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Behind the scenes, tournament has stable of 850 dealers

8 June 2009

Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Trick question: Seven people are situated around a poker table at the Rio waiting to begin play at a World Series of Poker event.

Before the game starts, one of them is already guaranteed to make money on the game. Which one?

The answer: The one that's working — the dealer.

With all the attention focused on the cards once they've hit the table, it's easy to forget about the men and women dealing them. All in all, this year's series — 57 events from May 27 to July 15 (main event final table resumes Nov. 7 to 10) — has a stable of 850 dealers to keep the games running.

That's a significant step up from the 725 used in 2008. And, of course, an enormous increase from the one dealer required at the first WSOP in 1970, a game that involved just six players.

"We've come light years, quantum leaps throughout the years," Tournament Director Jack Effel said. "This year we set a goal of 1,000 dealers and ended with a list of 930, with 850 showing up. You need that many because there's approximately 300 tables going at any given time."

Dealers are only paid $6.85 per hour for working the series. However, they still make a few hundred dollars each day by splitting tips and a small percentage of the players' entry fees, Effel said.

The dealers flock to Las Vegas from various parts of the nation — and world — for a chance to work on poker's biggest stage. Effel said about half are Southern Nevada residents and more than 600 of them have worked the event before.

The new dealers were selected out of a pool of 700 to 800 applicants. They were tested over the phone and in person in game knowledge, technical aspects of dealing, like pitching the cards, and attitude.

The process starts in January, six months before the tournament begins, and dealers are required to have six months of experience.

The top dealers are eventually selected to deal the final table of the main even in November.

"Every year we get a little better at the process," Effel said. "If they show proficiency over the phone, and they have the technical ability to do it, we'll take them."

Dealers work up to 500 hands per day and average close to 20 hands every half hour. With that many hands played each day, dealers will tell you that mistakes — like reading hands wrong, miscalculating the pot or flipping over the wrong cards — are fairly common.

"I've been wrong quite a few times," said Eric Chan, 24, a UNLV student who has dealt since 2007. "But I haven't screwed up to the point that I can't reverse it. It's about keeping your cool and realizing that it's just chips and just people at the table."

For dealers who have done it long enough, it's a safe bet that they have one or two stories that come from their line of work.

Doug Chase, 29, started dealing in 2004 and has traveled around the world to work at various casinos. Although he's dealt thousands of hands throughout his career, he says certain ones stick out.

"There are definitely memorable hands," Chase said. "In 2005, I was dealing a game that was just way out of my league. (Poker professional) Marcel Luske was sitting at the table and he won a $10,000 hand.

"When the hand was over he threw me a quarter, a big, green $25,000 chip. I said, 'Thank you,' and started putting it in my pocket when he said, "Wait, I threw you the wrong chip," and started pulling out a small one. I dropped my head and started to give it back and he was like, "Ha, ha –- just kidding," He had the whole table laughing."

Already this year, Chan has earned a little extra money when professional Antonio Esfandiari placed a bet with everyone at the table that Chan was incorrect for revealing a pair of mucked cards.

A floor manager was called over for a ruling and confirmed that Chan had been correct, costing Esfandiari more than $100. The players made sure Chan received part of the money.

"It felt good to have someone come over and tell everyone that I had been right," Chan said.

So, what's it feel like to hold thousands of players' fate and millions of dollars in winnings in your hand?

"It is unbelievably cool," Chan said. "To be part of the action, dealing at a level that I'm not able to play at. It's not who wins and loses necessarily, poker has a great community. Every single hand I'm making nine people unhappy and just one person happy. Hopefully I get to make everybody happy at least once."

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