When I was a younger gal, sitting down at the poker table to play a little Texas holdem was nothing short of a thrill.
The opportunity to build a starting stack into a castle of chips was intoxicating to me, and my competitive spirit ensured every session was spent studying every aspect of the game. Opponents and their tendencies, preflop and post-flop hand ranges, the art of the bluff – poker truly was a passionate pursuit.
But as I wake up this morning and head to the poker room, that sense of excitement has vanished altogether. Huge pots will still be scooped, table talk will still ebb and flow, but I won’t be immersed in the action like I once was.
That’s because I turned in my player’s card for a dealer tray long ago, abandoning my dreams of playing poker for a living in exchange for a steady income.
After spending so many hours of my life playing cards, I figured reversing the roles and dealing poker would be a breeze.
I mean, how hard could it really be? Pitch two cards apiece to each player, deal the community cards, and push the pot… sounds like an easy gig to me.
Lo and behold, however, it turns out supervising a full cash game or tournament table in real time – accurately counting bets, reminding players of the rules, and doing it all with a smile – is a legitimate profession requiring training and skills. To obtain that training and learn those skills, I enrolled in a casino dealer instructional program out in Las Vegas, before returning home to my local casino and applying for a position.
That must have been five years ago by now, and when you fast forward to today, I consider myself a poker dealer more than a poker player. This is my job, my full-time employment that puts food on the table and pays the bills, so I take it seriously.
To that end, I’ve decided to let folks in on a few secrets you can only learn from the dealer’s box. This work isn’t what it appears to be, and I know that firsthand, as I always underestimated what dealers really go through during an average down (that’s shorthand for the half-hour spent at any particular table).
Now that the shoe is on the other foot, read on to learn about a day in the life of a casino poker dealer – those silent sentries who keep the game moving one hand at a time.
A Dealer’s Duty Begins Long before They Reach the Table
As a player, you’re first interaction with a poker dealer occurs when they tap their counterpart on the shoulder and take their seat. For the next 30 minutes, this dealer is at your beck and call, and you’re free to scrutinize several aspects of their performance.
Pace of play, the ability to count down stacks accurately and efficiently, and even the willingness to make small talk come to define most dealers in the eyes of their players.
But you might be surprised to learn that I’ve been working long and hard for an hour before I ever slide a single card on the felt.
That’s because casino poker dealers must come to work early and prepare for the task at hand. In an average day, I’ll be expected to rotate between several different forms of poker, from $1/$2 No Limit games to $3/$6 Limit, from cash games to tournaments, and everything in between.
This may sound easy enough, but the best dealers I know take the time to study and prepare for their daily rotation. They might map out their path through the poker room – dealers are given a randomized list of tables they’ll work throughout the shift – thinking about various situations that will invariably arise at a particular table.
For instance, when I know I’ll be dealing a ton of Limit holdem during the day shift, I can expect a steady stream of elderly regulars who simply play for fun.
These downs are typically more laid back and relaxed then what I might find at the more heated No Limit holdem tables on the other side of the room. Limit games are also less mentally taxing then their No Limit counterparts, because I won’t be expected to break down and count every bet.
On the other hand, if my rotation includes a heavy dose of No Limit holdem, I try to gear up for the gauntlet to come.
A healthy hit of espresso is usually in the offing, as I’ll be expected to count hundreds of bets during a single down. Some players like to slide out nice clean stacks – always a welcome assist for us dealers, so keep that in mind going forward – while others haphazardly splash the pot. In any case, however, it’s my job to size up the wager instantaneously, arranging the chips into easily countable stacks while declaring the bet size to the rest of the table.
No Limit players are also much more aggressive than what you’d find at a Limit table – and I’m not talking about their style of play. During a No Limit down, I fully expect to be berated for my slightest mistakes, dressed down by men who can’t abide a woman enforcing the rules, and even flirted with (more on this part of the job in a minute).
With all that considered, studying my daily down rotation is an essential first step toward preparing myself for the rigors to come.
And that’s just for cash games…
During the weekend shifts when my poker room runs daily and nightly tournaments, my focus changes entirely. Tournament dealers are expected to know the blind structure and other elements of the game – think bounties, reentries, and payout bubbles – like the back of their hand.
You know those players who tend to keep a structure sheet handy during tournament play? Well, just imagine having to memorize and recall every bit of that information – how much the blinds are and when they increase, scheduled break times, and reentry period cutoffs – on demand.
