“Gamblers are dry and empty souls, their hearts have been sucked dry, there’s no music in their walk, they are colorless and condemned.” – Charles Bukowski
Anyone that has spent some time between the tables and slot machines will tell you that a special breed of people congregate in gambling houses. On a busy night, you can come along and witness a performance that shouldn’t be missed. From widows to high rollers, they’re all here.
They surround the tables in mobs. Standing on their toes to get a better view of the action; like a strange collective of top athletes competing in a blood sport. All gunning for the gold.
Only one thing keeps them in the windowless rooms for hours on end; they all love the chase. The mindset of a bettor is unlike any other. Which makes for irrational decisions and great stories.
The casino bar was open late as always, welcoming all sorts of outsiders who weren’t ready to go home yet. Warm and filled with quiet music, it was hard to leave. A burgundy carpet with crazy patterns covered the floor. Gold picture frames and dim neon lights adorned the dark red walls: a tasteless attempt at class.
The bar was usually frequented by disappointed regulars who were convinced their winning night had come. They would rest their elbows on the marble bar top and stare into their glasses for a while. So I sat amongst them on the high stools and let them lay it down upon me.
PART I: SEX, SLOTS AND CONSCRIPTION
The first man was middle-aged, serious and intriguing. He stood by the bar while a waiter set his table. No bets were going to be made, he stopped playing a long time ago. If it wasn’t for the dinner he was going to have with a croupier friend, he wouldn’t have been here at all. He didn’t tell me his name, but he told me everything else.
Growing up in a small Eastern European town, there wasn’t much to do. Most men spent their time working, boozing in the local bar or playing slots in small playrooms. As he got older he saw more and more of his father’s affection for the latter two.
It didn’t last long enough though. One night he was drinking in the nearest town and on his way home he rode his motorbike into the oncoming traffic, crashing into a tractor’s loader. It never bothered him, however, because he didn’t like his father very much anyway.
By the time he was 16, his old man’s ways were catching up with him so his mother sent him to a military school. Much to her surprise, it lured him down a worse road than he would have taken by staying home. Once he had settled in, he soon made friends with a willing crowd and the fun soon began.
During the weekdays they weren’t allowed to leave their campus. All that saved money made for 48 hour binges on the weekends. Drinks, sex, fighting and slot machines. A small dose of bohemian living. The boys formed a brotherhood built on decadence, which they remained faithful to.
However, once they graduated, the gang split. He enlisted in the army and quickly worked his way up to the rank of Captain. He oversaw his base camp and became a well-respected official.
“A man who fed thousands to machines during his gambling career.”
The gambling stuck by him though. At his rank, he earned a generous amount and financed his addiction with ease. Whenever the army gave him a breather for a few days, he would go back home to see his family and old friends. He became well known in the local slot rooms back there too. On one of the visits however, he met the woman he’d end up marrying and within a year, he was going to become a father. At the tender of twenty-two.
His old lady put up a good fight to end his gambling but with little success. For the following years, he would carry on at a steady pace. Eventually, his luck run out. The final blow came when the army abolished conscription, cutting down on both soldiers and officials. He was discharged and thrown into the world.
With little opportunity in his homeland, and his family living in poverty, he had to make a choice. Fourteen years ago they moved to England, where he started with a clean slate. Much needed for a man who fed thousands to machines during his gambling career. An amount which he said was more than enough to put him off for a lifetime.
PART II: DEALER BY DAY, GAMBLER BY NIGHT
Alexis* was an interesting guy, to say the least. Twenty-six years old, already fully immersed in the world of gambling. When he wasn’t working graveyard shifts dealing games, you would find him at his second home: the other side of the table. He loved and lived it. Even his cigarette lighter had an ace of spades on it.He told me he moved to England two years ago, looking to prove that he is “the best poker dealer anyone has seen”. In fact, it was hard to disagree with his talent. The first gig he landed was just five days after arriving in the country.
He walked to his nearest casino and asked about a job. A few minutes later a manager showed up, offering him a table test. Within an hour he walked out as the newest member of the croupier team.
But all glory comes with sacrifice.
His first introduction to poker was while studying at a medical school in Athens. A crowd of students waiting to take the Hippocratic Oath would gather on weekends to drink tsipouro and play Texas Hold ‘em.
They would set up small-time tournaments with ten euro buy-ins and go at it for hours on end. Fueling Alexis’ love for his vice. By the time he graduated the economic crisis had swallowed up Greece. Unemployed and with little desire left to stay in his field, word got around to him that a poker house was looking for dealers. The only issue was that it was an unlicensed den.
The Greek government regulates all the gambling action in the country, leaving no room for private gaming clubs. In the area of Athens, which has a rough population of four million people, there are only two official casinos. An unfortunate supply and demand ratio for all the hungry gamblers of the city.
However, where there’s a will, there’s a way. For decades poker joints had been set up behind, above or under local shops and businesses. From low-risk games to hands worth thousands of euros, all tastes are catered for. Creating an underground poker operation worth five billion euros a year.
