Confessions of a Blackjack Dealer

On Christmas Eve a few years ago, I received an email in my dealing school account with the subject tile: URGENT. A writer at Travel + Leisure magazine was completing a ‘Confessions’ series and wanted to interview a Blackjack Dealer. An email at the height of the holiday season told me she was completing her work at the absolute last minute, so I sympathized and got back to her quickly. We corresponded via telephone and several emails and here was the resulting blurb: T + L My “Confession”

A Vegas veteran lays all her cards on the table—and tells us what it’s really like to work at a hotel casino.

Everyone thinks it takes a math genius to count cards, yet it’s pretty simple—and legal. But because casinos are private property we just ask people to leave if they’re any good at it.

Tipping is a large part of our income, and we have nicknames for the standout players. There are Georges (big tippers), King Kong Georges (really big tippers), and the Strokers—players who don’t tip while making the dealer do extra work. Rude.

Casino surveillance rooms are not as sophisticated as Hollywood makes them out to be. I’ve watched those tapes. They’re so grainy I can’t even see the chips!

The most surprising thing to me was how much we talked for such a short piece! Here are highlights of our correspondence…

Our First Email Exchange

Being so immersed in the casino world, it’s sometimes hard to anticipate what people are curious about. I think that her questions were probably more interesting and insightful than my answers:

  • What type of table did I typically work at?
  • Did I ever have any high profile, celebrity guests at my table? Who, and what was the experience?
  • Did anyone ever hit it big at the table or lose a fortune? What were the funniest or most shocking reactions I ever saw to a big win or big loss?
  • Who are some of the “typical” guests at a high-end Vegas casino hotel? Do I have regulars or identifiable “types?”
  • As a dealer, what were my pet peeves?
  • Did I ever catch someone counting cards? What happens if a player is caught cheating?
  • What are some tips and tricks of the trade? How do I calm a belligerent player or get a player to leave a decent tip even after a loss?
  • When I go out, do I play blackjack?
  • Overall, what was it like to work in an upscale hotel casino, surrounded by cameras and security and no clocks?
  • Can I confirm or dispel some common myths? “Do casinos really pump in oxygen?”

When replying, I didn’t want to list all of my pet peeves or give a “type” of player, because then I’d just sound whiney and grumpy. Counting cards isn’t the big deal that people think it is. Contrary to Hollywood’s portrayal, counting cards is easy. It doesn’t take a math genius and when we cut two decks off the back it doesn’t really give the player any room to maneuver. The security cameras are no big deal and I always saw a clock in a casino as I wore a wrist watch. Big wins and big losses are relative. Winning $5,000 may change someone’s life, but another person may not even blink when winning $500,000. Plus, it’s a table win. I don’t know what they did at the table before they got to me. And then there’s a common question about celebrities. We in Vegas know which celebrities play, who tips well, who is kind, who is an asshole, etc. But this, I feel, is sacred break room gossip. Celebrities are constantly under a microscope, exposed at all times. If they want to catch a flight to Vegas and disappear for a while, I will assist them. I’ll never fess up to a reporter who I saw playing and when…

Our Phone Conversation

We wound up speaking on the phone for about 25 minute and I kept the conversation light, ducking questions about celebrities, player “types,” and anything else that would make me sound like a complainer. I gave her a rundown of counting cards, talked about not taking things personally if a player happened to get upset, and when asked about my “pet peeves” – as the question came up a few times – I just talked about clichés that people tend to run with. She liked: “17 is the mother-in-law hand – you want to hit it but you can’t!” And I agree with her. That one is funny the first time you hear it, but the 80th time isn’t so funny. It’s really not funny when the dealer has a “6” up, as the joke is only good when the dealer has a “10” or an “A” showing. Any other card, and that’s just the player looking for a chance to crack that joke. But that technical description of the dealer’s up-card is way too much for a light and breezy “Confessions” article.

The 25 Minute Phone Call Wasn’t Enough Info to Write a 3 Paragraph Article Follow-Up Email

I received a follow-up email with additional interview questions…

Q: I have heard it said that men are always trying to hide from their wives / girlfriends how much money they have lost – or won! Did this happen often, or never at all?

