Arrow-right Camera


Card-dealer school always has full house

Sun., March 19, 2006

Dice tumble across the felt surface of a craps table. “Nine centerfield nine … mark the nine,” chants a dealer, retrieving the dice with a wooden stick hooked like a cane.

The action is fast, and there’s a vertigo-inducing quality to the blur of players’ hands placing bets on the table, the sweeping motion of the stick, the sing-song of the chant. “Dizzy yet?” Kevin Zenishek asks.

This is school for six Northern Quest Casino employees. They’re already accomplished at dealing five-card games, from blackjack to poker. Now, they’re learning the intricacies of the dice game called craps. Zenishek, a floor supervisor at Northern Quest, is the class instructor.

Gaming centers like Las Vegas have a pool of dealers to pick from. Northern Quest recruits and trains its own talent.

Three times a year, the casino offers classes in the basics of dealing card games. The $300, eight-week sessions are always full. “There’s really no other place in Spokane to learn how to deal in a casino,” said JoAnn White, Northern Quest’s human resources manager.

The casino also offers craps and roulette classes to its own dealers.

Zenishek loves the complicated workings of craps, which – according to legend – evolved from a game played by English crusaders to stave off boredom during the siege of an Arabian castle. He has eight weeks to teach his students mastery of the game. Classes meet for three hours, five days a week. Students learn the strategy, the vocabulary and the dealers’ prescribed hand movements. They also learn to keep their cool.

“This game is all about pressure,” Zenishek said.

Though Zenishek gives a written quiz each week, the real test is a 15-minute audition after classes end. The audition determines whether the students are ready to deal craps at Northern Quest.

Being a table game dealer looks easy – until you do it, said Penny Doiy, the school’s head instructor.

“They come in and say, ‘Oh, I’d love to play. I’d love to learn how to deal.’ Then they find out it’s hard work,” she said.

To get accepted into dealer school, applicants must pass a timed math test, completing three pages of basic computations in 12 minutes. Prospective students also go through an interview.

“We’re looking for people who are outgoing and friendly,” said Rick Mittleman, Northern Quest’s manager.

No one wants a surly dealer. They don’t get tipped.

Tips frequently double the wages of Northern Quest’s dealers, who earn $7.68 per hour. Becoming a dealer is one way that Northern Quest’s service employees advance in pay.

Doiy, a lively redhead who spent 43 years in Las Vegas, teachers the five card games: blackjack, Spanish 21, three-card poker, let-it-ride and Fortune Pai Gow.

She’s a demanding instructor, whose no-nonsense manner dates back to her stint as a third-grade teacher: “I’ve got eyes in the back of my head.”

Sloppy hand work is one of the things she watches for. State rules govern how cards are placed, and which hands are used for which movements. No deviation is allowed. The prescribed movements make cheating easier to detect.

“Every single movement is for the protection of the house,” Doiy said.

Over time, the hand motions become automatic. You can spot dealers at the grocery store, Doiy said. They’re the ones “clearing their palm” – the open-handed gesture that shows nothing is concealed – while they’re bagging apples.

Doiy spends six weeks grilling her students on game rules and techniques, and two weeks polishing their presentation. On audition day, she’s as anxious as the students, wincing when they’re flustered and making errors.

“I’m like a mother hen,” she said. “I get a headache. I feel so bad for them.”

Snapshots of graduating classes go up on her office wall. Some students end up dealing in Spokane’s card rooms. Many apply at Northern Quest.

Zenishek’s craps class contains some of Doiy’s former students. Mastering the dice game will give them a 25-cent-per-hour boost in pay. If the dealers want to become floor supervisors at some future date, they need to know craps and roulette, in addition to the card games.

Ryan Browning, 24, is the class’s high roller. “I lose about 10 to 12 grand per week in the class,” said the Spokane Valley resident.

“There’s no stress when you’re playing with fake money,” added classmate Annetta Klein.

Steady wages drew both students to dealing. Browning said he was never “the going-to-college type.”

Klein, 37, started dealing cards 11 years ago. “I was a cocktail waitress at the Mars Casino, and I knew the dealers were making more money than I was,” she said.

She worked at several card rooms in Spokane before hiring on at Northern Quest. After the craps class ends for the afternoon, Klein will spend eight hours dealing cards. Her shift ends at 2 a.m.

Zenishek came to work at Northern Quest five years ago. It beats construction, he said.

“I built houses before this, 10 hours a day … five days a week,” he said. “Here, I get breaks every couple of hours. There’s a free buffet. We get health insurance.”

For workers on their feet all day, there’s an added benefit. Twice a week, a masseuse comes in to give foot massages.


Click here to comment on this story »