Thursday, March 01, 2007

Poker Dealer for a Day

WHEN TEXAS HOLD'EM SURGED into popularity through 2003 and especially into 2004, with back-to-back World Series wins by everyman players Chris Moneymaker and Greg Raymer, people founded home games and held amateur tournaments in droves, as I have mentioned previously. In most of these cases, the players ran and dealt the games themselves. Some planners, however, turned to professionals to set up and staff hold'em tourneys at corporate gatherings, private parties, or charity casino nights. Here's the story of how I spent a day and made a little money teaching folks to play at a birthday hold'em party.

I built my home poker game from an ad on the Internet. Others did the same, either on or Craigslist. I had seen folks post ads offering their services as dealers for private games, either at someone's home or office or at an underground poker club. One day in July 2004, I noticed an ad for someone seeking dealers for a birthday party. The job was to teach folks the basics of playing hold'em and then deal the game, for which the dealer would be paid. Continuing my streak of somewhat foolhardy acceptance of Internet-based poker ads at face value, I dropped the person an email with my qualifications.

She responded enthusiastically and said I sounded more than qualified to do this job. In a subsequent phone conversation, she said she was recruiting a total of three dealers to help host a surprise poker party for her husband at their home in Rutherford, NJ. As described, we would simply give a lesson, deal, and help folks have fun. No real money would be involved. It didn't seem to pose the same danger as, say, dealing to Silvio Dante or Paulie Walnuts at the Executive Game. For this effort, I could graze on the party food and drink, and I would be paid a C-note.

I accepted. The hostess was thrilled, and had only one minor request: Could I dress up in a white shirt and black pants like a casino poker dealer? I happily agreed. I've flirted with going for Halloween as a casino dealer, so it wasn't that outrageous an idea. She did note that I could bring clothing more appropriate to the season — dead summer heat — because their place was the top floor of a multifamily house, and once the gig got rolling, the place would probably heat up. Once I had made my initial impression, I could change if the joint began roasting.

With her address plotted on Mapquest, I found myself the next Saturday heading down a sun-drenched Route 17 to the intersection with Route 3, hard by Rutherford town. It's a charming suburban burg, and their house was on a broad, tree-bowered avenue that could have appeared in a commercial. As I pulled up, incongruously in my black Dockers and white dress shirt. I noticed a second person, similarly attired, considerably more obese, heading up the driveway of the three-story house. Intros were exchanged, and he turned out to be much like myself, a player in home and casino poker who spotted the ad while looking for a new game. We entered the house from the rear, squeezing up a twisting stairway that emitted ominous creaks as my companion preceded me up to the top floor, where the hostess, a woman in her late twenties, happily welcomed us in.

This floor probably began life as the house's attic when it was a single-family domicile. Once the building had been subdivided, the owners retrofitted interior walls around the perimeter to partition a kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom, but they left the bulk of the attic open as a common area. This space was heavily decorated with both birthday and gambling party trappings. Somehow, they had stolen or otherwise acquired a large World Poker Tour banner, which hung over the food table. Three long tables, each covered in felt and ringed with folding chairs, awaited the players. It was behind one of these tables that we met our third dealer, a New York City policeman from Staten Island. I recognized him as a frequent advertiser on Craigslist offering his poker-dealing services. The three of us discussed what we would teach the newbies and how to run the game — the hostess hadn't really specified what we were to play — to ensure that folks had a fair shot at the prizes. The hostess had explained that she had three Texas hold'em chip sets, one for the winner on each table. We decided to let folks play regular ring hold'em until the alarm went off, at which point the chip leader on each table would win their poker set. Fairly simple.

Even with only about five party guests in addition to the hostess and the dealers, the attic was already quite warm. I had brought a T-shirt and shorts up with me in a gym bag, as had the guy who arrived at the same time as I did. Noticing this, the hostess apologized for the heat and stressed again that we could change when we got too hot. I suspected this would come sooner rather than later. For the moment, I grabbed a soda and got my table in order, stacking chips for the players, spreading the deck face up to show the full spread, and waiting for the rest of the guests to arrive.

As guests filtered in, they marveled at the whole setup, and did double-takes at the fact that she had recruited dealers. I greeted anyone who strolled by my table, hoping the fact that I was sweating more with each new source of heat that walked up the stairs with a gift or bottle. The air conditioners were on, but were not equal to the task of chilling this top-of-the-building hot box. I opened a second Diet Coke and got a water bottle in reserve ready for any dizzy spells.

Presently, the birthday boy arrived, completely surprised and stunned at the whole setup. The hostess then divided the crowd among the three tables, and gave us some time to introduce our players to the game. I'm a fairly effective trainer, and no small ham, so having a captive and slightly tipsy audience was right up my alley. I've also sat in at a couple of casino poker lessons. Plus, I find the whole procedure of being a dealer fascinating. I was very much "on" as I explained what the blinds were, how the board cards would combine with their hole cards to make hands, and how the betting would progress. I dealt a few practice hands face up for them, and I gave a rudimentary lesson on the importance of position. Nothing too deep or math heavy. By the time the hostess started the clock, they had the basics roughly down, and enough alcohol to make any mistakes humorous.

I truly enjoy dealing poker, so the mechanical aspect of it, aside from the liters of sweat rolling down my back, was a blast. The players were gloriously green — showing one another their cards, betting with anything, saying "All in!' when they shoved in their last chips — and had a ball. The time passed very swiftly, another marker of how much fun it was, and soon we were awarding the hold'em sets to the lucky degenerates at each table with the biggest piles of chips.

At this point, I changed out of my sopping dealer duds and into the amazing comfort of my dry, baggy T-shirt and shorts combo. I lingered and shot the shit with folks for a while, finally feeling a little out of place. Most of these folks were about 10 years younger than me, and somewhat to my right politically. No matter. When the hostess handed us each an envelope, I saw five portraits of that upstanding Democrat-Republican Andrew Jackson, and was quite happy to cast my ballot for that worthy, if unbalanced, dead president.

I stayed for no longer than another half hour. I was ravenously hungry, but I was wary of the food that had been provided, which, though tasty earlier in the day, by then had been marinating in the heat for hours and was no doubt host to some fascinating microorganisms. So I thanked the hostess for the gig, accepted in turn her profuse thanks, congratulated her husband on his birthday and on having such an excellent spouse, and then threaded my way down the narrow stairs into the comparatively cool July afternoon. Not even in Vegas had an open car window and a highway breeze felt so refreshing on my face.

Sometimes I look back and wonder at the boldness I exhibited in accepting players and a job like this from faceless ads on the Internet. I can't claim this success had anything to do with the legendary gambler's honor of which old-timers like Doyle Brunson wax rhapsodic. All I know is that the home game I assembled from scratch on the Internet is still going, in a different venue, and has engendered friendships that might never have coalesced. And aside from dropping about 10 pounds of water weight, I suffered no ill consequences from my day as a dealer. I hope to recapture some of that willingness to venture forth from my shell in the job hunt. If nothing else, this incident gives me an answer to an employer's question of what my most unusual job might have been.

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