As with most casinos, roulette and blackjack, and to a lesser extent three-card poker, were the bread and butter. The card-room was more or less a self-contained economy. All the money from the tournament poker went into the prize-pot, so the only money that went into the pockets of the casino were the fees from the cash-poker players and the Chinese Mahjong players, paid hourly. And despite the fact that most of the cash-players were sat in front of pots that regularly topped a grand, they nearly always bitched and moaned when it was time to cough up.
The true value of the card room was that it filled the casino on what would ordinarily be a quiet mid-week night. Unlike the big casinos in places like London and Manchester, provincial casinos don’t tend to see many high-rollers. The standard ‘big’ punters tended to be restaurant owners, cab-firm owners and middle-management sorts. Other than that, the crowd was made up of casuals and so-called ‘professional gamblers’. The average weekly takings were peanuts compared to a big-city casino, but for someone who had never had more than a few quid in the bank at any one time, seeing all that cash took a little getting used to.
The count usually took place at the end of the night. All the cash from the drop-boxes would be emptied into numbered sacks which were padlocked and taken into a locked room. The croupiers would empty the sacks onto the table and put the cash through counting machines while a manager and a couple of inspectors would do the figures. Very often, I would entertain myself by imagining the ultimate casino heist. It would start off as a Heat-style precision raid, but as I got more tired it crumbled into a half-arsed vision of a couple of guys wearing ski-masks and brandishing baseball bats.
It would have never worked of course; all casinos, even little ones, operate under the constant scrutiny of the video-camera. They’re all over, from the entrance to the cash-desk, in the card-room and all over the pit. Within seconds of walking into a casino, you’re clocked. Every time a regular walks in through, a call goes up to the pit. The main reason for the cameras is to ensure that everything is fair, and nobody is on the take, whether it’s the punters, the dealers or management. Half of what croupier does is for the benefit of the camera. That hand-wipe gesture the dealer makes as he/she leaves the table, the one that some of the piss-heads mistake as a final ‘fuck you’? Proves that the dealer isn’t taking anything away from the table. Running the tip of his/her finger over the tops of the chips as he/she cuts them down? Proves that all the stacks are the same height.
In an interview about the creation of ‘V for Vendetta’, Alan Moore said that the prevalence of CCTV cameras within the story was an easy visual short-hand for how a fascist state would look. And without trying to sound too melodramatic, becoming accustomed to life working within a casino can feel as though you’re giving up certain liberties in order to become part of some authoritarian structure. The internal society of the casino comes complete with its own codes, customs and routines, and it can be a bit overwhelming, especially when you’re still just a fucking lumpy.
As a result of this, a few months in saw the departure of the large majority of the people who I had trained with originally. Most of the ones who stuck it out were the female trainees, something that was quite common, apparently. Everyone had their own theory about this. Personally, a lot of it has to with the fact that a lot of young blokes mistakenly think that being a croupier is quite glamourous – they picture themselves dealing cards to well coiffed couples sipping martinis while giggling at the prospects of their latest acquisition, when the reality is that they’ll spend the majority of their time slinging chips at bitter, blue-ink tattooed owners of failing haulage firms who can spend hours muttering under their breath about how they’d like to follow you home and fuck your mother. Up the arse.
To be fair, our training school had been at a disadvantage. Most of the time, learning chip skills and how to deal roulette was the focus of a training school, mainly because of the difficulty of it. We had done it back to front by learning how to deal poker first, meaning that we would have to be taught the pit games by snatching an hour here and there when the casino was quiet. In order to ease us in, the pit-bosses and managers figured that we would be best off learning the pit’s card-games – blackjack and three- card poker – first.
In retrospect, blackjack was probably my favourite game to deal. There’s an intensity to a good round of blackjack. Unlike roulette, which is random, blackjack is a game of subjective probability, meaning that the outcome of previous games can affect the outcome of the following games. In other words, once a card has been pulled from the shoe, it won’t appear again until there’s another shuffle. This leads into one of the most frequent boasts that you’ll hear from a blackjack player, that they can count cards better than Raymond from Rain Man. But the truth is, keeping track of six decks per shoe shuffled together is difficult, and the average weekend punter is more idiot than savant.
Want to know how to improve your chances at Blackjack? Keep an eye on tens and pictures. If the dealer is showing a six or less, and you have a hard-hand (a hand without an ace that can count as a one or ten) of thirteen or over, don’t take a card. The dealer will have to take at least two cards, meaning there’s a greater chance he’ll bust. If it’s late in the shoe and you haven’t seen many tens or pictures, increase your bet and take every opportunity to split and double-down. This isn’t always guaranteed to work, so don’t go blaming me if you go out and spunk your mortgage after reading this, but it may skew things in your favour. The biggest flaw to this system is other players, the drunk, casual weekend kind of punters who say ‘twist’ when they want a card.
Unfortunately, I’ve recently discovered that a lot of casino blackjack has been subject the ongoing ‘bingo-ification’ of modern gambling, offering side-bets that pay out when the punter hits a certain combinations of cards. In my opinion this brings an unnecessary random element to proceedings. It also means the dealer is unable to scoop up chips in a smooth, semi-cocky motion after hitting twenty-one and wiping everyone out, as he will have to check and pay the side-bets first.
If blackjack is the peak of casino card games, then it could be said that three-card poker is the trough. Based around three-card brag, three-card poker (TCP) was often the sin-bin where naughty croupiers were sent to serve out their shift in shame after doing their brains in at a table. Dull as fuck to deal, TCP is basically two games in one. The first part is the ante bet. After dealing each player three cards, the dealer is dealt three face-down. The player looks at his cards and decides if he wants to bet against the dealer’s hand. If the dealer has anything less than a queen high, it’s an instant pay-out, otherwise the poker pecking order comes into effect, the only difference being that in TCP, a straight beats a flush. The second part of the game is the Pairplus, a side-bet on the outcome of the player’s own hand. A pair or higher wins, and is paid out regardless of whether the dealer has won the hand or not. Shit, even explaining the rules is boring…
Despite my feelings about TCP, it was hugely popular. More often than not, being sent down from the card-room after the tournament finished meant spending at least a couple of hours in dealer’s purgatory. I would sometimes go into little fugue states as I battled against my body-clock. Getting used to the hours was physically and mentally challenging. I often wondered about some of the people that I dealt to. Picking up their conversations about how their latest round of sports betting was going, I couldn’t work out how they managed to find the time to get any sleep. Like me, they were living in a world with no clocks or windows, a world where time became distorted and stretched like putty before it’s stuck in a frame. Looking at them through a cloud blue-grey tobacco smoke, I realised that I was spending more time with these people than I did my family and friends.
But shuffling and slinging cards was all just the preamble to the big one. And one night, after counting and then destroying all the cards that had been used during the evening’s shift, my pit-boss took me one side to tell me that I would be learning how to deal the devil’s game. It was time to learn roulette…