Ahh, New York. Wonderful crisp fall days, long rambles in Central Park, cozy dinners in the West Village and Brooklyn, visits to galleries and museums with my pals, seeing a couple of off-Broadway plays. But...no poker.
While I would love to keep playing regularly, I am impeded by the dearth of poker venues in the New York City area. In the past, I could choose from half-a-dozen clubs with no-limit games and a good $10/$20 limit game thrown in, maybe even a $15/$30 Omaha hi-low. Now, I know of three clubs in the city, a couple more on Long Island. Of those, two have been robbed, one of them at least twice in the past six months. A third has escaped the notice of police or felons, so far. This is not the kind of situation I want to face during a night of play. Furthermore, as a sometime casino dealer, I do not want to be mistakenly identified as an underground poker club dealer in the event the police roll in. During raids, they have been known to demand that players finger dealers. Maybe I'm overly cautious, but I do not want to have to explain to the cops that yes, I have a license to deal poker in several states, but no, I have never dealt in this particular underground poker club. I'm not sure they would care about the distinction.
In addition, by a conservative estimation of bankroll requirements, I have to face the fact that I am undercapitalized above the $5/$10 level. While I am confident in my no-limit game, which is probably stronger at this point than my limit game ever was, a few bad beats could have a serious impact on my bottom line. I'm also concerned that playing on a short roll may impede me from playing optimally.
Then there are the expenses inherent in playing live, as opposed to online. During Foxwoods' Spring Poker Classic tournament in April, I played nearly every day for two weeks straight. I did not enter any of the tournaments, playing in the side games only. I had a very successful tournament, and was very happy with my overall results. I played mostly $1/$2 and $2/$5 No-limit, occasionally taking a shot at $10/$20 or $15/$30 Stud or Holdem when those games looked especially juicy. At Foxwoods , I have a certain home field advantage: the floorpeople know me and know I table-hop a lot, trying to get into the best games around. Although my request for transfers must be annoying to them at times, particularly when the room is really busy, they never act as if they mind. I know several of the regular players, too, so there is a certain camaraderie when "our place" fills up with lots of new faces at tournament time. New faces we are generally delighted to see.
So, yeah, April was great. Even with the reduced room-rate for tournament players, however, I ended up with close to $1600 in expenses (including lodging, meals and sundries). That, and the rake ($12/hour in the $2/$5 NL, a whopping $10/hour in the $1/$2) is just too much to ignore. It bothers me still, how much "action" I gave the casino due to these fees.
Two months before Foxwoods , I spent almost a month in Tunica , Mississippi, dealing a WSOP event at the Grand Casino there. I'd been to Tunica the past August to deal a tourney as well. Just like players who travel the tournament circuit, dealers, incur a lot of expenses on the road. Tournament dealers must pay their own travel and, in the case of the WSOP Circuit, lodging costs. Generally, that means sharing a room provided by the casino at a nearby motel, at a reduced rate. If you want to eat decently, you can't rely on the food in the "help's hall," or employee dining room. The only good meals I had in Tunica were at the players' buffets and casino restaurants. (There was great food in Memphis, but getting there required a car.) In addition, this year Harrah's has restructured its Circuit events so that each championship charges a $5,000 entry fee, instead of the former $10,000 buy-in. While more affordable for most players, this could well reduce the amount dealers earn, since they receive a percentage of the prize pool. A lower entry fee may result in larger fields, but if not, the prize pools will be greatly reduced. This season, Harrah's has reduced the length of its road tourneys significantly, so that most run for only ten days. It's hard to justify traveling for such a short stint of work. Finally, dealing on the road is a grind. You are far from home with not much to do except work and sleep, although you can certainly play a session if you have the stamina after your shift. Playing any of the table games or slots can be very tempting for dealers far from home, but it can also spell disaster. I know more than one dealer who has come out a loser after working a Circuit event, because of the lure of the craps or blackjack tables.