In any event, poker dealers don’t just sit down and sling cards. We work hard to prepare for whatever the game might throw at us next, and believe it or not, that can mean anything and everything.
One Down Is Definitely Not Like the Other
Another misconception most players have about dealers is that the job stays the same from table to table.
In reality, my work must be adjusted and tailored to meet different demands on the fly.
Take the last couple hours of my previous shift, which saw me dealing $2/$5 No Limit holdem for two consecutive downs. At the first table I worked, the fireworks began early and often, thanks to a pair of players who genuinely seem to hate one another.
When I took my seat, these two were already bickering at one another from across the table.
“You think you can bring that weak ass shit to my game!? Catch a fucking flush on the turn, best believe I got my boat on the river. That’s what you get for playing so bad man!”
Taunting and verbal abuse aren’t acceptable in my poker room, so I quickly shot a glance over to the offending player – but I didn’t call him out just yet. After all, my livelihood depends on tokes – dealer slang for tips tossed our way after a pot is won – and for all his brashness and bravado, the screamer is actually a great tipper when he’s winning.
At this point, I just hoped a stern look and a slight shake of the head would be enough to give him the hint.
And it was, for a few hands anyway…
That all changed when the guy had his pocket Kings cracked by his foe’s lowly 5-6 suited. You guessed it, the other player managed to catch another flush – this time after calling $250 on the river – and the aggressive player lost his mind.
He shot up from his seat, knocking it over in the process, and shouted at the top of his lungs.
“You fucking fish, how can you play so bad and sit in this game!? Go back to $1/$2 with the other donkeys my man, you don’t belong here… Call $300 to hit a six-high flush, what are you a stupid idiot?”
That last remark was the final straw, as personal insults are forbidden where I work. I was forced to call the floor – the last thing a dealer wants to do, by the way – and let my boss know that the screamer must rack up his chips and leave the table.
This decision set off an entirely new rant, but fortunately, the player’s ire was directed at the floorman and not myself.
Even so, the whole spat cast a cloud over the rest of the down, with the eight remaining players refusing to even make eye contact with me.
As it turns out, the screamer was in the midst of a disastrous session, with uncontrollable tilt and a few cocktails combining to create a $3,000 loss. Mind you, this $2/$5 game caps the buy-ins at $500, so this guy fired six “bullets” into the game and misfired on every single one.
Sufficed to say, the rest of the table desperately wanted him to stick around and spew off more chips – but I put an end to their party by giving him the boot.
When the half-hour down mercifully ended, I counted a scant $8 in my toke box – a far cry from the $25 or so I can usually count on while dealing the $2/$5 game.
But as a dealer, it’s my job to enforce the house rules to the best of my ability, and sometimes that means sacrificing toke equity in the process.
Fortunately, the next table I worked offered a completely different vibe altogether. The players here were bantering and laughing it up, and one gentleman even ordered a round of drinks for his eight opponents.
On one especially large pot, I watched in silent horror as another premium pocket pair went down in flames to a trashy suited connector. It was a pretty sick “bad beat,” and after the last down I fully expected the mood to shift on a dime.
Instead, the losing player just reached over and gave the winner a fist bump, congratulating them on getting there when it counted most.
The atmosphere was infectious, and soon enough, I was drawn into the conversation. Everybody was smiling, just happy to be playing – or dealing in my case – the game of poker we all love so much.
And of course, when I headed back to the break room for a breather, I counted a whopping $78 in tokes from that single down. Granted, a good chunk of that came from a single “greenie” – or the green $25 chips that occasionally make their way to the $2/$5 tables – but overall, this down was a smashing success.
In the span of only one hour, my job took me on a roller coaster of emotions – but that’s par for the course at the poker table.
Tokes Are a Girl’s Best Friend
Up above I alluded to one aspect of dealing poker that no training school can prepare you for – unwanted advances from the opposite sex.
Truth be told, I’m a happily married woman who absolutely adores her husband, but most players I deal to would never know it.
That’s because I don’t wear my wedding ring at the table. This is a conscious decision most female dealers make as they navigate the almost exclusively male domain of the poker room. During any given down, I can expect to see nine men staring my way when I take a seat. Sure, a handful of women do frequent my poker room, but by and large, I’m dealing to the boys day in and day out.
