In the course of my 56 years, I've been known to play a hand or two -- or 20,000 -- of blackjack in ships' casinos, or yank on the handle of the odd slot machine. In fact, some people might even think I learned how to add by playing blackjack.
In my continuing quest to bring the spirit of George Plimpton to the world of cruising, I was able to join the casino staff and sit on "their side of the table" during a recent cruise on the Island Princess, with the assistance of Jill Goodwin of Carnival Corporation's Ocean Player's Club, and Princess Cruise Lines.
I was teamed with Michelle Brzowski, the Casino Host on the Island Princess; and Nichola Giannico, the ship's Casino Manager. They told me I'd be working one of the ship's blackjack tournaments, and one of its slot machine tournaments.
The concept was pretty exciting to me, since over the years I've watched so many people dealing cards; I assumed all that experience would translate easily, making me a natural as a professional blackjack dealer.
The day of the ship's blackjack tournament, I began my day on the job with the simple task of signing passengers up to play. To join the tournament, passengers pay a $20 entry free, and the champion wins $500. The tournament is divided into rounds, with seven players in each round. The object for the player is to accumulate more chips than any of the players from all the rounds. The top seven scorers from each round play a final round of seven hands to determine a champion.
My Big Break Passengers were lining up to join the tournament, which is all the more popular in these days of televised poker matches. I was busily slotting people's names into the tournament schedule, and watching Michelle deal the initial rounds, when Casino Manager "Nikky" asked if I thought I could deal.
My moment had arrived! I was set and determined to give away all the chips in the casino's chip-rack.
"You bet I can deal, boss", I told Nikky. I had dealt blackjack once at a New Year's Party we had, when we brought in a blackjack table, so I knew I was prepared.
I reached for the "shoe" (the device the cards are dealt from), but delayed a moment to explain to the players that they may have to be patient with me, since I really had no idea what the heck I was doing. I proved this point with the first cards I laid out on the table -- they were strewn everywhere, laying carelessly in every direction.
The only thing I could do properly on that first hand was add the values of the player's first two cards, tell them what they equaled, and ask if they wanted another card.
Nikky, Michelle, and all of the casino staff were having a great laugh at the card dealing virgin.
52 Pick-Up I somehow managed to pay those whose hands beat mine, and collect the chips from those who lost, but then I ran into a problem I never expected: I couldn't figure out how to smoothly pick up all the cards that were used in that hand. There were about 30 cards lying on the table staring at me, begging to be collected so the game could continue, but I was dumbfounded.
I finally just gathered the cards together in a random pile and used both hands to gather them up. Even putting them to the side in the small card holder on the table became a two-minute chore.
By this time, the casino crew was rolling on the floor, and the passengers were looking at me like I was overripe fruit at the buffet.
Things got even worse when, after four hands, none of the players had any money left to play the remaining three. I not only made them endure watching me struggle to get them their cards, but I had put together dealer's hands they couldn't beat; thus I took all their chips and their chance of winning the tournament.
I thought of quitting my "job" right then, but I was convinced those seven players would follow me back to my cabin -- and not to congratulate me.
The Chip Flip With a lot of help and instruction from Michelle and Nikky, things did improve with each round I dealt. Things seemed to be going so well I thought I'd show off, When I picked up a losing players chips, I tried to do a trick, picking them up by sliding the cards under them, so I could raise them up and flip them into my hand.
As I continued dealing the cards, improving only slightly, I thought of all the blackjack dealers I've played with, and how seamless they made their job appear. No question it took them lots of training and practice to make it so. But in a very short time doing their job, I learned there is much more going on than meets the eye.
With security cameras and supervisors watching, the cards must be shuffled in a particular and specific manner. When the cards are dealt, they must be placed in front of each player neatly, one lying directly in line with the other. When the hand is completed, all remaining cards must be picked up and placed in a card holder in order, so if there is a question about the round, they can be placed back on the table as they were when they were dealt. The players are paid in a specific way when they win, and losing bets are collected in a special manner as well. There are intricacies in calculating the payment for winning hands for "blackjacks," and in lining up players' bets when they double down. There's that, and much more than I ever realized as a longtime player.
Before this experience, I thought the job of dealing cards was quite mechanical, but truth be known, there's a lot going on. Aside from having excellent dexterity and coordination, a dealer must always keep his mind at work, aware of everything going on at the table.
Happy Losers Besides managing the mechanics of the job, dealers are faced with the responsibility of social interaction with the passengers. Of course, if people are winning, they're happy and much easier to socialize with. However, casinos are not designed to make that a regular occurrence -- so imagine how difficult it is to help people feel like they're having fun when they are losing money.The dealers in the ship's casinos really do want you to have fun, and they want you to win. They are not playing with their money, after all. The most substantial part of their income is from tips from the players. And the reality is that a winner is much more likely than a loser to leave a fat tip for the dealers.
The next time you sit down at a table in a ship's casino, I ask you to stop and think about this for a moment: Realize that the dealers are there rooting for you, and trying to help make it a fun experience for you. If you happen to lose money, which should be the expected result, view it as the cost of your entertainment. Saving even a dollar or two from your casino entertainment budget to offer the dealers for their efforts would be greatly appreciated by the hard-working and friendly casino staff. I've always found the casino dealers to be some of the friendliest crew members on any ship.
A Plum Job I've always thought that if I were young, with an adventurous spirit, and wanted to set out to sea and work on a cruise ship, the casino would be one of the ideal areas to work in. The shipboard casinos are closed in every port, so casino staffers have the opportunity (i.e., time off) to visit and explore each destination.
They also get the opportunity to work 12 to 14-hour split-shift days, live in cramped crew quarters, and eat in the crew mess while trying to make it fun for people who are mad at you because you are taking their money from them. This experience taught me that it does take unique individuals with unusual social skills to do this job for the six- to eight-month contracts it entails.
And now that I have qualifying experience, you have to be a bit careful. If you don't treat the dealers well the next time you're on a ship, you might be unfortunate enough to get me dealing to you.
On all Carnival Corporation ships, there's a program of benefits for regular casino players. For details on this program, visit www.oceanplayersclub.com