I sometimes think of those years as the years without dogs. I was renting a condo at the time, no pets allowed, and besides the hours kept me away too long because I was breaking in, first at Little Caesars where a good shift was one when no one vomited on a layout or even near the pit, then the Mint, now the high-rise portion of Binion’s on Fremont Street. Those days we earned minimum wage and tokes that averaged $35 a day. It was hardly a dream job, merely the first stage of learning what dealing in a casino was about and the vernacular that went with it—tourists and such, and bosses called “suits” breathing down your neck when the bets went higher than $10. I like to think that all of that experience would’ve been better if I’d had a dog waiting for me when I came home, but as I said, no pets allowed.
That first night seemed like a scrum at the starting line of a marathon, all of us lining up and waiting to be directed to our assignments. Those days, we were locked into the same game for the entire shift. Yet, we were anxious to begin the day’s (night’s) work. This was, after all, the first stage of mastering a craft that would hopefully take us to a casino such as Caesars Palace or the Hilton where real money was to be made. By the second week, some of the enthusiasm had waned. It was hard to look forward to a long night on a game that never went dead and bosses like Mr. Williams hanging out at the toke box watching us drop in our measly tips.
“Stealing from the bosses again,” he said more than once, as if our tips came out of his bonus.
Nothing remarkable happened to me the first couple of months. I learned the meaning of juice and learned quickly that a pretty woman dealer had no trouble getting juice. The bosses salivated when a couple of the younger ones cooed for them. I kept my head down and dealt and tried my best to go unnoticed.
But I was different than the other break-ins. I’d been a cop and I’d worked for Griffin Investigations for two years, chasing cheaters. I probably knew as much as most of the suits who supervised the games. I knew enough that one of the procedures we were required to follow was a bad idea. Whenever a game went idle, we were required to fan the cards out over the layout face up. Face up?
One of the few guys who had juice in the casino was a cocky kid, whom I’ll call Julio. He was in his early 20s, slick, had the dealer haircut, smooth on the sides and trimmed over the neck. He was also one of the tip counters. As I said, tips ran us around $35 a shift—$30 weekdays, $45 on weekends. At the end of each shift three or four dealers would take the toke boxes to the cage, count out the chips, convert those to cash, divide that sum by the number of dealers and put an equal share in an envelope for every dealer.
One night I was on an idle game. Julio stood behind the game to my left, his cards fanned out on the layout. A player sat down at my game. I called, “Shuffle,” and the floorman acknowledged it. I dealt out the first hand and as I did, a player approached Julio’s game and pointed to the cards indicating he was going to play. Julio shouted shuffle and picked up the cards. The floorman acknowledged him. But Julio didn’t shuffle. He picked up the deck, placed it in the shoe and hollered, “Money plays.” A $100 bill lay in the first betting square. Julio dealt out the hand. The floorman saw me looking to my left and came up beside me.
“Keep your eyes on your game,” he said.
I bowed my head and dealt, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw the player on Julio’s game had been dealt an 11. He doubled down, caught a face card, scooped up the chips and cash and walked. I’d witnessed a scam but knew better than to say anything. I have no idea how long Julio had worked at the Mint, probably long enough to run his game on the house more than a few times. I understood where his juice came from. He might’ve kept the scam going a lot longer, but he was running another one, one even more profitable that soon came to light.
One busy weekend he took a couple of toke boxes to the count room early and by himself. On his next break he went to Binion’s next door and promptly lost more than $1,000 on a craps table. The figure I heard varied and no one could be certain. The stories also varied on how news of this got back to the dealers. Some said another dealer saw it. Others said a dealer from Binion’s spilled the beans on Julio. What was certain was that he’d stolen our tokes. The management fired him, but didn’t have him arrested. I argued it wasn’t management’s decision to make. It was the dealers’. He’d stolen from us, not the bosses. Mr. Williams’ response was to ask if I was looking to get fired. Julio was never prosecuted, but our tips went up to better than $45 a day. A quick calculation based on the 30 to 60 games we spread in the casino suggested that Julio and perhaps others stole approximately $500 a night.
Sometimes I recall my days at the Mint and wonder if breaking-in conditions have improved for dealers. But then, on the rare occasions when I have to be in a downtown casino to meet someone, I look at the expressions on the dealers’ faces and I see myself back then, head down, pumping cards, and I know nothing has changed.
H. Lee Barnes is the author of numerous short stories and nine books, his latest being The Gambler’s Apprentice. His short stories have received the Willamette Fiction Award and the Arizona Authors’ Association Fiction Award. In 2009 he was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. He teaches at the College of Southern Nevada.