Kelly de Celis won’t tell you what to do, but she won’t wait long for you to do it.
“I’m not a point-and-do person. I’ll never ask anyone to do something that I’m not willing to do for them,” she said,
Borgata is poker’s long-standing jewel in Atlantic City since the property opened 20 years ago. The Covid-19 pandemic decimated New Jersey’s gaming climate. Turning tournament poker around has been a process.
De Celis, Director of Poker Operations, is piloting the ship for the Borgata Winter Poker Open and breaking new ground along the way.
De Celis is an anomaly in title and in practice. She’s the first female director of poker in Atlantic City, and the position comes with a desk – one she’s rarely at. You’re more likely to find her in the trenches – seating players, coloring up chips or moving the registration line along.
“There has never been a female director of poker operations in Atlantic City history; that was always my goal,” she said. “That was a bucket list goal for me. I wanted that title and legacy.”
De Celis is a maverick in the industry. She worked her way up from table games, being a Borgata Babe and a temporary tournament dealer just to get her foot in the door. Watching her manage the tournament room, no one would guess that the sophisticated, self-described “Jersey Girl” came from humble beginnings and that her path to the top of the industry would be so steep.
Go north, young woman
“I grew up in the deep south of Louisiana in a small town of about 15,000. It was about 20 miles away from the largest town that had a mall,” she said. “So, we’d have to drive 35 minutes just to get to the mall. It was a very Southern upbringing; I went to an all-girls Catholic school before I finally convinced my mom to let me transfer to a public high school.”
De Celis convinced her mother about high school, but the culture of her community guided her next few years. She wanted to go to college, but that wasn’t how her culture worked.
“Unfortunately, in Louisiana you pick husbands during your senior year of high school – you don’t pick colleges, especially as young girls in the South,” she said. “My daughter was born the year I graduated. My son was born two years later, and I was single mom when he was seven months old.”
De Celis needed full-time work as a young mother and got her first job in the casino industry as a table games dealer in Biloxi, MS. She saw that the Beau Rivage was holding a job fair and through MGM they were affiliated with Borgata.
She took a chance, auditioned and landed a job hundreds of miles away.
“I packed up my kids and headed to New Jersey,” de Celis said. “I knew that I didn’t want the same type of upbringing for my daughter that I had.”
Gambling on Atlantic City
“I had the worst experience of my life for the first six months we were here,” she said. “I didn’t own close-toed shoes, and I had never seen snow before. That year New Jersey had the worst winter in two decades. They got 13 inches of snow in a night. I couldn’t drive in it, and was cold all the time.”
During those hard months De Celis needed income while she waited for Borgata to open. “I worked a dice game at the Sands,” she remembered. “It was so old. It had sand fleas, and it was the dregs of the city at 4 am. I could only think about ‘What did I leave for?”
Those first few hard months paid off on her first day at Borgata. She reported for orientation and happened to walk by the director of food and beverage who was doing fittings for Borgata Babe cocktail servers.
“He asked if I was one of our new girls,” De Celis recalled.
She was not, but she was about to be.
“It was amazing.” she said. “And I learned how to do my makeup and hair and really become a Jersey Girl.”
She learned and worked, but she knew she could earn more. By 2006, she wanted to keep as much as she could of what she made.
“I had been playing poker here, and you could gamble as a Borgata Babe, but not as dealer,” she said. “If I had became a dealer, I would have never been able to gamble, I would have never started playing poker, and I would have never fallen in love with the game. I would never have thought of working in poker if not for cocktail service.”
De Celis needed a full-time position in poker and learned the ropes at the Showboat – an intimate, 24-table poker room. She learned how important technical ability was for the game and learned the business side from Chris Loscalso.
Making her mark on Borgata
“I credit him with teaching me how to be a leader,” she said. “I worked my way up to a room manager position and when Revel opened, I took that opportunity. Unfortunately, our poker room only lasted 18 months, and I spent three months on the unemployment line before I applied at Borgata again.”
“I applied as a temporary tournament dealer because that was the only way to get your foot in the door,” she said. “I met Tab Duchateau (former Borgata tournament poker director) that Open and he pulled me immediately to deal his WPT final table. By that next April I was his lead tournament floorperson and the rest is history.”
De Celis’ fingerprints are everywhere for the BWPO as the workhorse at the front of the line.
“I don’t feel like it’s fair to ask anyone on your team to work unless you’re willing to do it yourself,” she said.
A woman in a man’s world
Rolling up her sleeves, working hard and preparing for anything is how de Celis armored herself against sexism in the industry. “It’s challenging in the industry,” she said. “They way that I dealt with that being a 20something woman and trying to manage a male-dominated field, I found that my best outlet was to the know rules. You can’t demand respect; you can only earn it.”
“They used to call me ‘Kellie Rulebook’ because I would memorize the rules so that when I got to the table, I could recite the rule exactly,” she said. “When you get to a table for a ruling where it could be questionable, it’s good to put the facts out there and people can’t push back on facts. No one could argue against that.”
“Outside of that, once I arrived at Borgata I don’t know what it looks like to have a difficult time working in Atlantic City as a woman,” said de Celis. “Every single person that I’ve worked with in this building has been incredibly supportive and been a champion of me moving up and developing.”
The future of poker at Borgata
The 2024 BWPO comes after a lot of post-Covid transition in Borgata’s executive team, so a lot of the team had never seen any Borgata Open at all. In addition, much of the tournament staff left during pandemic.
“This is our first one out of the gate (since Covid) and there’s always going to be growing pains,” de Celis said. “The fact of the matter is, that outwardly I want everything smooth and beautiful for players.”
“I’d love to see Borgata back on the map for three Opens a year,” said de Celis. “We love having one in May for our players to have the opportunity to cash big and bankroll themselves for Vegas. I also want the September series back, right after Labor Day while the weather is still beautiful.”
“Coming back from Covid we wanted to push hard and go big with $10 million in guarantees,” she said. The overall guarantees for the Series tops guarantees made across the country in competing events.
Separating the babe from the boss
De Celis grounds herself at home by crocheting and arts and crafts. “I make little scarves and baby socks for my grandkids and stuff around the house,” she said. “My husband is a perfectionist, and a mason, so he’s got a really sharp eye for everything being level – so I’m no longer allowed to do any tile projects in my home.”
Separating herself from work at home is something she struggles with, especially in the age of X (fka Twitter). “I want to get rid of Twitter,” she said with a laugh.
While de Celis has been in the eye of the storm for the last week she said she feels like she worked four months in the last four days. “As far as life balance, I haven’t figured that one out yet.”
Nevertheless, she is already thinking about the future and believes both she and Borgata are set up for success.
“I’ve had guidance here every step of the way. My leadership team did everything they could to make sure I was on the right trajectory,” she added. “It’s always been about working hard and doing the right thing.”
All photos by 8131 Media – Alicia Skillman