game of Omaha poker and introducing it to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. In the year 2000, he created World Team Poker, the first professional league for poker. He has over 30 years experience in the gaming industry and is co-founder of Crown Digital Games. Twitter: @thechipburner. Email: [email protected].