It was my first night as a dealer at Caesars Boardwalk Regency in Atlantic City. The year was 1979. Before this night, I had never been in a live casino before. Other than how to deal the game, I knew nothing.
When I was in eighth grade, my class took a field trip to Marshall Hall, an amusement park on the banks of the Potomac River in Maryland. On the edge of the park was a pier. At the end of that pier there was a big building with a couple of hundred slot machines, although I didn’t really know what they were at that time.
That was the extent of my casino experience up until that night at Caesars.
I knew nothing.
While I’d been chosen to be an original dealer at Caesars, my license investigation wasn’t completed for four months (another long story), so instead of starting in May with the others, I didn’t begin until September.
Being at the bottom of the barrel, so to speak, I was assigned to deal a $2 blackjack game. For the next year, that was my home. Occasionally I graduated to a $5 game (New Jersey regulations required casinos to offer a certain percentage of low-limit games in those days), but I worked nine or 10 hours a day, six days a week, dealing to all seven spots on these blackjack games.
Lesson? If this was the corporate ladder, I was at the bottom rung.
Frankly, it was driving me crazy. We weren’t allowed to talk to the players. “Dummy up and deal,” my bosses would scold. Once, when one of my players took a swan dive, fainting backwards in the middle of a hand, my supervisor insisted I continue dealing and not worry about the gambler down. Since another player had already taken the stricken player’s place, I guess he was right.
So I asked my casino manager if I needed to learn a second game in order to be promoted to that glorious supervisory position. He told me not to bother, I was just as likely to get a promotion knowing one game as knowing five. Wrong.
I just couldn’t take it. Blackjack was sapping my soul. So when they announced a baccarat class, I jumped at the opportunity, even though I didn’t have a clue what baccarat was all about.
Turns out, baccarat saved my casino career along with my sanity. In those days, the game was played at a big table with seven positions at each end. You worked in a crew, just like a craps game, so you had to work together to deal an efficient game.
And I was good at it. The “no talking” edict wasn’t as strictly enforced, because the players enjoyed limited banter with the dealers. The “stickman” held the attention of the table, as he or she announced the results of each hand. The base dealers were very skillful with the chips and the “lammers” that would mark the commissions.
There was a camaraderie, not only among the crew but also with the supervisors. Everyone worked together to create a seamless experience for the players and for management to see what was going on.
After a couple of years, I was a senior dealer and expecting a promotion. Soon after a dealer I had broken in was promoted ahead of me, I was recruited by the Golden Nugget, which had opened a year earlier. It had the biggest baccarat action in town, once the property of Caesars.
Lesson? Sometimes a lateral move is the best move.
Again, working at the Golden Nugget transformed my life. It had a completely different attitude than Caesars. Dealers were encouraged to be friendly with the players, cultivate relationships and create loyalty with customers. I got to meet Steve Wynn several times when he came to sit at a dead baccarat game and shoot the breeze with us dealers. His approachability and insight into our lives was invaluable.
When Steve Wynn sold out, I like to say I left the business, but I actually followed a couple of Golden Nugget executives to Showboat at the other end of the Boardwalk. But I didn’t last long. It was the worst, but led me to support myself and my family by writing about gaming.
Lesson? No matter the good intentions, you are always at the mercy of the corporate structure.
I often think of that first night dealing in Atlantic City when I knew nothing. I learned a lot over the next 35 years, but the most important lesson I learned is to live your dream. Don’t let a menial thing like a job get in the way.
Reach for the stars, and you might grab a few.