The New York Times: Between Win and Lose, the Casino Dealer

by admin / Aug 05, 2015 / 0 comments

Over the course of his career at the Jackson Rancheria Casino and Hotel in Jackson, Calif., Joe Hebel has been seen as a harbinger of fortune, a liaison to luck and the sweetest angel known to man.

He has also been called a good-for-nothing imbecile, an honorary member of Satan’s disciples, and the kind of thief who makes the outlaw Jesse James look like the Jesse who stole your lunch money in the third grade. Such is life as a casino dealer.

During 10 years in the pits at Jackson, just outside Sacramento, Mr. Hebel has seen the casino grow into one of the California’s largest. He has also witnessed at first hand the ascent of the United States gambling industry: in 2005, casinos netted a cool $84.8 billion, according to the North American Gaming Almanac, a report published annually by Casino City Press.

At some point, much of this money passes through the hands of casino dealers. And as a recreational gambler myself, I realized that I knew nothing about life on the other side of the felt.

With permission from his boss, Mr. Hebel, 62, took me under his wing, walking and talking me through an average day, explaining the ins and outs of casino dealing as they once were explained to him. 

The bottom line is this: being a dealer is a lot more challenging than it may appear.

For starters, dealers must do a lot of math, mostly addition, all in their heads. With all of the hands in games like blackjack and baccarat, some dealers estimate that they perform thousands of addition problems an hour — and that’s only the card games. Throw in payouts for a game like craps, where some bets pay 6 to 5, and dealers are making nearly as many calculations as Deep Blue in a match against Garry Kasparov.

Second, as the job title suggests, being a dealer requires much manual dexterity. Most casinos expect dealers to serve up an average of 100 hands an hour for blackjack. When you consider that many tables seat seven players at a time, even dealers who fall short of this mark are working pretty quickly. Not surprisingly, some dealers suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive strain injuries.

Dealers must also double as umpires and line judges, constantly administering the rules of each game. And, finally, while they’re adding numbers, dishing cards and enforcing rules, dealers need to entertain players and keep them engaged. Mr. Hebel says that while he and his colleagues aren’t required to be the next Andy Samberg, they are expected to interact with players and make the experience one to remember.

“People like personable dealers,” he said. “If you’re likable, they’ll come back.”

With all of these demands in a workday, scheduling regular shifts can become tricky. Most pit bosses believe that even the best dealers can’t be perfectly sharp for more than an hour at a time. Their solution is to give each dealer a 20-minute break after every 60 minutes of work.

For Mr. Hebel, that means no more than six hours of actual table time during an eight-hour shift.

He usually checks in at around 8 a.m. and takes his first break at 9. After the 20-minute break, he is back on the floor at 9:20 a.m., then off again at 10:20. During the rest of the day, he works from 10:40 to 11:40 a.m., noon to 1 p.m., 1:20 to 2:40 p.m. and 3 to 4 p.m.

When it is time to eat, he approaches meals like a guerrilla fighter — tactically, with a quick-strike approach. Instead of hastily devouring a big meal in one sitting, he told me, he usually spreads meals over two or three breaks: a banana here, a cup of soup there. Occasionally, he agrees to dine with others, though conversation takes up precious time.

For all this work — both dealing cards and dealing with days that revolve around 20-minute breaks — most dealers earn about $45,000 a year, including the tips that players usually bestow after a good hand or a few entertaining hours at the table. While this salary isn’t as much as it probably should be in a billion-dollar industry, it isn’t shabby. 

Perhaps the biggest perk for casino dealers is the unpredictability that each day brings. Because different players constantly come and go, no two shifts on the floor are the same.

At Jackson Rancheria, Mr. Hebel sees all types. Some are chatty, others are shy. Some are kind, others are rude. Winning brings out the best and the eccentric; Mr. Hebel remembered a number of players who slapped him five after getting blackjack, and at least one player who sang during winning runs.

Of course, losing can evoke rage in even the gentlest person.

“I’ve had people call me just about everything you can possibly imagine after a tough loss,” Mr. Hebel said. “Do I like it? Not at all. But I understand that it’s part of the job, and if I sat there and lost my money to some blackjack dealer, I’d be pretty angry, too.”

 

The New York Times

 

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