By Dennis Staples
The casino lights are dim and everything that can be seen is filtered through a smoky haze. When it’s busy, the patrons turn the air gray-white with cigarette smoke. That thick air is easily the worst part of the job. Despite my complaints I really do enjoy the place at times. I’ve been working here for four years. It can be tedious. It can be hell. It’s work. It’s a game. It’s business.
When I was younger I had this idea that I wanted to become a blackjack dealer. I’d never really seen it played before other than in movies or small games between my siblings and cousins. But the casino was always a presence when I was younger. It was a watering hole for most of my adult family, and it seemed to be destiny for me to end up here.
In the break room around the time I started working, I met a very nice blackjack dealer named Marilyn. I owe her quite the favor because she first showed me the foot massager I’ve relied on when shifts have been particularly rough. Once, when she and another dealer were turning in their paperwork, I wrote down her name as “Marylin.”
“You spelled my name wrong,” Marilyn said.
I froze and I instantly felt myself start to blush.
“Oh, um, well. My aunt’s name is Marilyn and that’s how she spells it.”
“No it isn’t. You spell her name wrong,” she said with a laugh.
Ever since then, I remember that a very nice blackjack dealer taught me how to spell my own aunt’s name.
If I’m working in the middle cashier window, I have a view straight to the blackjack tables in the center of the casino. The tables are filled with players testing their luck and skill against the house, hoping they come out ahead.
I’ve sat down a few times and watched my money disappear into the table slot, pushed down by a plastic paddle, in exchange for a few colored chips made of clay.
Buying the chips is the easy part.
When the cards were laid down, it felt like a split second decision to hit or stay. I don’t remember the first blackjack hand I was dealt, but I do remember the dealers walking me through it. It was Marilyn, who I met before, and Richard, an older man who had been dealing blackjack for almost twenty years. I only dared to bet my money because of how helpful they were with teaching the basic rules.
Marilyn gave me a card to study. On the back was every type of card combination, and general guidelines to when you should hit, stand, double down, or split pairs. She told me to study it. I still don’t really know how to read it.
I was dealt my first hand by Marilyn. I lost.
Watching five after five disappear into the table quickly made me wary of this game, even after only a few hands. I’m not good at playing, but the dealers are good at what they do.
They wear black. Their uniforms are long-sleeved with an apron in front to protect the fabric from the table. The pit boss is usually in a suit or other formal attire. On certain days they all can wear Vikings jerseys.
Back in the break room I talked to one of the dealers, Jason. He’s worked at this casino for a little over a year but has been in the blackjack business for about five years. When I started asking questions, he was eating a bacon cheeseburger from the casino’s café, so I felt a little bit guilty for disturbing his lunch.
“I took my training like 2010-ish. It was two weeks,
My grandmother loved the Lucky Lemmings slot machine because they made a funny noise when they dove off the cliff for extra points.
Monday through Friday, about an eight hour class,” Jason said.
“What sort of things did you do there?” I asked.
“Just the basic rules. Hand signals, payouts, chip amounts. Stuff like that.”
My own curiosity at the game led me to ask about “the fan.”
A typical game starts out with the cards laid out across the table in an arc, or “the fan,” or the “ribbon spread,” depending on the casino. Jason showed me how to do it, but my fan was uneven and sloppy. When Jason fans out cards on the casino tables, it’s neat and appealing. They are faceup so customers can see that the deck of cards is fair.
“It took me about two days to get the fan down,” Jason said.
“What about speed with dealing the cards? Does that just come with time, or is there a certain skill level you have to reach by the end of training?”
“Everyone’s different. I got better steadily with time, but as long I learned the rules I needed to, it was fine.”
The rules of blackjack confuse me still, which is why I didn’t keep playing after losing the first twenty dollars.
Buy-in depends on the table, and most commonly it’s five dollars. Getting a blackjack pays three-to-two, or one and a half, while just beating the dealer pays one-to-one, or double. If the bet is five dollars, a blackjack pays seven dollars and fifty cents while just beating the dealer with a better hand but not a blackjack would pay five dollars.
“What kind of nights do you prefer to work?” I asked.
“Uh, I guess when the play is not too busy but not too slow, either. I don’t feel too bored, but I also don’t feel overwhelmed by too much play.”
I have only seen the tables extremely busy a few times. I think that’s when the “game” probably becomes “work” for the dealers. They rotate their breaks between playing times depending on how many workers are there and how many tables are open and operating. When there are fewer workers and fewer tables open, time at the table and on break is shorter. When there are more workers and tables, it’s the opposite, with more time spent dealing and on break.
I asked Jason what he thought of the recent inclusion of a new poker table at the casino.
“The guests like their variety. Just like with video games, you got some who like their Call of Duty or Halo. Our customers like blackjack or poker, or keno on the slots. That one is really popular.”
I’ve never thought of it that way before. In a sense, the slot machines are video games.
