Learning the Odds

Uncovering the Mystery of Casino Rules and Etiquette
by Kaylyn Kuzniar

When I entered the Caesar’s Palace Hotel and Casino, the last thing on my mind was: Who will be dealing my blackjack cards? It was my first trip to Las Vegas, and I had a laundry list of activities on deck, including Elton John’s Red Piano Show and dinner at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill. I was too star-struck by the lights, the shopping, the food, the ting-ting-tings of the slot machines, and the giant, multi-colored frozen drinks—with straws as long as my arm!—to think about gambling.

My parents and much of my immediate family, including my 80-year-old (and very hip) grandmother, flew to Las Vegas in the spring of 2008 for a family vacation. Prior to this trip, I had only entered a casino one time, at the Par-A-Dice in East Peoria, to pull a few slots with some friends.

Making it Personal
Pulling a handle, or pushing a button, is easy, but the thought of throwing dice at a craps table, assessing the “flop” at a poker table or “hitting” at a blackjack table makes my palms sweat. These games, I thought, required a skill set and etiquette that I didn’t have, and my fear of doing something wrong kept me from playing them. Perhaps it’s because I had to face a real person—the dealer—instead of just spinning slot reels or playing video poker at the bar. The dealer makes it personal, and as it turns out, that’s the nature of the job.

Curious, I asked David Stroud, director of corporate communications at Boyd Gaming, parent company of the Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino, what it takes to be a dealer. “We are looking for somebody who is outgoing, friendly, and who will create a memorable experience for the player,” he said. “That is what we are looking for, first and foremost—that right personality.”

In larger markets like Las Vegas or Atlantic City, dealer training schools are located nearby, offering a curriculum that can entail eight to 10 weeks. In smaller markets, dealers are typically trained at the property where they are hired. “Since there is no dealer training school in Peoria, we handle our own training,” acknowledges Stroud. Loren Gill, vice president and general manager of the Par-A-Dice, adds that the length of training varies depending on the person and how long it takes them to learn the game.

Blackjack is typically learned first, for it is the most popular table game in the casino. Dealers in training learn how the game works and the appropriate table etiquette, and receive basic training in customer service. As needed, the prospective dealer will be trained in other games, such as roulette, craps, baccarat and poker.

Once hired and trained, a dealer starts out at a base wage, in addition to earning tips, which are pooled and divided, either over the shift or over a 24-hour period. “At the Par-A-Dice,” notes Gill, “all the dealers’ tips are placed in a drop box at the end of each shift, counted per 24-hour period, and then applied to each dealer’s paycheck.”

Stroud explains that tip pooling is a fair way to compensate dealers and ensures that each customer, whether at a high-limit or low-limit table, receives top-notch service from the dealer. “[Tip pooling] eliminates the issue of luck,” he says. “Players that win are going to tip more than players that lose, typically. You don’t want to penalize a dealer working at an unlucky table.”

While dealing at a casino has its perks, it is a taxing job, both physically and mentally. Dealers are on their feet constantly and need to have complete focus on the game. “You can’t make mistakes,” says Stroud. “You can’t mispay bets...You have to give the dealers a chance to take a break, to rest.” At the Par-A-Dice, dealers will deal for about two hours and then break for about 20 minutes. Dealers should also expect to work unpopular hours—evenings, weekends and holidays—that is, of course, when casinos are the busiest!

Hands Off the Table
On top of my ignorance of game rules, I had no idea what casino etiquette was. Table games have extensive rules and procedures that must be followed by both the dealer and customer, so there has to come manners attached, right? While passing time waiting for the Fat Elvis show to start at Bill’s Gambling Hall and Saloon on the Las Vegas strip, my cousins and I decided to learn how to play roulette.

The three of us were very attentive when the lovely dealer from Alaska explained the rules of the game and betting procedures with a chipper voice. After she told us for the fifth time to keep our hands off the table while bets were in play, our short lesson concluded, and it was time to put our money down. The only etiquette tip she mentioned was being aware of your fellow gambler’s space. My head was spinning. How could I remember it all? The bets? The evens, the odds? The red, the black, the numbers? Is my left elbow in the way of the person next to me? Well, somehow I kept my elbow under control and did okay, winning $33.

On a more recent trip to Vegas, my companion, Greg, and I practiced what we thought was proper gambling etiquette. Sitting down at an empty blackjack table in the New York-New York casino, we greeted the dealer and pulled out money that yielded a very modest stack of chips. We warned her that I was completely ignorant as to how to play blackjack in a casino; she smiled and began explaining the game to me while Greg shuffled his chips around.

