With the prospect of a post-COVID world beckoning in Japan, a new casino school was opened in Osaka in May. The enterprising mind behind it is 37-year-old Hiroshi “Rocky” Katagiri.
There’s a fine line between fate and coincidence. Just when Hiroshi “Rocky” Katagiri was wrapping up his life in Las Vegas to make the move back to Japan, an invisible enemy was starting to rampage through Wuhan, China.
“Starting a new business is hard enough as it is, but then COVID happened too. The plan had to be pushed back quite a bit,” Rocky explains of his ambitious push to establish Osaka’s newest school for casino dealers.
In February of this year, he confirmed a location in Honmachi, in the center of Osaka city, and set up everything he could in preparation for launch. But it was tough. The casino tables and other equipment to be transported by ship were held up at ports in both the US and Japan, taking three months to arrive. Even the mention of the words “casino school” saw him turned away at the door of most properties.
“The system in Japan when starting a new business isn’t very conducive to new things,” Rocky explains. “I was wondering if maybe it just wouldn’t work out.”
But while having to delay opening by a month was a setback, he didn’t lose heart.
This is because his ambition is to “train dealers who are world-class.” Since students will acquire knowledge of all aspects of gaming, Rocky named his school IR Gaming Institute, to give the impression of a research lab.
“Japanese people are skilled with their hands so they learn the motions, but they don’t have the fundamental knowledge of why, for example, certain movements are necessary,” he says.
Rocky worked as a dealer in Las Vegas for 15 years, making his way up to supervisor and VIP host. Asked what is required to be a good dealer, he explains, “As the employer, they want someone who can work quickly and knows many games. They also need to be honest in handling money. As a customer, they want the dealer to understand them. What are they playing for? Each person has their own, unique story and the dealer has to recognize that.”
Rocky’s dream of opening a school to train dealers began more than 12 years ago. He started by moonlighting as an instructor at schools like PCI Dealer School and CEG Dealer School in Las Vegas. He was soon recognized for his skills as an instructor and selected for demonstrations and to give lectures at UNLV.
“It was fun to teach. I even had the opportunity to teach graduates of casino schools from Japan and it got me thinking,” he recalls. “Around the time the Basic Concept for Casinos came out, I started thinking that I wanted to start a school here someday.”
There are high expectations for Japan’s first integrated resorts, with CSR contribution high on the list – a vision Rocky himself shares.
“In establishing the school, I approached many individual investors and companies, but it was hard to find someone who had the same way of thinking as I do,” he says. “IR is a new challenge for Japan. The fact that it’s starting from zero is a chance for IRs to do good for society, such as restoring regional economies and corporate social responsibility. I want that to be a priority.”
He is also planning on tuition-waiver programs for disabled persons and single parents – a response to data in the US highlighting a higher crime rate among children from single-parent households.
“This happens 10 or 20 years down the road, so something needs to be done early,” Rocky continues. “IRs will bring enough employment to build kindergartens and elementary schools. For example, a mother who works as a dealer can take her child to work with her.”
This is also why the gaming tables in his classroom are somewhat lower than in other schools.
“I ordered it this way so that people in wheelchairs can deal as well,” he says. “We also have interest in the school from the deaf community, and they can work in surveillance. IRs provide a lot of opportunity if you know where to look.”
WHAT A JAPANESE IR NEEDS
Japan’s IRs are already coming under immense scrutiny, long before any have even laid their first brick. Rocky has used his own experience as a dealer to publish a book, “Making luck your friend: Rules of players who win JPY 1 billion in one night at casinos,” and has sounded warning bells on his social media accounts calling attention to Japan’s stuffy systems, insisting that if regulations don’t change, “Japanese casinos will definitely fail.”
One point he makes is that the return on investment for an operator under the rules currently proposed, including a 3% cap on space that can be utilized for gaming and 30% tax on GGR, are overly restrictive.
“If they can’t be allowed to have reserves (profit),” he says, “it won’t be possible for them to maintain quality service for customers.”
Case in point, the recent withdrawal from the IR race of one of Japan’s earliest cheerleaders, Las Vegas Sands, whose Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson stated, “The framework around the development of an IR has made our goals there unreachable.”
“Sands’ withdrawal was shocking, but if Japan’s government and municipalities [take this as an opportunity to] review the system then Japan’s IRs will move in a good direction,” Rocky says.
While the path to Japan’s first IRs remains clouded, Rocky has no such qualms about his casino school with plans already afoot to open a second school in Tokyo. It’s his small vote of confidence that, as long as lessons are learned, Japan’s post-COVID IRs have the potential to be even better than before.