A: Yes, more than trying to hide a gambling loss from a wife, it is common for men try to hide their girlfriends from their wife. Seriously, though, wins and losses are usually a trip-based experience and I only see a small window of that entire trip, so I can’t be sure about lies. Also, Vegas keeps wives/girlfriends busy with the spa, shopping, and other amenities, so if a guy wanders off from his partner to play a little blackjack, I typically don’t meet her.

Q: How common is it for people to hide their chips? Is this a problem? Did you ever catch someone pocketing their chips?

A: Yes, people sometimes tuck their chips into their pockets, but this isn’t a problem. If a person has chips, then the money is theirs, so they can put it wherever they want. Some people do try to be sneaky about it, but (1) the small chips don’t matter as casinos don’t usually keep track of these and (2) the larger chips ($500 and over) are tracked just to make sure the rack is balanced, so the boss tends to know who walks away with these chips anyway.

Q: You mentioned that you once witnessed a fight on Easter – was there anything about that particular day, or fight, that had to do with Easter, specifically? Any details you can provide with me about the incident would be great!

A: The fight I saw on Easter had nothing to do with Easter or gambling; it had to do with alcohol and bravado. Three guys and a girl walked passed two guys sitting at a table. They exchanged words, as they had apparently done earlier in the night. I grabbed the phone and called security but when the yelling subsided and the group of four walked to the exit, I cancelled the request. Then one of the walker-by guys returned, threw a punch, and got his ass kicked. The casino broke up the fight – but it was a bit messy. One guy ended up in the hospital, but 15 minutes later we were back up and running.

Q: Tips are a big part of your income, you said. Was this greatly affected by whether or not a player won or lost? What was the most memorable or funny tip you ever received? Did players ever try to tip you in chips, etc?

A: Yes, people tend to tip when they’re winning. Most players place a bet for the dealer, tipping as they play. In this manner, the player puts his own bet in the betting circle and puts the tip on top of the betting circle. If the hand wins, the dealer pays the bet and the tip. If the hand loses, all money goes to the casino. I believe the Vegas average is 1 tip per 21 rounds dealt. Though there isn’t a particular tip that stands out during my time as a dealer, they’re all appreciated. Sometimes a player apologizes for not tipping in a large denomination, but I am happy with the kindness of the gesture. A larger amount is definitely nicer, but I was appreciative of whatever I received.

Q: How are blackjack players different from poker players, roulette, etc.? Is there a type of person who is drawn to this game, as opposed to others?

A: Yes, Blackjack is the catch-all. There are typically more blackjack tables in a casino than any other game and I would say we have a wider variety of people playing the game. Craps is a fast-moving, high risk game and tends to draw a large, clique-ish crowd, mostly men. Roulette tables tend to attract more women and isn’t as social as the other games. There isn’t a collective goal in roulette like hoping the dealer busts (blackjack) or the point passes (craps). Poker is every man for himself.

Q: Finally – Did you have any insider-lingo between dealers, security, managers, etc., to communicate when a player was too drunk to play, out of hand, etc? Is there any type of casino-code you can share?

A: Yes, we definitely have a vocabulary all to ourselves in the business. EDR refers to the Employee Dining Room. “Blackout Day” is a day where you get double or triple points for calling in sick. “My Friday” is the fifth day of your work week, and generally isn’t a Friday. We have Georges (big tippers), King Kong Georges (really big tippers), Stiffs (people who don’t tip at all), and Strokers (people who purposefully make a dealer do unnecessary work by betting in strange increments, using several chip colors, or other senseless behaviors).

Akko, Israel Archaeological Dig

I spent the month of July participating in an archaeological dig in Akko, Israel. Here’s the circle of life in photographs:

We opened the excavation by removing the sandbags placed at the end of last year’s season.

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Then we were assigned a 5 X 5 meter square, with approximately four people to a square. From that point, we spent the month-long season sweeping dirt.

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Sweeping dirt off the Tel meant literally using a handbroom and a dustpan. Sometimes we had to supplement this dirt sweeping with a pick ax and trowel.

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While sweeping, we removed large pieces of pottery sherds, bone, and shell, separating them into baskets. Whole vessels were rarely found (rare find in photo).

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Instead we were just looking for fragments.

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Then we took all collected dirt to a sifter and looked for smaller fragments.

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Then we took the sifted dirt and made sandbags.

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At the end of the day we carried the baskets of pottery sherds down the hill. We soaked the pottery in water then cleaned the pieces with small brushes.

