Dream jobs don't come along very often, and certainly not on Craigslist. Yet there it was, a listing for a casino games player: no experience necessary, starting salary $16 an hour. Which is not in itself dreamy, perhaps — but for nights in a casino? For playing cards? Sixteen dollars an hour is not bad at all.
The ad had been posted by Fortiss, a "back-of-the-house" service agency based in a small, anonymous office building in downtown L.A. Inside, dominating the bare office of Nathan Wilds, Fortiss' training manager, is a half-circle green baize poker table loaded with cards and trays of different color gaming chips.
A rotund man with a neat goatee and black suspenders, Wilds, 39, explains that the "games player" job exists only in California because of a quirk in the state's gaming rules. Whether it's 3 a.m. or 5 p.m., casino visitors here are not allowed to play alone. If there aren't any other players at the table, which is called a "dead spread," a third party — not the casino — must ensure there is someone else to play with.
"In Vegas you can play poker or blackjack alone, for example, but in California there needs to be what we officially call a third-party banker if there aren't at least two players," Wilds explains. "And even if there's enough players, they'll still play sporadically."
Quick to laugh, Wilds explains that the state's "blue laws" historically prohibited games of chance. That's why California's casinos don't have slots, craps or dice, and why most of them are known as "card clubs" — with the exception of Indian casinos. Located on sovereign lands, they aren't subject to the same restrictions.
With most casinos open 24/7 and games players quitting, retiring or being promoted, that means lots of people are being hired to play cards for a living. They all need to learn something special: how to play with someone else's money.
Wilds himself started as a games player after moving here from Boston more than a decade ago to be an actor. "I was taking a class when someone said, 'Hey, I can get you a job in a casino,' " he recalls. "Back when I was a kid, my grandfather taught me craps, poker, bridge, cribbage — he thought those were some life skills I could use. Now I'm always at a table, every day. And I love it."
He travels across California constantly, training some 200 people a year.
Players are initially licensed by the State of California, a three-week process with a $500 fee and a weighty application form that looks into their family, their credit history, whether they have a criminal record and more. A love of gambling — or turning up in a fedora and a swagger — won't necessarily get you the gig.
"We do get those people, about 10 percent," Wilds admits, adding, "we get Harvard graduates, too. And lots of actors, but then this is L.A."
The key, he says, is "having a good sense of cards, working with the statistics, giving good customer service, working with the dealers and floor managers, asset protection, and knowing that this is a job like any other. A great job but still a job."
"Asset protection" means looking after the money that's in play. And that entails keeping an eye on the dealer.
"In Vegas there are pit bosses and the 'eye in the sky,' whereas here in California, our employees have to make sure their money is protected," Wilds says. "Usually it's just a polite word or a question that helps the dealer self-discover their error and then move on. In some ways we have to train our players to be better than the dealer."
Players are issued $3,000 to $5,000 at the beginning of their eight-hour shift, and can go back for more if needed. So what if they keep losing night after night? It's less of a concern than you'd think, Wilds says: Not only are the odds against that, statistically, but these players aren't gambling like normal visitors: They have a plan, and it doesn't involve trying to win or lose.
Yes, the house always wins. But the gaming financier specialists who supply the stakes — those "third-party banks" whose assets are being gambled with — make their money by thinking of gambling as a matter of strategy: They train games players to say "yes" to being banker/dealers, and to minimize losses, unlike nonprofessionals who might, Wilds says, "play drunk, stupidly or take risks."
That said, Wilds dismisses the ideas of "coolers": Players aren't at the table to stop anyone's lucky streak. What they're taught is to play methodically: "We teach an elaborate 'hit card,' so that if a dealer shows X, you hit. If Y, you stay. You can stay on a low score if the dealer has bad cards, for example. It's all according to a statistical formula."
And if you're not following the plan, it's time for retraining — or perhaps this isn't the job for you.
In many ways, it's like a 9-to-5 job: Drinking on duty is strictly prohibited, and the players are clearly badged. Also, there are guidelines for behavior, depending on the place: "Some casinos like us to be an extension of them and be friendly, while others like us to be like a church mouse and not infringe on what could be seen as the staff's chance for tips — even though we can't take tips anyway," Wilds says. "You don't have to be a Mr. Personality for this job, and at the high-stakes table especially, they want you to be quiet."
But all that money at stake can't help but create a different dynamic from most offices. Wilds admits he's won as much as $70,000 in just a few hours — and, at other times, lost as much as $50,000.
Even when it's not your money, he admits, "It's still exciting and it can be hard to separate it sometimes — an inner battle."
To advance, games players learn to master more card games. After blackjack, there's Baccarat, Texas Hold 'Em, Omaha, Pan 9 and even Pai Gow tiles, the only noncard game, which is very specialist and means maybe $25 an hour. "Not bad for a job you've never heard of," Wilds quips.
But for all his knowledge, he says he's not tempted to chuck his job and head to Vegas: "I know better. As good as I am, I'll just lose slower than you in Vegas. Here in California is the only place in the world you might be able to make a living — by being the banker as often as possible.
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"Once or twice a year I do go to Vegas," he adds, "but I just lose my money and enjoy it."
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