Card dealers find odds in their favour - Saturday 12th of March 2005

If you know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em, the odds are good these days that you can parlay those skills into becoming a professional card dealer close to home or around the country.

From five-card stud to blackjack, gaming action is among the hottest parts of the hospitality industry. The booming growth in cardrooms is upping the ante for employment opportunities and gaming-services jobs are expected to grow faster than the average through 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"There's a huge market for dealers. We're always looking," says Mark Mitchell of Shoreline's Drift On Inn Roadhouse Casino, a longtime landmark on Aurora Avenue North. "We always seem to be a bit short (of workers)."

The number of card dealers licensed in Washington state has soared from 4,500 in 2000 ??? when state rules for expanded legalized house-banked cardroom gaming took effect ??? to nearly 14,000 today, according to Susan Arland of the Washington State Gambling Commission.

The base pay is low ??? often minimum wage ??? but tips can bring that up to more than $20 an hour.


The trainer


Starting in 1975, and for 15 years before these new rules expanded gaming in the Washington cities and counties that allow gambling, Joyce Duval was a pit boss.


"I saw that all the dealers were coming from out of state," says Duval. "When people started asking how they could get a job like mine, I saw that someone needed to train them."

That's why she opened Casino Dealer School, one of first card-dealer training programs in the state, in 2000. Now located in Edmonds, her gaming training program is one of nine in the Puget Sound area licensed by the Gambling Commission.

Though most of Duval's students are 21 to 35 years old, her graduates range from 18 to 64 years old. Learning to deal blackjack, Pai Gow and variations of those games take 150 to 300 hours, depending on a dealers' experience; these courses run $1,400 to $1,800. A separate six-week poker course runs about $1,000.

"We train 25 to 30 people at any one time," says Duval. "I don't want to saturate the market. I want my people to go to work right away."

Many do.


Fast and friendly

Thousands of dealers shuffle and riffle cards for poker, blackjack and other permitted table games at any of the 24 tribal casinos or 91 off-reservation house-banked cardrooms operating in Washington.


Before dealers can take their place in the pit, they need basic card-handling skills, says Duval. These are techniques she teaches in Edmonds.

"Speed and dexterity when handling the chips, the payoffs, are helpful," says Duval.

"Good houses are looking for people who are as fast as possible with a lot of personality," agrees Mitchell.

Basic math skills come in handy when dealing blackjack and handling payoffs, he adds.

Once hired, the licensed casino or cardroom is responsible for helping the dealer acquire his or her license through the Gambling Commission. This requires a criminal background check dating 10 years.

And while in poker parlance it's no royal flush in salary, many gaming-management professionals claim card skills offer dealers an ace-in-the-hole for job security. Nearly half the states have tribal casinos; commercial casinos operate in 11 of these states, as well.


Gambling nation

Two-thirds of all Americans have gambled in some fashion, and 80 percent of adults approve of legal gambling as a means of collecting taxes, according to the U.S. Commission on the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling.

That, says leaders in the industry, is a safe wager for more gaming-related jobs.

"It's really a flexible industry," says Duval. "It's great for part-timers, especially those who want to work on weekends. In many cases, you get to pick your own hours. You can work long shifts, short shifts, all sorts of shifts. It all depends on the management team."

For some, low wages can offset these scheduling benefits. When it comes to official figures, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that card dealing is one of the lowest-paying jobs in the country. The median annual earning for dealers is $13,350 ??? a figure that bureau acknowledges is skewed because it fails to take tips and gratuities into account.

"I can't be enthusiastic enough about a job that requires no diploma and still can pay $35,000 to $50,000 a year," says Duval.

At the Drift On Inn Casino Roadhouse, Mitchell says successful card dealers can earn $20 to $23 an hour when tips are included. Those who are dealing to "big shooters" ??? players winning thousands of dollars a night ??? can earn "big, huge money" in tips, he says.

Such tips can fluctuate between seasons, however.

"Summer is a slower than most and winter is probably the strongest by far," Mitchell says.

Another potential trump card to securing a card-dealing career: Washington legislators are looking to give cities and counties that allow legal cardroom gambling the right to limit the number of establishments.

A measure that increases the tax percentage these municipalities could collect from cardrooms is also being kicked around. Some cardroom insiders say that increasing the tax payout to a city or county could put them out of business.

Duval says the key to a stable income in card dealing is working hard for tips:

"That's why personality is so important. If you're outgoing, fun to be around, lively and can carry on a conversation with people, you'll do well. I tell people they can't expect to be a bump on a log. You are the entertainment. You are the fun and games."

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