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The pottery lab determined which pieces they wanted to keep, piecing them together. (Note: this was a photo taken from the lab the single time I was in there for a tour – I was not involved with this process.)

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Then in the morning there were buckets of cleaned pottery for us to take back to the Tel, so we could discard the pieces the pottery lab wasn’t interested in. There seemed to be an awful lot of cleaned pottery returned to the Tel every day.

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At the end of the season, we had created 2,700 sandbags and we stacked them around the squares, so that next year the circle can start all over again.

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In summary, I spent my summer vacation carefully sweeping dirt from a 5 X 5 meter square and putting it into a sandbag. Then I put the sandbag of dirt back into the square. I also carried pottery down a hill, carefully cleaned dirt off of this pottery, then put the cleaned pottery back on the hill.

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On weekends, we got to visit other excavations who found more intense artifacts than what we were finding.

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Me:

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———-

Here are excerpts from my final paper, where I tried not to emphasize the fact that I never again wanted to look at the archeological finds of others, not even in an air-conditioned museum, ever again for as long as I may live:

Having no prior experience with archaeology short of watching Indiana Jones films, I effectively had a crash course in the subject in July 2016 when I flew into Tel Aviv, rode a bus to Akko, and participated in the 7th season of a 15-year archeological dig. The entire region has a rich history, but Akko, located in a natural bay on the Mediterranean Sea, was an especially important trading station throughout much of its 5,000-year history. Old city Akko sits directly on the sea and is a living, thriving city filled with inhabitants. Parts of the old city, such as the surrounding wall, a Turkish Hammam, and the Crusader city, have been excavated and preserved. Most of the city, however, is unable to be excavated because families live and work on top of the old settlements.

The site of our archaeological dig was Tel Akko, which is a few kilometers east from the old city. A “Tel” is defined simply as a mound, an urban space, or an artificial accumulation of artifacts. Upon first glance, Tel Akko appears to be a large, uninhabited hill covered in dirt and loose vegetation with a paved walking path encircling it. From the top of the Tel one can see a clear view of the Mediterranean Sea and can imagine the important role this location would have played during the city’s history. It is quite fortunate that the Tel is now uninhabited and we are able to conduct a thorough archeological dig on top of the area.

Archeologists attempt to reconstruct the history of the people that either inhabited an area or shaped it’s history by collecting data in the form of artifacts, architecture, observations, soil, bones, and shells. The Tel Akko Total Archaeology Project (Tel Akko TAP) is comprehensive in scope, taking a holistic approach to archaeology by incorporating excavation, pedestrian survey, 3-D modeling, conservation efforts, and public outreach to create an all-encompassing view.

It is important to note that the Tel Akko TAP is not the first excavation of Tel Akko. Between 1973-1989, M. Dothan led a 12-season excavation of the Tel and much of our digging is a result of Dothan’s initial excavations. The difference is in improved technology and stringent standards of preservation and recording that were not as critical during the 1970s and 1980s. Dothan’s team were not entirely accurate in their measurements or their documentation. In a hurry to get down to deeper lawyers, for example, Dothan blazed through strata using the assistance of a bulldozer, which is unacceptable by today’s archeological standards. Though the head archaeologist in the Tel Akko TAP, A. Killebrew, explained it was easier to begin excavating in a new region, as opposed to trying to piece together parts of a sloppily recorded previous excavation, she is heading this project due to a felt responsibility to properly preserve and record. By following Dothan’s previous notes and expanding his excavation, Killebrew believes we may be able to better place his findings in proper context.

Previous seasons revealed significant evidence that Akko was inhabited beginning in the Early Bronze I period (ca. 3300–3000 B.C.) and into the Hellenistic period (320–30 B.C.). With a great number of imported artifacts found throughout the Dothan and TAP excavations, Akko appears to have been a major player in the economic and maritime trade market.

The section, TT1, where I primarily worked was excavated for the first time on this project, trying to retrace Dothan’s previous findings. His notes stated that he had encountered many pieces of iron slag, believing that he was in the vicinity of a slag pit, so our section was drawn to encompass both his previous working section and a little further east, toward where the slag pit was thought to be situated. We did not find the abundance of slag we had been expecting and the square was off to a very slow start find-wise, however, in the end, TT1 revealed itself to be a very interesting section.

