Another in my occasional series of poker stories

My friend Nolan Dalla recently wrote a piece about the most thankless job in poker — dealing. As Media Director for the World Series Of Poker, there’s no story Nolan hasn’t heard, and when it’s a complaint about a dealer, he flinches:

You think the job’s easy and they make lots of money? Think again. Most dealers come to Las Vegas and can barely get by on what they make, once all the travel expenses, hotel/rental housing is paid, meals are consumed, and the bills back at home add up. Some dealers even work two jobs in order to make ends meet — dealing 40 hours at the WSOP following by shifts at some other property. You try working 70 hours a week for five straight weeks and not make a mistake. This is the reality of life spent as a tournament dealer. It’s not the life of a rock star. It’s not even the life of a groupie.

I’ve had a few bad experiences with dealers at the WSOP, but it was usually because they were new to the job and thus more prone to mistakes, or they were trained to deal no-limit hold’em tournaments but are clueless when it comes to cash games in other varieties of poker. Overall, though, I have had many more opportunities to sit at tables with experienced dealers who know how to run a game, know all the rules, keep the action moving, and count how many chips are in the middle of the table (crucial when you’re dealing Pot-Limit Omaha).

Still, I’ve seen players blame the dealer for losing a hand, or get up and leave when a certain dealer sits down, claiming “I can’t win a hand when she is at the table” or “He always kills me.” These are the complaints of chronic losers who believe that a certain dealer can affect the way the cards come out of the deck. While there were certainly some card mechanics working as dealers in the old days, I have spent thousands of hours in casino poker rooms and heard only one complaint about a dealer cheating players by manipulating the cards (I told that story last year on this site — read it here).

Modern poker rooms have automatic shufflers built into the cash game tables that reduce the probability of dealer cheating to near zero while increasing the number of hands per hour that can be dealt. Since the casino takes a small portion of each pot as its only method of income at a poker table (unlike blackjack, craps, roulette, and other table games, everyone at the table is playing against each other, not the house), more hands equals more money for the establishment.

That’s one of the keys to being a financially successful dealer, too — getting out as many hands as possible during the half-hour you’re at a table — because it’s traditional in cash games for the winning player to tip the dealer, usually $1/hand, sometimes more depending on the size of the pot. Tournament players can’t tip after each hand, but those who make it to the end will often throw a small percentage of their winnings into the pool of tips collected on behalf of all the dealers in that event. That’s why I don’t understand dealers who move slowly, or allow themselves to get distracted by table talk or other extraneous things that happen at the table. They’re not only hurting the game, they’re damaging their own bottom line.

The worst abuse of dealers I’ve ever seen was at the Commerce Casino in California. Beyond verbal attacks, I have witnessed players throwing cards or chips or even a water bottle at the dealer (I don’t mean in their direction, I mean actually hitting them with various objects), an offense that would get you thrown out of almost any other poker room. But the floor supervisors at Commerce won’t do a thing, so the dealers don’t even bother to call them over when such an incident occurs, which in turn enables the hotheads to continue to mistreat the dealers.

I’ve also sat with players who refuse to tip the dealer after they’ve won a hand, claiming “he’s only doing his job.” I wonder if they diss waiters and bartenders the same way. Dealing cards is a service industry no different than those, with a base salary a few bucks an hour below the regular minimum wage plus whatever tips they earn. Even at a buck a hand, a good dealer can average $30-50/hour — in some games, even more (e.g. in structured games like limit hold’em, players act much more quickly).

On both sides of the deck, there are always a few who spoil the image, but the vast majority of dealers I’ve encountered have been professionals who were good at their jobs, pleasant to be around, worthy of respect, and probably more knowledgeable about the habits and tells and winning/losing percentages of all the players who frequent the tables than anyone else in the room.