Gambling is probably the most socially acceptable vice in Britain today. Every time you turn on the television you’re bombarded with adverts encouraging you to sign up NOW to some online gambling site in order to gain a free twenty-quid stake. Late night schedules are taken up by plastic presenters who call out numbers from a live spinning roulette wheel. You can play a game of poker against other people from the comfort of your own home using a tablet or smart phone.
I worked as a croupier for over three years in a provincial casino at the turn of the millennium. It was before the ‘Bingo-ification’ of the gambling industry that began with the Gambling Act 2005. Walk into any casino now and you can find a broad spectrum of people at the tables, but when I worked in the industry, it was a select group, the hardcore. The casino I worked in was thick with cigarette smoke and bad language. Dreams were forged and shattered most nights, and asking the punters to ‘gamble responsibly’ would have been met with derision and possibly a punch in the mouth.
Partly inspired by Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott’s high-profile presence in international poker tournaments (he made his first appearance on Late Night Poker in 1999), my local casino decided to capitalise on the poker craze that was sweeping the nation and give over more time and resources to the poker room. After seeing an advert in the paper, I decided to apply for the position of trainee card-dealer. It was a six-week crash course in dealing Texas Hold ‘Em poker, with the promise that we would be given additional training in the pit games – roulette, blackjack, three card poker – once we proved ourselves capable.
The first week was spent shuffling cards and chip-handling, the essential corner-stone for any croupier. We would get two stacks of twenty chips and have to knock them over and them pick them up and put them back in stacks of twenty without counting. The skill was learning to ‘feel’ when you had twenty. We also had to cut them down into four smaller stacks of five, and then stack them up again, ‘proving’ to the cameras, punters and inspectors the amounts. It was surprisingly difficult, and my fingers would ache for hours afterwards.
However, no amount of training could prepare us for the first night. It was like being initiated into some sort of secret underground cult. At that point in time, the punters were mainly separated into two different groups: the regulars and the Chinese community. The noise and chaos of the pit surrounded us as we were lead up to the card room like sacrificial lambs to be thrown to the lions. There were no clocks or windows, so you never knew what time it was, all part of the casino psychology to keep the punters gambling, so the whole thing was disorientating on a few levels, sensory overload.
Nerves got the better of me and I fucked up my first few hands by slinging cards off the table. In poker, every hand is crucial, so the some of the players wasted no time in letting me know how much of a fucking idiot I was. Poker is basically a game of endurance, so dealing hand after hand for hours at a time quickly sharpened me up to the point where I became competent enough to be able to relax a little and soak up some of the conversations that were going on around the table. Back then, mobiles and other such devices were banned, so the players would actually have to talk to each other, so I got to know all the characters.
Among them there was the ‘Neville-fish’, an 80 year-old bloke who would turn from charming granddad figure to snarling maniac within the space of a game; Eli, a Turkish cab-firm owner who was killing himself with a 60-a-day fag habit; Pete, a hapless window-cleaner who was so notoriously unlucky that people would refuse to sit next to him for fear that he would somehow infect them; Keith, an aging hard bastard who barely spoke; Terry, a Joe Pesci-esque pawn-broker who would not shut up (a tactic he used to put-off other players, I later learned); ‘Doctor Death’, a player who was so christened by the other players due to his unfortunate resemblance to the late Dr. Harold Shipman; Carol a past-her-prime prostitute who would get her latest John to shell out for her buy-ins.
One of the funniest things about all the players was their attitude towards Dave ‘Devilfish’. They would spend hours slagging him off, but when he dropped by for a game they were all smiles and handshakes.
Eventually, I proved myself to the point where I was trained to deal cash-poker. Whereas most of the regulars saw the tournament as a bit of fun, cash-poker was the real deal. I saw a lot of crazy shit. One night, a show-down between Eli (referred to as the Godfather by the other players on account of his sub-bass growl of a voice) and a new guy ended with Eli beating the new guy with straight-flush over a full-house. The poor guy was so shocked after losing nearly a grand, he spewed his guts up in the pit. The whole card-room erupted with laughter. We never saw him again.
Despite all the bitching and the banter, they were a close bunch. Frank, one of the old boys, was known for generally being a loser. He was obsessed with poker; it was all he ever went on about, much to the derision of the other players. When a bunch of gambling addicts chide you for talking about gambling too much, you know you’re in trouble. Poor Frank could never catch a break, and would usually crash and burn sometime after the buy-in period finished. One night, however, luck was on his side and he made it to the final table. After a gruelling match that seemed to go on for ever, he decided to split the final pot. He was practically walking on air. The following night, the players were preparing themselves for an evening of Frank rattling on about how great he was, but he never showed up, much to everyone’s surprise. We found out later that he had fallen asleep at the wheel on his drive home, and had died in the crash.
It was his funeral the following week, and there was a minute’s silence in the card-room before the game began as a mark of respect. A chair at the final table was left empty and they placed his wreath, which was in the shape of an ace of hearts, in the chair.
After about six months in the card-room, I finally earned the opportunity to learn the pit games. A whole new realm of madness was about to open up to me…