Friday, August 24, 2007
I was the youngest professional blackjack dealer in the history of the world. I started at the age of 14.
(If you’ve been coming here for a while, you may remember me talking about this before. However, don’t go away thinking you know the full story. Last time, I gave it about 2/3 of a page. I’m going to give you much more depth than I did then. Stick around.)
(By the way, MY WIFE insists that I can’t know for sure if I was the youngest blackjack dealer in history. She says that, with child labor laws in other countries being what they are, there are probably pre-teens dealing blackjack somewhere in Asia. Well, until they start writing about it, I’m it.)
(One note about the following: I’ll be using unwieldy terms such as “these fellows” or ”that guy” when referring to the characters here. I won’t use their real names – or even falsified ones that could possibly be figured out – since they may still be working in illegal activities of one sort or another. They were all nice to me and I have no desire to repay that kindness by getting them busted.)
(Finally, the picture above is from a group called Casino Entertainment, based in Kentucky. They seem to offer pretty much the same services as the outfit I worked for, so if you want more background after you finish my story, you might go there and look around.)
My Dad, aside from his day job with the airlines, worked as a dealer and stickman on a craps table. He was the type who always looked for some new opportunity, no matter how well he might have been doing in his current position, and he had become friends with a fellow who ran what were called Monte Carlo nights or Las Vegas nights.
Now, you probably know how these affairs operate, but I’ll give a brief rundown, just in case you don’t.
These were events run for charity, but the money was real and the action could get pretty heavy at times. My Dad’s friend would bring in all of the equipment necessary to set up a working casino – craps table, roulette wheel, as many blackjack tables as the charity thought they could use, big wheel, chuck-a-luck, and all of the cards, dice, chips, and personnel to run the games. In those days, when the only legal gambling in the United States was in Las Vegas, it was a chance for locals to let their hair down without having to fly across the country.
There was always a need for guys to run the craps table. While just about anybody can deal cards – badly – just about nobody aside from a pro can work a craps table efficiently. Since my Dad was familiar with how a craps table operated – having spent quite a few hours on the wrong side of the railing blowing enough money to get the education – he figured he could deal the game. He convinced this other fellow to hire him as a dealer and stickman.
As it turned out, this was one of the best moves this other fellow ever made. Not only could my Dad deal the game - and deal it extremely well - but he also had a supply of very intelligent, very personable guys who weren’t averse to working hard and who could easily be trained to deal the other games such as blackjack or roulette. By the time my Dad had been with the outfit for a year or so, half of the guys dealing cards and spinning wheels were airline sales managers.
This was a tremendous boon to the fellow who owned the outfit. His previous employees, although not utterly dishonest, were not averse to the occasional dipping of their hands into the till. They were happier if they figured out some way to steal five bucks than if they honestly made thirty-five. And any excuse they could find to goldbrick, they made good use of. The airline guys, on the other hand, were as honest as the day was long and had all worked their way up in the airline industry through slogging luggage and other menial tasks, so they had no aversion to hard work. In actuality, as hard as the work ever became on these gambling nights, it was a paid vacation for most of them.
And it paid well, too. Consider that this was mostly during the 1970’s. For somewhere in the neighborhood of four hours work dealing cards and setting up the equipment, these guys were getting $35 plus the occasional tips. There was usually some sort of free dinner or buffet they could attack, plus the atmosphere was generally convivial. These guys were all salesmen, so they had the salesman’s knack for telling jokes and funny stories. Thus, although the customers more often than not were losing their money, these guys kept them in a good mood.
(I have a great story regarding one of the events we worked, and the free dinner we received while working it, but I think it will make a good stand-alone posting. I'll tell you about that at a later date.)
Around the same time that my Dad hooked up with this outfit, our family had started attending a somewhat renegade Catholic Church in downtown Boston. They had masses featuring folk music, rallies for social justice causes unpopular with the archdiocese, and they ran programs such as supper clubs for the homeless.
My Dad soon became heavily involved in this community. He basically started the supper club himself, going to many restaurateurs and food producers to cadge what he could as charitable contributions. And he suggested that the church hire the gambling organization to run a Monte Carlo night as a fundraiser for the supper club.
I was looking forward to attending. I had always liked gambling and, since this was a charity event for my church, I knew I would be able to do so to my heart’s content without sneaking around. Well, on the night of the event, they came up one dealer short. My Dad knew that I could handle a deck of cards fairly well and he knew that I knew the way a BJ table operated (the odds, payoffs, etiquette, etc.) so he recommended me to the operator as a fill-in. Since I had done the job so well – and since my Dad was an integral part of the crew already - I was hired on as a permanent part-time blackjack dealer.