Though squares are typically five meters by five meters, TT1 was drawn five meters by approximately three meters, to avoid the paved path encircling Tel. The path cuts directly through TT1, so we stopped several centimeters short of the path, choosing a somewhat artificial cutoff based on the visual distance from the walking path, as carving our area too close to the path could be dangerous for those on an afternoon bike ride or walk through the Tel.

Square TT1 rested on a slope, so our initial measurements were as follows: Northeast 32.10 meters, Northwest 31.82 meters, Southeast 31.75 meters, and Southwest 30.99 meters. We began collecting what we believed to be top soil in our first locus, labeled 2824, beginning July 7, where we dug for three days, breaking the ground with a pick ax and scraping the dirt into buckets with a trowel. In the squares at Tel Akko, pottery sherds tend to be abundant, but there was a surprising lack of pottery in TT1.

When we dug down approximately 30 centimeters, the soil started feeling a bit different. It was less compact, sitting looser underneath the fill/top soil layer. On July 12, we opened a second locus: 2828, continuing until July 15, and we removed an additional 70 centimeters, taking our total section down approximately one meter. On July 14, we found an empty Doritos bag in locus 2828 with a 2007 expiration date and markings celebrating Passover 2007. The paved trail was completed at the end of 2006, so we were able to determine that the layer we had been digging through was not top soil, but was actually fill left over from the trail’s construction. This explained the alarmingly small amounts of pottery we had been finding and the decision was made to collapse this new locus 2828 into the original locus 2824, as both were from the same fill area.

Additionally, the pottery we found tended to be concentrated on the east side, almost coming out of an unseen wall that ended exactly at our artificial cutoff point, stopping short of the paved path. By July 18, Killebrew decided to push the boundary of our square back an additional 50 centimeters to the east, toward the path. We excavated this new layer for a day and finally we began seeing an abundance of material. That extra 50 centimeters was no longer fill, and instead we opened three new loci. There seemed to be three distinct areas within our very small working area. The north locus was 2854, the south locus was 2857, and between the two there was a large stone accumulation, causing a distinct separation and it was where I primarily excavated, locus 2858.

The most interesting of these sections was certainly the south locus, 2857, and we had a number of special finds in this area. We found two handles, one on July 18 and one on July 20, that came from distinctly different vessels but bore the same stamp of Greek letters: AE. This could indicate mass production, a regional stamp, a creation from the same potter, or the identity of the material inside the vessel. Additional special finds in this southern most region include two basalt grindstones found on July 22 and July 25, a fancy 4th century Hellenistic import pottery found on July 22, and a small sickle blade found on July 21.

Cutting back the extra 50 centimeters toward the walking trail transformed TT1 into a very interesting square, with a lot going on in such a small area. There was certainly a surface on the southern most tip of the square and a potential surface on the northern end. These two sections were separated by a large pile of rocks right in the middle. On July 25, after it was determined the rocks were not part of a structure, we systematically removed them by loosening the dirt around them and allowing them to fall. We wanted to see what was beneath the stones to determine if the northern and southern ends were indeed connected. By this point in the dig, we were at 100% sifting and I found modern plastic and glass in the dirt surrounding the stones, solidifying our speculations that the large rock pile was part of a dump site.

Blah blah blah… mud, mud brick, and beaten earth… blah blah blah…

After fully clearing away the stones in the center of the additional 50 centimeters on July 26, it seemed the northern and southern ends of the square were unconnected. However, something very interesting emerged. When we initially began opening up the additional part of our section, we had stopped at what seemed to be simply a dirt floor in the rest of our square. But after several days of sweeping, we had inadvertently shaved a few centimeters off of this layer and we were looking at a plaster and kurkar floor. The surface that we saw in the southernmost part of the square definitely continued into additional areas of the square. By the time we ended the season’s excavation, there was a distinct surface spread out over about a meter of our section on the southern end.

Blah blah blah… We learned that one of the bones in our sample came back as a single-humped cow that was not indigenous to the area. These type of cows were similar to camels and required less water to sustain them, so they were most likely around during times of economic hardship. Additionally, we found two left jawbones of what turned out to be full-grown dogs laying on top of one another… blah blah blah…

Archaeology involves more tedious and detailed work than what is featured in the Indiana Jones films. In reality it is a lot less glamorous and requires a team of people spending dedicated and concentrated time piecing together the pottery and completing the story with soil, bone, shell, and artifact analysis. Those who attended this dig tended to be very passionate about the process and embraced the work required to understand what exactly we were looking at. Though I tended to enjoy the modern luxuries of present-day old city Akko, like the hummus and Hammam, more than the actual process of digging and excavating, it was thrilling to be around so many passionate people. I shall certainly never look at the archeological findings in a museum in the same way again.