So, in his early twenties, he started his career as a croupier above a meze bar hidden somewhere in the depths of an Athenian neighbourhood. He worked from midnight till the early hours of the morning, non-stop. Earning anywhere from 100-150 euros (£86-£129) a night. A solid deal for a country in a crisis. Not to mention the tips, which sometimes were plentiful enough to double his wages.
“He left too soon without the twenty thousand euros that he arrived with.”
As a product of his environment, he joined the parade. But losing games didn’t matter. He was earning more than he could spend. In fact, he was earning more than his father; who supported his family as a warehouse worker.
Already under suspicion because of his working schedule, a final confrontation with his dad led to him getting kicked out of the house. With enough money saved up, he rented his own flat and invested more time into the playing part of the game.
Not long before moving to England, he entered a high stakes poker tournament. Unfortunately, luck wasn’t on his side that night, he left soon after; without the twenty thousand euros that he arrived with. To an outsider, it seems crazy, but he claimed that it was his wake up call – from then on he would only bet on roulette games.
PART III: NEW KID ON THE BLOCK
In the smoking shelter, a young guy with hair down to his shoulders, was outside piling up cigarette butts on the ground. Crouching in his casino uniform, he looked restless. He was going to finish at four a.m, which meant that he only had six more hours to go.
His name was Lucas*, a Polish kid who grew up in England. A month had passed since he turned twenty, and a year since he became a croupier. He dropped out of college during his exams, so he accepted early on that he wasn’t going to become a lawyer.
With no qualifications under his belt, he took up manual labour for a while, working night shifts in a parcel depot. He put up with it for some time until he applied to a casino. Though he never stepped foot in one before, they trained him up and threw him in the deep end.
The swing shifts he was already used to however, getting called a c*nt by strangers on a daily basis was a new experience. A croupier might be fast and steady but if they’re not patient, soon enough they will implode.
The casino is there to make money and he’s paid to help them make it.”
Before even stepping up to the table, the dealer has to accept that it is their fault when a customer loses. When dealing with the mentality of a gambling addict, it is best to stay quiet. After all, most modern casinos wire their tables and keep them under constant CCTV monitoring. So there is no risk of getting jumped by a maniac on a losing streak.
It’s just another job and he told me he learned two things. For one, being surrounded by betting junkies convinced him to never lay down a bet. The other lesson was to restrain from any emotional response to people’s loss. The casino is there to make money and he’s paid to help them make it. The people will keep coming whether he’s there or not.
Though once in a while he can’t help but feel sorry for some of them. Or their families at least. Some guy sat down at his blackjack table once and kept pulling out fifty-pound notes each time he lost a hand. When he was down by 300, he laughed at himself, saying he played the money he was going to use for his son’s birthday present. Sometimes, you have to hate player too, not just the game.
His break was over, he stepped on his cigarette and walked back inside.
PART IV: HERE WE ARE
A year has passed since that night at the high street casino. In this game, the pundits come and go. In an environment of superstitions, a casino regular won’t stick around for too long. You will see them every night for a month or two, until a bad hand or a new dealer rings a wrong bell. Then they will move on to the next joint.
Eventually, when there’s no new places to go, they will return and the whole cycle repeats. It is only the croupiers that find themselves at the same table over and over again. Intrigued to know how Alexis and Lucas were doing, I sought them out one more time.
After visiting the casino where Alexis had been working, it wasn’t surprising to find out that he had left his position a few months prior. We got in contact online and he explained how he stood by his promise of proving his skills. As it turns out, he had been promoted to a pit boss within the year.
In the meantime, a new girl was hired as a croupier trainee. The pair fell in love and soon moved in together. However, he wasn’t satisfied with his earnings for the amount of hours he put in. Then a lucky break came and not only did he leave his job, but the country too.
After a successful table test at a large casino resort in Cyprus, they were both hired as permanent card dealers. Thankful for the opportunity and for finding his partner in crime, he has called it a day with the gambling for good.
I found Lucas in the same local casino where I met him. On his break, we met in the smoking area where we talked for the next few minutes. He looked at ease, his body language indicated that he had become comfortable at his work place. He spoke proudly of his progress, being one of the best in his team.
To this day he has no regrets about leaving education. In fact, the company has funded a qualification programme which he is taking part in. Working long hours and extra shifts has been rewarding and he can prove it. As we stood talking, he pointed towards the parking lot where his new car was. More so, after a sour living situation at home, he was able to get his pack his bags and move out. With enough money in his pocket, he found an apartment he’s content with.
When asked how he’s getting on with problematic customers he smirked. None of them phase him in the slightest way. He has learnt how to deal with every type of customer whether that be a drunkard or a hothead.
With plenty of practise, the job has become easy. However, as a result, it has become repetitive too. He no longer feels challenged and standing over low stake games drives him to boredom. Jokingly, he tells me he wished he was in Monte Carlo working on no-limit tables. Maybe one day, but for now the plan is to stay around for a while longer before looking to move onto the next step.
For now, he had to get to the pit once again.
* The names of individuals have been changed to protect their identity.