Dealing on the road, and at the WSOP in Vegas, can be a lot of fun a lot of the time, to be sure. There were times I found myself in the Amazon room at the Rio this year feeling wistful that this could be my last time dealing the event. The energy of so many players, the excitement of being in a room full of cameras and spectators, knowing that running the game depends on your actions, is impossible to replicate anywhere else. As a player, your concerns narrow your focus, and while you feel the energy and excitement, you must tune it out in favor of making correct decisions. And you are under a great deal of pressure to survive. As a dealer, you face pressures too, from obnoxious players and inept staff, but it's a different kind of pressure. Most of the time things go smoothly and you run your game. Every thirty minutes you move to a different table, and the energy can be completely different. Above all, you get to observe the action with no financial stake in the outcome of a given hand. I saw so much action close up as it unfolded in real time, more than I could ever see on TV. I sat there as players scratched their heads and wondered what they were up against, whether to raise or fold. I followed the progress of the hands, and was often sure when someone was bluffing, or when someone had made a bad call.
All this exposure to poker made me even more sensitive to tells. It was a highlight of the World Series, for me, when I mustered up the courage to approach Mike Caro, a personal hero, and thank him for the invaluable advice I've received through his book and articles.
And he was so sweet about it, saying that my successes made his labors worthwhile. I even dealt to David Sklansky, whose books formed the basis of my early research on the game. He was such a muted presence at the table that I didn't even realize he was there until I pushed him a pot.
I knew, even as I was dealing this year's Series that I was faced with a decision. (And yes, there were a ton of operational problems, too many, and the introduction of over $2 million in extra chips during the late-stage color-ups was unconscionable, but those problems have been documented at length elsewhere and are not the focus of this article.) If I wanted to continue playing and dealing, or dealing and playing, I was going to have to give serious consideration to moving to a place with lots of games, and lots of dealing jobs. That means either Atlantic City or Las Vegas.
Atlantic City is out. I can barely stand to visit the place for one night. I like the Borgata, although I've found the $2/$5 No-limit is unprofitably tight; the action must all be in $5/$10 NL and above. The $20/$40 limit game there has been excellent on the few occasions I've played in it, and I suspect the higher limits are good too. But I have no use for the Taj, which is disgusting and crawling with unappetizing characters. The Trop is a bit better but I've only played there once or twice. Connecticut is out, too, for not only would I have to give up playing at Foxwoods in order to deal there, but also the poker dealers pool all their tips with the other dealers in the whole casino, and end up averaging about $18/hour, including the small hourly wage they are paid. I was offered a job there last February but I can't see living in sleepy Southeastern Connecticut, beautiful though it be, and not being able to play live. Dealers at Foxwoods are not allowed to play anywhere in the casino, and its neighbor, Mohegan Sun, no longer has a poker room.
So then there's Vegas. I have a finger in the wind with respect to dealing there, and the situation sounds very difficult at the time. With more than thirty new poker rooms opening in the past eighteen months, the games and players are spread out over so much territory that it seems there are only one or two places with sufficient action to keep all the available dealers busy. Accompanying the proliferation of new poker rooms is an eager oversupply of underemployed poker dealers as well. I suppose that given some of the contacts I've made through working two World Series, as well as the WSOP Circuit, I might get a couple of shifts a week as an extra at a few rooms, but I'm not even sure of that. In any case, possible occasional work as a Vegas poker dealer might not be a fair trade for leaving behind family, friends, home. Even if living in Vegas does mean I would get to play regularly in lots of different games.
So if not Vegas, if not Atlantic City, if not Connecticut or Mississippi or Minnesota or Southern Indiana, then what?
Well, I have embarked on a job hunt. A non-poker job hunt. I've even gotten a couple of offers. (I have a background in teaching and non-profit development, and am fortunate enough to have some salable skills other than dealing or "probability management,"* or however one might describe the "skill set" involved in playing poker.) But my heart is not fully in it. Dammit, I wanna play cards! So hang the short bankroll, kick off the businesslike pumps and pantsuits, tuck those resumes away for safekeeping - I am bound for Foxwoods again, off to take my shot at the side action and maybe a satellite or two at the upcoming World Poker Finals, which start on Saturday. For now, the job hunt can wait (although if any of you can use the services of a crackerjack copy editor and proofreader, feel free to contact me; I won't be gone all that long). After more than two months away from the tables, I can't wait.
*thanks to Mike May for coining this term