The Gaming Life: Chuck Hickey

A longtime friend of CEM, Chuck Hickey was at the top of our list when it came time to launch a new feature we’re calling, “The Gaming Life.” This is the first article in a new series exploring the lives of industry professionals.

Today Hickey is the vice president of slot operations at Barona Resort & Casino in San Diego—no small job. But Hickey hasn’t always held such an executive position; once, he was just a parking valet with dreams of walking on the moon. CEM spoke with Hickey about where he’s been and where he might be going.

As a child of an Air Force family, Hickey moved a lot, typically spending only three or four years in one place. This upbringing taught him a handful of lessons early on that turned out to be useful later in life. First, learn to speak the local dialect—it will save you from being beaten up. Hickey says: “Though I studied linguistics in college, I am not good with languages or dialects. But put me in a room with just about any group from any location, and I can pass for native in a matter of hours. I was gifted as a lingual chameleon.” (Don’t ask him to do an accent, though—“It doesn’t work that way.”)

Next, learn what is important where you live. Hickey says: “You need to be able to pick up on what makes the people tick wherever you are. This has served me well when it comes to sharing experiences with others. A working knowledge of what it’s like to live all over the USA and in Europe lets me assimilate with other cultures and groups quickly.”

The final lesson: Everyone has something to teach you, so be quiet and listen. Hickey explains: “I went to so many different schools—three different second grade schools alone. I had to learn how they taught and what was expected. I learned to drink beer in Germany, but I also visited every European country that was open to Americans at the time. I was exposed to more kids who came from the same background, so the melting pot got even larger. By paying attention, I was able to absorb a special kind of education that I would never have received otherwise.”

After his Air Force upbringing, Hickey was drafted and served two years in the Army. Most of this time was spent as a member of The Old Guard, the Presidential Honor Guard at Fort Myer, Va., Arlington National Cemetery. “This is the outfit that mans the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and that jointly does ceremonial duties with the other services, including state funerals,” he explains.

Hickey participated in both Lyndon Johnson’s and J. Edgar Hoover’s funeral ceremonies. He also served for arrivals and departures for dignitaries and presidential inaugurations, including Nixon’s second, as well as burial detail in Arlington National Cemetery. “I won’t tell you what I learned in the Army, but I can say that returning physically unscathed to civilian life—and to Las Vegas, in particular—was a highlight,” he says.

A longtime industry veteran, Hickey has to look back quite a way to recount his first days in gaming—further even than his Army days. “I moved to Las Vegas three days after graduating high school, and my first casino-related job was as a valet at the Mint Casino in downtown Las Vegas,” he recalls. “I was spending the summer working in Las Vegas prior to my first year at the University of Tennessee.”

Hickey says he learned three very valuable lessons at that job as well: “One, it is never a great idea to jump into a convertible in Las Vegas in the summer with shorts or a short sleeved shirt. Two, if you are having problems with the toke split, don’t volunteer to be the person to take it to management. And three, never park a Cadillac near the street with the keys in it.”

Parking cars at the Mint might have paved the way for a career in casinos, but Hickey had his sights on another sort of job back then. “My best memory of the whole experience was standing in the valet shack, watching Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the moon,” he says. “That evening—July 20, 1969—I rode my motorcycle home thinking about how cool the whole space program was and wanting to be an astronaut.”

Hickey says his first real “inside casino job” was at the Holiday Casino. “There I was tutored by some of the old time gamblers—true gamblers that did their figuring in their head and hearts, not on a spreadsheet,” he says. “They taught me a great deal about dealing with people and service and weren’t afraid to share their ideas and stories. And even though I was a ‘slot guy,’ they took me under their wing and allowed me to learn. I was blessed with great teachers and was lucky enough to work in many positions. Yes, I dealt cards for about two weeks, but I was hired initially as a bookkeeper for slots. I was replaced a couple of months later by a computerized system and then worked as a coin roller in the vault while I worked my way through school.”

School at that time was the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Hickey eventually worked every position on the slot floor, from mechanic to change clerk, change booth, floor, assistant shift manager and eventually assistant manager. “The Harrah’s purchase by Holiday Inns happened around this time, and I was able to move to Reno as slot director of Harrah’s Reno,” he explains. “I spent about five years there before building the first and second Empress boats in Joliet, Ill.”

