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MBAs play poker tournament in Vegas to win job at Caesars casino

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LAS VEGAS, Nev. - Forget the firm handshake and networking chit chat. Business students who want a job at Caesars Entertainment need to work on their poker faces.

Nearly 300 Master of Business Administration students and alumni anted up for a three-day Texas Hold 'em poker contest last weekend in hopes of hauling in a corner office. Hiring managers and corporate executives schmoozed with candidates during breaks in the action.

The annual MBA tournament on the Las Vegas Strip was little more than a marketing gimmick until last year, when Caesars decided to add cocktail hours and high-level interviews, said Tijuana Plant, who works in the company's human resources department.

Now, the event is a serious recruitment tool. The festive atmosphere and real-money stakes help the company screen for the critical thinking ability and social aptitude needed in the gambling industry, where business is often mixed with pleasure, Plant said.

"We like to see analytical people," she said. "Poker players are analytical and are willing to take strategic risk, and that is what we're looking for."

Caesars held a networking reception Friday and a two-hour presentation about its corporate culture Saturday. On Sunday, 20 lucky MBAs were invited to formally interview with casino bigwigs for a spot in the company's 10-week management trainee program, which pays $16,000.

Apprentices perform a variety of high-level jobs, including masterminding marketing strategies and working with general managers to troubleshoot on properties, Plant said. Last year, four of the 12 people accepted into the trainee program played in the tournament.

Students flew in from prestigious programs including Harvard Business School, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and the MIT Sloan School of Management. But executives were on the alert for nerds.

"We're not selling insurance. This is a fun industry, and we're selling a lifestyle," Plant said. "We're watching for whether they're not having a good time at all and just focusing on the job, or if they're having fun and looking for a job at the same time. It's kind of our test."

Caesars Entertainment Corp. operates more than 40 casinos around the world, including the Flamingo in Las Vegas, the Emerald Casino Resort in South Africa and Harrah's casinos around the U.S.

Ashish Gupta was among the students who interviewed Sunday. He said he lasted a few hours in Friday's tournament but spent most of the weekend making friends and learning about the casino industry.

"I just made my bid and had a good time," said Gupta, who is in his second year at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. "I was not really stressed out about losing my buy-in. It was cool just meeting people in an environment where you wouldn't normally have that interaction."

Some aspiring business moguls who did not land interviews still walked away from the tournament at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino with cash prizes approaching $8,000. Candidates had to ante from $85 to $225 to enter the eighth annual tournament, depending on how much they hoped to win.

Caesars appears to be the only casino to pit potential hires against each other around a card table. But more companies are turning to this kind of "event recruiting" to compete for top candidates, though job seekers are not usually required to pay to play, said Emily Taylor, who teaches career management at UCLA's Anderson School of Management.

"I think it's a great strategy by Caesars," she said. "The economy is improving and we're starting to see firms trying to distinguish themselves in different ways."

Creative gambits also allow recruiters to establish a cultural match more quickly, said Lisa Feldman, executive director of MBA career management at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

Last fall, a division of Amazon.com Inc. sponsored a Friday-night party for Hass students, she said. Neutrogena Corp. invites students to write essays about skin care to win admission to a cocktail party. And one real estate investment management firm in Newport Beach, Calif., flies standout students to a golf tournament.

These events are designed to tell a story about the company, Feldman said, and the Caesars tournament told one, too.

"The gesture of having a buy-in kind of says, 'We're about real money," she said.

John Unwin, CEO of the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, which competes with Caesars, said his hiring managers also like to observe candidates interacting with one other, but they create those situations without a mound of chips.

He said poker fit more directly in Caesars' wheelhouse.

"They love poker. They own the World Series of Poker," he said.

The game also seems to have taken hold in MBA programs, with schools such as Wharton and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business setting up their own regular card games.

Plant said poker may one day eclipse golf as the preferred pastime of the business elite.

"It's becoming more of a way for people to interact with each other and discuss business in a casual setting," she said.

The MBA tournament candidates who end up landing casino jobs may not play again for a while, though. Caesars executives are banned from playing cards on company property.

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