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).