“What’s your favorite part of being a blackjack dealer?”
“It’s just fun. I mean, it’s a game. It can feel like work sometimes, but overall it’s a pretty laid-back job.”
“What’s your least favorite part?”
“I guess the work scheduling. I have to give up a lot of weekends and holidays since those are our busiest times.”
I left him to his cheeseburger and clocked in for my own shift.
To get to my workstation, I have to pass through the main floor. I catch a glimpse of the table games and the slot machines and think about the money I lost there. I don’t regret it, but blackjack is definitely not my game.
In the break room the TV is most likely playing sports, reality shows, or movies. If I happen to be there by myself I turn the screen on mute, or off, and either read or mess around on my phone. Sometimes I say it’s an act to ward away talking, but I’ll gladly put my media aside if someone wants to talk. I don’t go in the smoking break room. I went in there once and promised myself never again.
Someone will often be lounging or sleeping on the couch. As long as it’s reasonable, no one really minds if you take cat naps. Nights can be long and coffee-makers don’t have the best reputation here. One young girl I attended high school with told me the coffee here was good. Others who are older and much more experienced in the ways of coffee had harsher words to say.
“That shit is dirt. It’s evil. It’s made from coffee syrup. It’s not even real,” said a different co-worker.
“You’d be better off just drinking pop if you’re tired. That coffee ain’t worth it unless it’s loaded with sugar.”
I personally like my coffee with two tablespoons of sugar and three chocolate caramel creamers. It’s easier just to say I don’t like coffee at all. One avid coffee fan had the strongest reaction to the lackluster coffee machine in the break area.
“That coffee is only to be drunk when there is no other alternative. The coffee ‘syrup’ has a distinct aftertaste, discernible even through various non-dairy creamers and sugar. Taken alone, the deficiencies of taste are even more evident. The sub-standard nature of the beverage is driven home by the many individual coffee pots located throughout the building. If you choose to pay for something you could get for free there is usually a reason. The only redeeming feature is the presence of caffeine; even cheap casino coffee is preferable to the dreaded caffeine headache.”
Some people don’t mess around when it comes to their coffee.
My favorite part of the break areas is watching everyone gather at the WiFi zone. It’s not a real zone; it’s just the only spot where our devices can sense the signal. We crowd there and get our fix of Facebook, YouTube, or even Candy Crush Saga. Gotta stay busy.
The first time I came here when I turned eighteen was the grand re-opening. There was a Beatles tribute concert. Each of the band members wore the flamboyant costumes of the Sgt. Pepper era and spoke in those well-known Liverpool accents. I don’t know whether that part was just an act, but I enjoyed the music. And though I knew my grandmother only liked country in her later years, I’d like to think she would’ve been there watching the band with me.
She was the only reason I wanted to gamble here.
It’s a strange part of Native American life, but we can’t deny it isn’t part of our culture now. Casino culture. There’s good about it and there’s bad, no doubt, but I don’t like to get into the politics of it all. I just know that my grandmother loved the Lucky Lemmings slot machine because they made a funny noise when they dove off the cliff for extra points, and I know she loved bingo. I haven’t played bingo yet, but on that grand re-opening I played five after five of my mother’s money and wished I could’ve done it when Grandma was alive.
From what I’ve heard from others, my grandmother didn’t gamble with the intent of winning. She gambled because the slot machines were fun for her. If she won, her happiness came from knowing she could play some more. But I can’t deny that her fun was a costly fixation. That’s what I hate most about casino culture, the high rate of addiction.
Once when I was working at the front counter and failing at staying awake, a woman walked up to me.
“You look like you could use some company,” she said.
She began to talk to me about the casino and where she worked. She was a nurse at the home my grandmother spent her last days in.
“I remember her. She was so nice. And funny. Always joking when she could. We’d take her here sometimes. She loved it.”
It was the a strange coincidence, and I regret that I don’t remember this woman’s name.
My sister doesn’t play bingo because she only played it with our grandmother and that’s the memory she wants to keep. I didn’t get to play anything here with her, so watching the credits on the screen disappear with each button press has no impact. But based on the many angry rants of disgruntled gamblers, maybe I’m glad my memories of grandma aren’t in this casino.
I see my grandmother cooking for me. Or yelling at me for not cleaning up after I cooked something. I see a badminton net in the backyard and us kids always losing to her. I hear “Coca-Cola Cowboy” by Mel Tillis on her radio and The Price is Right on her small TV set. I remember her with kid-glasses, and I love that.
Sometimes I see her holding a plastic casino cup full of nickels, but as a kid that’s all it was to me. Nickels. Coins. Little bits of circular metal.
When working at a casino, nothing is so uninteresting and worthless in the grand scheme of the world as nickels.
Dennis Staples is an undergraduate student at BSU majoring in creative and professional writing, and the winner of the 2014 W. D. Elliott Creative Writing Scholarship. His favorite genres to read and write are high fantasy and science fiction.