Hickey, as general manager, also was part of launching the Hammond Project. Then he helped open one of Reno’s first new casinos in years, the Silver Legacy. “I have been quite lucky to have been able to open a few new casinos,” he says. “And while it is something you say at the time, that you will never do again, it is a thrill, and the reward of seeing them blossom and grow is intense.”

Hickey says that after a launch, “the pain wears off” and the desire to do it again returns.
Appreciating the thrills of the industry isn’t the only part of Hickey’s early days that has carried over. Hickey still rides a motorcycle to work almost every day. “Living in San Diego helps make that a pleasant commute most of the time,” he says.

But Hickey doesn’t just “ride” motorcycles. If he’s not at work, he says he’s likely to be out riding. “Some would say I am a little crazy about it,” he said—though his wife also rides, and his daughters grew up with dirt bikes.

Hickey enjoys marathon rides and used to participate in endurance rallies all over the country, which he says can be done safely with the proper training and equipment. “These rallies are typically 24 to 48 hours long and cover lots and lots of miles,” he explains. “They are like scavenger hunts that cross several state lines and take you to all kinds of interesting places. I’ve been to toilet seat museums and the world’s largest ball of string. I’ve seen the Beer Drinking Goat from Lajitas, Texas, and stopped at the Three Mile Island power plant during a tornado. All on a motorcycle.”

Hickey’s rides have been documented, covering 1,000 miles within 24 hours. He says these rides are “certified” … and might make him “certifiable.” His longest was the 1999 Iron Butt Rally, an 11-day event that typically covers about 11,000 miles across the United States and Canada.

But while some things haven’t changed since Hickey’s been in the casino industry, some things definitely have, including its name. “It went from ‘gambling’ to ‘gaming’ to ‘entertainment’ and back to ‘gambling,’ ” he says. “It has changed from jet-set, well-heeled rat-pack table gamers to fanny-packed slot players. From Hollywood to Dollywood and from $1.99 steak-and-egg buffets to gourmet dining on the Strip. From basically two streets in Las Vegas and one in Reno to rivers all around the country and just about every state. It went from ‘unacceptable’ to providing for state budgets. To me, it went from questions about how to get into the table games department to ‘How do I get a job in slots?’ Mechanical slots to electro-mechanical to server-based-gaming, coins to bill validators to tickets and reels to steppers to multi-layer video screens.”

Hickey says the biggest change, however, is the growth of the slot industry from “a few slots for the players’ wives” to the centerpiece and main revenue driver for both casinos and governments. “Frankly, I give a great deal of credit for that to Shelby and Claudine Williams, who owned the old Holiday Casino, now Harrah’s Las Vegas,” he notes. “I think it was Shelby who showed the strip that you could take a downtown idea and put it on the Strip. Offer loose slot machines and better than average service in a friendly environment with a good food value—and do it on the Strip—and make a heap of money. Anyone who ever walked in those revolving doors of the main entrance and was greeted by the two 20-plus manned dollar machine carousels could not help but be impressed. Total bedlam. I have never seen anything like it anywhere since.”

Hickey says his career has been, and continues to be, “a hell of a fun ride.” “Nothing—and everything—in my life prepared me to be in the gambling business,” he says. “I flunked college statistics the first time and math was never my friend, yet I spent an inordinate amount of time playing with numbers. My first major in college was forestry, then linguistics and American/English literature with a side of education. I had planned on working in the casino to help pay my way through school on my way to becoming a teacher, but I was sideswiped by the action, excitement and bright lights.”

“I do know this,” he continues, “that my circuitous route through states and countries, and several employers, has led me to the place I was always looking for: Barona Resort & Casino. It represents all the good that I have seen in the industry. All wrapped up in one package. There’s the family feeling. There are both the tribal and executive leadership, plus our advisors from VCAT that add keen insight and decades of gaming savvy. Wrap that together with an operation that truly walks the walk, that believes taking care of business means taking care of both the guest and the employee.”

Hickey says that many of his former employers have stressed these same values but that when the going got tough, the bottom line too often won out. “At Barona we know it’s a ‘for profit’ business, but that never gets in the way of doing the right thing,” he says.

Thirty-six years after Hickey was parking cars and learning why not to leave keys in a Caddy, he says he’s finally home. “I found Barona and Barona found me. I have been here almost five years, and I hope this will be the place where I retire. It was a long road but a fun ride.”

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