Helping Strangers Who Run Out of Gas

Around 11pm several weeks ago, I was at a stoplight off the freeway and the driver of the car in front of me got out to wave me to go around her. As I slowly drove past her, she was frazzled and speaking on her cell phone, explaining to someone that she had run out of gas.

“Do you need me to get you some gas?” I leaned out of my car window and asked her.

“Yes, yes, yes, thank you,” she said. She told the person on the phone, never mind it was covered and focused her frazzled attention on me. She explained that this wasn’t her SUV, it was her husband’s and he was in New York, but he would flip out if he knew that she was driving this late at night with her baby in the backseat.

7-11 was the closest gas station and they had a ridiculous looking gas can. The instructions were pretty vague and I asked the girl behind the counter how to use it. She didn’t know. Neither did her manager in the back office. This was taking too long and the girl was already frazzled back at the stop light, so I filled the can with gas and decided we would figure it out when I arrived.

Without going into details of how many ways we tried to get the gas into the tank or how many people we had on the side of the road helping us who could not figure it out either, finally the girl said she would call her dad back. That was who she had been on the phone with when I stopped to help her, she explained. He owned a tow truck company.

The tow truck arrived less than two minutes after she placed the call. I thought it was funny – not only was she an adorable blonde who everyone wanted to help, but a tow truck was two minutes from her phone call.

But the good part of this situation was that I now knew the riddle to using the gas can. You have to break it to use it. We couldn’t see the perforated center on the lid of the gas can because it was dark and was never even mentioned in the instructions. But basically, you unscrew the lid and fill it with gas. After you’ve resealed the lid you have to tear a tab off to reopen it. Then you have to punch a hole through the center of the lid, put the pipe through the hole, and close it again. It can only be used one time.

So about an hour ago, I saw a big guy standing in front of his motorcycle on the side of the freeway. I drove past and it looked as if he had run out of gas. I figured: adorable blonde with a baby in the backseat – people stop for her. But leather-wearing 270-pound biker dude – no one will stop for him. I circled back and yes, he had run out of gas. The single-serving gas can was the only option available at the gas station, so I filled it, returned to the biker dude, and knew what I was doing. Good thing too – because he didn’t know how to use the can and it would have been pretty inconvenient to flag anyone down to stop on the freeway. Glad that I met the blonde to prepare me for this.

Twice in a two week period, I stopped to help motorists who had run out of gas. Both were embarrassed for needing the help. The blonde wanted to send me with money to the gas station as soon as I met her. I told her not to worry about it, though she was insistent. Finally I said that we could sort it out when I returned. I didn’t want to drive off with any money or a credit card and have her wonder if I was coming back. I wanted her to be calm while she waited, not to feel vulnerable and suspicious. But when I returned she did not forget. She insisted on giving me some money.

The biker was the same. When I offered to get him gas, he looked defeated. He said: “But I don’t have any cash on me.” I told him not to worry and then he suggested that he go with me, so that he could use his credit card. He had a really nice bike, so I told him just to wait with the bike. It was not a big deal. When I returned he gave me a Target gift card that he had in his wallet plus his business card so that I could contact him if I needed anything from the casino where he worked.

It cost just under $20 to help each of these two, but it is a really nice feeling. I didn’t want anything for it, though they both insisted and wouldn’t hear of me not accepting payment. I understood. I would probably feel the same – wanting to compensate a stranger to appease my own feelings of foolishness and to remove any pangs of indebtedness. So I allowed them to pay me, not for me, but so they would feel better. The blonde underpaid me by $10 and the biker overpaid me by $10, but there was something lost by accepting their payments. The situation reversed itself from a good, faceless deed to a thing of recognition.

I’ve never been convinced that altruism is a selfless act. We feel good when we help others – we even feel good when we watch people helping others – and there is a benefit to the one who is able to serve. When I stopped to help these two, I did not think: “They are lucky I am here.” I truly thought: “I am lucky to be able to help someone today.” Taking money for my help dampened that joy a little bit.