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Vince Rooks stood in the dealer's spot and released two stacks of blue-backed playing cards into each other, the cards whirring faintly as they found places in the opposite deck.

"The key is not making too much sound, though," said the Santa Rosa man behind the six-deck shuffle.

"Otherwise, you're bending the cards," said Almira Bausley, who was role-playing three customers at the blackjack table.

Both Rooks and Bausley are Santa Rosa residents. He is 41 and works in catering and as a valet; she is 33and a stay-at-home mom. They are casino-floor novices, although Bausley said she has gambled a few times.

But on Wednesday, they were in a school being run in overlapping 12-week sessions by Station Casinos ahead of the scheduled opening late this year of the Graton Resort & Casino outside Rohnert Park. It is to last until the doors open and perhaps longer.

On Wednesday, 200 students filled a 25,000-square-foot room in a State Farm Drive office park, learning to deal blackjack, baccarat and pai gow, the country's fastest-growing form of casino poker.

Participants, some of whom previously have worked in casinos, aren't guaranteed a job, but it gets them at least partly in the door and it's offered for free.

School started in April. Five hundred more students are enrolled for the summer session. No hires have been made and many more applicants are wanted, said Joe Hasson, the casino's general manager.

"If I had to open the casino tomorrow, I've got 120 blackjack dealers ready to go — of course, I need 750," said Hasson. An industry veteran who is a CPA by training, he has opened 10 casinos from Atlantic City to Kansas to Nevada.

The largest portion of the purple felt-covered training tables in the long, low-ceilinged room were for blackjack. The game is expected to generate 45 to 50 percent of the casino revenues, which are projected to hit $440 million in 2016.

A woman in a bright green shirt dealt a seven of hearts to Gregory Shelley, a former bartender who said he'd run out of money and needs to go back to work.

"Oh, wait," Shelley said.

"The card's already been dealt," said the woman, Antoinette Sepulveda, 69, of Santa Rosa.

"Just kidding, just kidding," said Shelley, 48, and also of Santa Rosa.

Most students are from Santa Rosa, Hasson said. But the school — staffed by 18 full-time managers and instructors — also draws from around Sonoma County and surrounding counties, he said.

At the table, Sepulveda said, "We don't joke around here or they break out our hands. Then she and Shelley laughed hard.

"This was on my bucket list," said Sepulveda, a floral designer. "I'm semi-retired and I've got the ability and time. Well, I don't know if I have the ability, but I have the time. People say, Oh, it's not dignified.' I say, 'It's not the job that's dignified, it's the person.'"

At first, she said, she worried she wouldn't be able to cut checks — separating chip stacks, for the uninitiated — but after two weeks, she was doing it smoothly.

"It's like playing the keyboards, your hands start to do it," she said.

The casino is to have 3,000 slot machines and Station Casinos will manage it for seven years. It is owned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. And most of the prospective dealers know how controversial it has been since it was first announced in 2003.

"One of the churches I used to go to was heading up the coalition against it," said Bausley, referring to the Stop the Casino 101 Coalition. The group, which is nonsectarian but is headed by a pastor, has led the opposition to the project. It is pushing a lawsuit that will be in court Aug. 2 to challenge the sovereign status of the tribe's reservation, and this week launched a slick new website to rally opponents.

"I've always been for it; I think it'll be good for the economy," Bausley said. "It's going to really put Rohnert Park on the map, and I want to be a part of that." She added, "I didn't go to that church for long."

There were bunches of gold, purple and white balloons in the room, a table of coffee and cookies, and every now and then loud rock-and-roll music was piped in to simulate a genuine casino environment.

On the wall were placards detailing the blackjack payout schedule; instructions for a single-deck shuffle; game pace standards (320 hands per hour, 20-second shuffles).

After two months of study, Jehiah Vasquez, 28, knows those things now. He just received his blackjack certificate and has moved on to the school's baccarat training section.

"I like a challenge. I don't see myself working at Safeway forever, that's for damn sure," said Vas-quez, a Healdsburg resident who is waiting for his membership in the Graton Rancheria to be approved.

"I like how friendly everyone is," he said of the school. "Nobody acts like they're better than you around here. Even after the first day."

"Sorry, sir," Paul Whitson said as he dealt a card at another table, speaking to another student who was playing a customer and whose blackjack hand had just turned bad.

"Oh, well, nice try," the other student said.

"Thirteen showing," said Whitson, 35, a Roseland native and a member of the GratonRancheria. He's planning on a career working with at-risk youth, he said, but that's four or five years of college away.

"This is a helpful transition," said Whitson, whose jobs have included being a dealer at the River Rock Casino, a PG&E meter reader and, currently, an in-home support worker.

"I don't think they even knew I was tribal when I walked in here," he said. "It's been pretty straightforward. They treat me just like everyone else."

The 320,000-square-foot casino, despite being on a tribal reservation that is exempt from nearly all state and local regulations, still is subject to certain legal requirements.

Casino employees must submit to extensive background checks that are reviewed by the state's gaming agency; its restaurants are subject to inspection; and state liquor laws are in effect on the property, as are California criminal laws.

But smoking is allowed, and Sepulveda and Shelley discussed that at their blackjack table.

"The only thing that scares me is if it's going to reek of cigarettes," Sepulveda said.

"Oh, it will," Shelley said. "There's going to be heavy smoking. But they'll have a great exhaust system. It'll be top notch."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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