And wouldn’t you know it? Men seem to prefer single ladies dealing their games.
I’ve asked around and consulted with several of my fellow ladies, and I’ve never heard otherwise, so I expect the following phenomenon holds up across the board.
When a woman deals while wearing her wedding ring, the frequency and size of our tokes significantly decreases. But when we show up with our hair done, wearing a tight-fitting outfit – and crucially, no wedding ring – those tokes start streaming in steadily.
Men love the thrill of the hunt, after all, so a presumably single woman who happens to know their way around the poker table presents a certain opportunity in their eyes. I’ve had 80-year old men comment directly about my figure, and 21-year old college kids hesitantly ask where I like to hang out after work.
And in each case, I just batted my eyelashes and flashed a fake smile, flirting back with them to continue the dance.
My husband knows all about this ruse – he’s a poker player himself, so he knows the score – and in fact, he encourages me in this regard.
And why not? If all it takes is a suggestive comment to turn a $1 toke into a $5 “redbird,” then by all means, flirt away says my hubby.
Interestingly enough, the guys I flirt with while dealing often have wedding rings of their own in tow – although they do try to conceal them when things seem to be going their way. I don’t really mind one way or another in that regard though, as I know without a doubt that the “connection” they’re feeling at the moment won’t last longer than my 30-minute down.
Even so, this reliance on my feminine wiles to earn extra tokes did leave me feeling badly during my first few months on the job. I fancy myself to be an independent, progressively minded woman, and yet, here I am using my face and body to extract a few more dollars per down.
Eventually though, I came to accept that this is part of the life I chose, especially after chatting with a few male dealers during breaks. As it turns out, women poker players are notorious flirts in their own right, ogling the young guys and asking inappropriate questions.
Once I realized that this dilemma wasn’t a matter of sexism, but rather part and parcel of the poker table dynamic, I fully embraced the idea of flirting for tokes.
Yes, We Are Silently Studying Your Play
I happen to hail from a poker playing background, as do most dealers I know, so scrutinizing the play I see on a daily basis just comes naturally.
Scrutiny may sound a bit harsh, so let’s call it studying instead. In any case, when I’m dealing your game, my attention isn’t limited to the gameplay mechanics and rules.
I’m watching how you handle your chips during a bluff, as opposed to how you act when you have the nuts. I try to track bet sizings as the pot develops, while mentally narrowing each player’s hand range. Then, when the showdown arrives, I can determine how my own reads matched up to the actual hands tabled.
This isn’t even a conscious process at this point… it’s more like mental background noise that occurs whether I like it or not. After playing the game for so many years, I just can’t help myself from trying to analyze and examine every hand I deal.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’d never let a player know how I feel about their play – that’s just not my place as a dealer. The most you’ll get out of me is a slight frown when you take a bad beat, or an imperceptible nod if you happen to make an excellent play.
No, this silent analysis is more for my own sake. I’m always looking to improve my play, to add certain skills and remove certain flaws. And what better way to improve at poker than by watching hundreds and thousands of hands play out in real time?
You’d be surprised to learn just how many dealers spend their after-hours time sitting at the very same tables they just worked. You can usually spot a dealer by their frenetic, impatient play, and outside of a few outliers, most of us are losers in the long run.
That’s because after eight hours spent watching people drag massive pots and pull off audacious bluffs, we can’t wait to mix it up ourselves. And in fact, many dealers seem to think their perspective from the box gives them special insight into the regulars they’ll face while playing.
I’m not sure how much water that theory holds, but I have to admit, I have learned a few tricks of the trade while dealing. Everything from timing tells, tilt control, and the tendencies shared by aggressive bluffers – these aspects of the game are best learned from the outside looking in.
Dealers are among the most unappreciated elements of a thriving poker room, but without us, the game grinds to a standstill. Don’t believe me? Just try hosting a home game where the players deal cards to themselves. After a night of misdeals and mistakes, you’ll soon realize that a trained professional in the box makes all the difference.
I’m extremely grateful to have discovered poker as a young woman, and while playing seriously wasn’t in the cards for me, the opportunity to earn a living from the game I love is priceless.
So next time you’re out and about playing the great game of poker, try and see things from our perspective. Behave yourself, have fun, and toke generously, and I promise we’ll try to treat you right every step of the way.