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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

On the Clock: Rodney Thomas, Harrah's New Orleans Casino table games dealer

Posted By on Tue, Nov 8, 2016 at 2:11 PM

click to enlarge Rodney Thomas deals table games at Harrah's New Orleans Casino.
  • Rodney Thomas deals table games at Harrah's New Orleans Casino.

At 12:45 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, Rodney Thomas is dealing roulette. Three men  —  one with a Budweiser, one with a brown cocktail in a plastic cup  —  are saddled up in the chairs surrounding the felt-covered table, clearly having a far better time than anyone is generally entitled to on weekdays. Though Thomas just stepped up to the table a few minutes ago, relieving another dealer who was on duty, he’s already formed a bond with the guys. He says something that makes them break up in guffawing, backslapping laughter, before they turn their attention to the table's grid of worn-in numbers, ready to stack their chips in enigmatic patterns.

Thomas, a tall man in the black button-down and fleur-de-lis-embossed vest worn by the Harrah’s New Orleans Casino dealers, is in constant motion behind the table. He likes dealing roulette because of this; Unlike blackjack, where the dealer doesn’t have much room to move, on roulette he can keep up his comic patter while walking back and forth, moving forward to spin the wheel or to fluidly repossess multicolored chips into the automatic sorter that another dealer tells me is related to Coinstar change machines. Everything Thomas does seems is part of one uninterrupted motion, a liquid stride punctuated only by his wisecracking commentary.

Before meeting Thomas, who has worked as a table games dealer at this casino for the past 16 years, I was under the impression that the dealers were assigned to one game, or two at most. He quickly corrects me. Table games staff are required to know how to deal all the games; during a work week, the dealers at Harrah’s move might move from poker to roulette to baccarat to craps, each game with its own esoteric set of rules. On eight-hour shifts, dealers work a table for 90 minutes and then take a half-hour break. This break helps them recharge for a job that requires a high level of mastery of mental arithmetic and an engaging, friendly manner with the players. 

Thomas got his start dealing at the Flamingo Casino, the old riverboat operation that moved to Shreveport in 1997. He got the job when friend who worked in personnel there suggested he might like to attend the casino’s dealing school, though his only previous experience involved shuffling cards at home. 

“It was crazy at the Flamingo because we were all new; nobody didn’t know nothing,” he says, laughing. “Everybody was just going for it … you’d have somebody behind you who came from Vegas, and everyone knew you were a new dealer … once I got the hang of it, it was like, 'My turn to be the man now.'”

click to enlarge A dizzying number of slot machines lines the floor at the casino.
  • A dizzying number of slot machines lines the floor at the casino.

After the Flamingo moved, Thomas drove a bus, which he hated. When he heard the Harrah’s property was opening downtown, he parked his bus on the side of the road during a break from an airport shuttle run and dashed into the dealing school on South Peters Street to ace the company's dealer audition. Since then, he’s been making the rounds in the casino, rotating between the tables with a close-knit group of dealing staff. (Very close, in some cases  —  his wife works in the slots department.)

“Dealing is not a job, it’s a career,” Thomas says. “Most of the people here dealing right now, they’ve been here since the first day.”

Thomas says working at Harrah’s is somewhat different from the Boomtown New Orleans or Treasure Chest casinos. Though Harrah's has a solid regular clientele, its Canal Street location means dealers there handle more out-of-town tourists than other gambling properties in the area. Big events trigger an ebb and flow of prospective players coming through the casino; Mardi Gras isn’t so good, but other events can be real moneymakers for casino staff.

“When the (New Orleans) Saints play at home, all the road team fans will come and play inside the casino. But the best is the NBA All-Star Game; we get to see all the stars,” Thomas says. Run-ins with celebrities are common; Thomas once dealt three-card poker to the basketball player Allen Iverson, who insisted on getting his hair braided during the game. VIPs like professional sports players often frequent a room in the hushed high-limit area on the floor, which has its own private street entrance in addition to slot machines with $100 pulls. (It’s deserted when we swing by, to my great disappointment.)

click to enlarge The casino's decor is full of curiosities, like this Renaissance-inspired rotunda mural on the ceiling of the high-limit area.
  • The casino's decor is full of curiosities, like this Renaissance-inspired rotunda mural on the ceiling of the high-limit area.

Dealers keep a close eye on business patterns and festivals because they depend on tips to help supplement their income. When smoking was banned at Harrah’s, dealers had mixed feelings about the decision. They loved coming home from work without reeking of smoke, but revenue (and tips) fell when smokers stayed away from the casino. And there always are guests who don't know that tipping is part of casino culture. 

“When you look at a dealer, some people think a dealer makes $30, $40 an hour … we get paid almost just like bartenders, waiters,” Thomas says. 

What’s a good tip for a dealer? I ask him.

“Half of it, for me,” he jokes. “It depends on how much you win. 10 percent is good for me, but again, it depends on how much you win.”

In some ways, dealers are in a strange position, as the real, human person who personifies the “house” gamblers try to beat. A dealer's loyalties are therefore split: between the players, who are the clients who reward good service with tips, and the casino, whom they represent and protect. They can give you advice at the table (except Thomas, who claims “I’m the worst gambler ever”), but they’re also on the lookout for player dishonesty, which Thomas says happens all the time. Less scrupulous players try to count cards or put up money to add to a bet when the dealer isn’t looking; a combination of the dealer's eyes, an area supervisor and the casino's surveillance team help thwart attempts to cheat. Dealers also responsible for shouldering and defusing angry outbursts by losing players.

click to enlarge The casino from above.
  • The casino from above.

For players who want to have a good time and do well at the casino without resorting to unsavory tactics, Thomas has two key pieces of advice. The first: “Gambling is recreation. Don’t bring your rent money,” he says. The second has to do with other patrons. Don’t pay attention to other players offering unsolicited advice; they’re usually self-interested and, in expecting a kickback for a good suggestion, can chip away at your winnings. Dealers call such hangers-on “fleas.” 

But no fleas surround Thomas’ roulette table today, where his three new best friends are cracking up again as they lose chips and gain them back, in a pattern that’s invisible to me. I can’t even tell if one player is doing well, much less all three of them; but Thomas’ calculation and distribution of the appropriate chips for wins is instant and seamless. A Katy Perry song bumps from the speakers in the ceiling; a waitress who gives her name as Diva comes by for more cocktail orders. Thomas uses two fingers to point first to his eyes and then at one of the players, in the universal gesture for “I’ve got my eye on you.” Then he leans over and spins the wooden roulette wheel, the metal ball clattering from number to number, a piece of pure chance. 

I’m sure he’s rooting for his players to win. As he told me: “If you don’t make money, I don’t make money."

Gambit's "On the Clock" series takes a look at the workday of a New Orleanian with an unconventional job. Have an interesting job, or know someone who does? Email Kat Stromquist with tips.

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