I was still a bit confused, but Greg, no stranger to a blackjack table, was ready. He played a few hands while I watched, and the dealer explained what was happening as the game went on. There were two empty chairs, and soon, a group of people walked up to the table, one of the few low-limit tables available, wanting to play. We thanked the dealer and left, as I was taking up a chair and not actually betting money, and thought my novice skills would slow the game. We figured that was the polite thing to do.

Stroud said that if we had continued to play, it would not have been any breach of etiquette, since outside of the specific rules of the game, there isn’t much “official” etiquette when it comes to gambling. “You can play the game however you want,” he says, adding one tip that applies to all games: “Just be considerate of other players and the dealer.” But for the dealer, “there isn’t much wiggle room in how they play the game. [Dealers] have to follow the house rules.”

One of these rules is that dealers cannot solicit tips. “What we are looking for from the dealer is to be very engaging, to make sure the customer is enjoying themselves,” explains Stroud. “We want the player to enjoy themselves, and if they want to tip, that is their prerogative.”

A Much Different Animal
At the age of eight, my father taught me how to play Five Card Draw after I helped him set up for a poker night he was hosting in the drafty shed in the backyard. I shuffled cards, counted all the chips, and color-coordinated them while he cussed at a propane heater and filled coolers with ice. No other girls my age—or boys, for that matter—knew how to play poker. It just wasn’t popular, or, contrary to my father’s opinion, I was too young to be playing card games, other than Go Fish.

Today, poker has become quite the phenomenon. In casinos across the country, poker rooms are full, with waiting lists a mile long. The broadcasting of the World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour events invited home viewers into the game to see how poker is really played in the casinos—not in your uncle’s garage, or in my father’s shed, on a Saturday night. “It captured the public’s imagination,” noted Stroud.

“Poker is a much different animal than other games,” he adds. “With games like blackjack, craps or roulette, there is a built-in house advantage.” In poker, the gamblers are playing against each other, not the house. “Poker is very much a game of skill. The cards you receive are only part of how the game works. The player has lots of control over whether those hands win or not.”

Poker has very specific sets of rules that go along with the particular game being played, but there are universal rules that apply to most casino poker rooms. Gamblers must speak English at the table to prevent collusion. String betting is not allowed. Also, it is not polite to show one player your folded hand and not the whole table. If you want to show your hand, show everyone your hand, or throw it away unrevealed.

Probability & Luck
In the early ‘90s, my grandparents won a black-and-white Mazda Miata convertible on a slot machine in Las Vegas. My grandfather bet five nickels and drove home a car that at my current height, I have difficulty fitting into. My grandparents, however, fit like two peas in a pod in the little mobile that dubbed them lucky, and they still drive it today. But is there really such a thing as luck?

“It’s pure probability,” explains Stroud. “As far as we are concerned, there is no such thing as luck…We are in the statistics business.” The casino knows what its expected profit will be if a customer plays any game a certain number of times. He cites the example of the coin toss. If a coin is flipped 100 times, eventually you are going to hit an all-heads streak and an all-tails streak. “At the end of the day, the luck will even out,” says Stroud. It seems my grandparents were not so lucky after all; it was just probability working in their favor.

Stroud emphasizes that casinos are pure entertainment, not a means to make a living. Probability may work in your favor, or it may not. “You need to go into the casino with the idea that you are there to have fun,” he says. “You may win money, that may happen, but you need to come in with a budget just like you would any other entertainment experience.” Poker is an exception; because you don’t play against the house, it is possible to make a living playing poker. But, warns Stroud, “It is a lot of work. I don’t want to make anyone think that it is easy to [make a living playing poker].” 
Watching the Tables
After my first trip to Vegas and experience at the roulette table, I felt a new confidence on the casino floor. So, when I skipped into the Par-A-Dice earlier this spring with some friends, I bellied up to a roulette table and stacked some tokens on my “lucky” numbers. After placing my bet, I happened to look up and stare directly into a little dark orb. A camera. The eye in the sky was watching me.

Behind that eye are trained surveillance teams that watch for suspicious behavior. “Surveillance teams are watching every game as it happens, and they are trained to look for the tell-tale signs of cheating,” says Stroud. Loren Gill emphasizes that the casino business is heavily regulated by the Illinois Gaming Board, from the dice thrown at the craps table to the layout of the casino. “Everything has to be approved—the vendors, equipment, layout. Everything,” says Gill. The board also requires surveillance at every table game in the casino.

It turned out that I’m the least of the Par-A-Dice surveillance team’s worries. I smiled at the camera and won $15. I tossed a five to the dealer, who had graciously laughed at my dumb jokes, before skipping back out my car, with 10 extra dollars in my pocket. a&s