Here’s how the work was handed out. The craps crew always worked, as there was always a craps table at these events. We sometimes staffed the other games and other times they were staffed by volunteers. We always explained that it was in the best interests of the charity to hire our dealers. We could deal faster, make payoffs and collect bets more quickly, and just generally be more slick and entertaining. When we worked, the cost of hiring us was almost always worth it in increased revenue for the charity. Occasionally, however, the stakes being gambled for were too low to justify their using anything but their own people as dealers, no matter how slow and slovenly they might deal. On those nights, most of the airline guys and I didn’t work.
I dealt cards, but I also acted as croupier at the roulette table, dealt chuck-a-luck (a very poor gamble involving three dice), spun the big wheel, and did an occasional fill-in on the craps table, from the time I was 14 until I was in my early 20’s. I would guess that I averaged one night a week for my career in this profession.
(In light of the later jobs I'll tell you about, I guess I should explain that my work with this outfit increased as the years went on. When I started, I was doing perhaps one night a month. Near the end, two or three nights a week. I'm telling you this just in case you begin wondering why I ever chose to work in a shoe store or as a dishwasher.)
Anyway, it was an excellent source of income for someone like me who had begun cultivating a dream of making it as a musician. It took little time away from practice or actual gigging, and kept me from having to find a real full-time job to support myself. Occasionally, the rewards were much larger than the $35 salary.
While most of the jobs were strictly charitable events, and therefore legal under Massachusetts law, the outfit also ran private affairs that were not legal in any way, shape, or form. I worked these, too, as did everybody else. The entire crew worked on these nights – no amateurs. These affairs were held at sea.
At 5:30 or 6:00, we’d start loading all of the equipment onto a chartered boat. Once it was all set up, the invited clientele would board and then we’d set out for a three-hour-or-so cruise around Boston Harbor and environs. The action at these events was serious. It wasn’t unusual to see guys drop a few thousand in a night.
(The reason we could more-or-less get away with this action was because we also did charitable events at sea. Since we did them often, and on the same boat, it was assumed that we’d never be bothered for the non-charity events. This remained true until... well, I’m getting ahead of myself. Sorry.)
As for the previously mentioned occasional huge rewards, I had my best night ever on one of these illegal nights. I was dealing blackjack and I had a real live wire at my table. He was winning a decent amount and he liked my style, so he was tipping me $1 or $2 on every other hand. We kept our own tips - no pooling - so I ended up with over $300 in tips for my three hours that night. On top of that, I had my regular pay of $35, so it was one hell of an evening.
(I’d like to be able to tell you that I invested it in something good, but what happened was that my Dad and I were planning on going to the REAL Las Vegas just four days after that gig. The tips became my stake for the trip.
I started off by working it up to about $700 on the first night, playing blackjack, of course. My Dad, much wiser than I, suggested that I stow half of it in the hotel safe, play with the rest, and be guaranteed a profit for the trip no matter what else happened. I, being dumb as a post, figured I was unbeatable. Do I really have to tell you what happened?
Oh, OK. The next day I started off betting $25 and $50 a hand. I was broke by noon. We had three days left in town. Those were three of the most miserable days in my life, even with my Dad being a nice fellow and lending me the occasional sawbuck to keep me in action.)
It came to an end for both of us when, one night while we were working separate functions, my Dad was arrested. His gig that night was on the boat. Meanwhile, I was working a function for a charitable organization in New Hampshire.
I got home and he wasn't there, which was unusual since his job ended earlier than mine and I had been out-of-state. I knew that sometimes the crew went for a late dinner, though, so I wasn't tremendously worried. I went to bed.
In the morning, he was home and he told me what had happened. The Coast Guard, who had been tipped off about some ship in Boston Harbor, had boarded them. As it later turned out, it seems that they boarded the wrong ship. There was a MUCH higher-profile operation out that night – think Tony Soprano – and that was whom they had meant to get. Well, you can’t start busting someone and then say, “Oh, sorry, you’re not the ones we intended to arrest. Resume your illegal gambling, folks, and sorry for the interruption,” so the Coast Guard did their job as best they could under the new circumstances and took everyone in.
The story was in the papers, though there were no photos good enough to give anyone's identity away. Thank God, because that would have meant mass firings within the airline industry. This was, of course, strictly a second job for most of the crew. In the end, deals were cut and everyone got off with warnings and a sealed record, after pleading guilty and paying court costs.
After the bust, we weighed the advantages and disadvantages of taking another chance. We both decided to stop dealing. It was very decent money for no heavy lifting while it lasted, though.
Next: Barker On A Walking Charlie.
(You KNOW you have to come back, if just to find out what in the hell I’m talking about. See you then.)
First, read about the delicious hippo!