Perhaps you’ve never thought about it before. Perhaps you’ve never contemplated the vast array of forces that come into play when you step foot in a casino. Knowledge is power, and we’re dropping knowledge on how casinos work…
From the top down, the hierarchy of the traditional casino gaming floor is:
CHIEF GAMING OFFICER: Oversees table games and slot machines
CASINO MANAGER: The director of table games
PIT MANAGER: Manages a number of pits, each of which includes a number of sections
FLOOR SUPERVISOR: Manages a section, which varies by the complexity of the games included: e.g., four blackjack tables, one craps table or two roulette wheels and one blackjack table
Dealers work in a four-person string (cards and roulette) or crew (craps)—with three of them dealing at any one time and one relief rotating between them every 20 minutes.
A new dealer signals he’s ready to take over by tapping out his colleague on the left shoulder (a.k.a pushing in). This allows the active dealer to complete all the remaining transactions before clapping out—showing players and security his empty hands. The outgoing dealer then introduces his replacement and may pass on intelligence about the state of tipping, either with an aside (“Look out for George—sorry, Bill—at first base”) or, less subtly, by spreading the cards not into an arc but an S-shape, for stiff.
Dealers use a range of signals to alert colleagues that heat or brass (management) is on the floor—for example, tapping the craps stick on the edge of the table. Dealers instinctively assess players, sometimes based on how they’re dressed, but more often on how they play. A dealer will instantly clock those exhibiting game, knowledge or strategic play. Dealers can spot off-duty dealers by certain tells, such as encouraging other players to tip, riffling or drop-cutting chips and, in poker, pitching cards into the muck when they fold.
Dealers are instructed to talk the game, which means verbalizing actions for the benefit of players and supervisors, as well as for their own concentration. A call of cash change, for example, alerts the pit bosses that money is being exchanged for checks, and color up or color down indicates that checks are being exchanged for larger or smaller denominations.
BREAK-IN HOUSES: Casinos that hire and train inexperienced (breaker) dealers—often straight from dealer school.
HUSTLING THE TOKE/STRONG-ARMING: Attempting to persuade players to tip. Soft Hustles include paying a winner in low-denomination chips to encourage tipping. Hard H ustle is when a dealer says something like “Hey, that check would look great as a dealer bet!” Toke hustling is prohibited by management and frowned on by most dealers (who pool their tips) as unprofessional and counterproductive.
DEAD GAME/DEAD SPREAD: An open table with no players. Dealers are instructed to stand at dead tables, the cards arced in front of them, with their hands at either side and a welcoming look on their face. Those looking for a quiet shift avoid making eye contact with passing customers to discourage action
CROSSFIRE: When dealers chat with their colleagues at nearby tables. Prohibited by management.
GEORGE: The most admired player in any casino: a good tipper. Also King George, Triple George and Jorge.
TOM/STIFF: A “tight old man” (T-O-M), a reluctant tipper or nontipper, a player who brings his own food and drink to avoid toking the waitresses. Toms Toke the dealer a white and say chop to get 50 cents back.
STEAMER: A (reckless) player for whom speed is the motivation, win or lose.
FISH: A fool. In craps, a rail-hogger; in poker, one taken for a ride by other players.
TAKING THE HOOK: When a player chases wins or losses; the player can be reeled in by an experienced dealer.
ROCKS: Poker players who bet only when they have the nuts (a strong hand).
FACCE: A player whose face deserves a slap.
ON TILT: Describes a poker player who is playing well below his ability, usually by being excessively reckless; when a player has his nose open.
DONK: An unskilled player.
ACORN: A newbie; one who can be taught and molded by a dealer.
GRINDER: One who plays at the same table hour after hour, rarely changing betting patterns and usually not toking. A grind joint is a casino with low-limit games.
CARDS & SHUFFLES
Most casino dealers are fluent in the core card games such as blackjack (snapper, 21, B.I) and baccarat (bac), as well as a number of spin-off, novelty or carnival games (including Big Six, Let It Ride and Three-Card Poker). The rules of each game differ, but the basic techniques of shuffling, dealing and check-handling remain consistent. Shuffles vary by casino and game—the challenge for the house is to ensure adequate “game protection” while maximizing the number of hands dealt per hour.
A (somewhat elaborate) shuffle might be:
WASH ☛ RIFFLE ☛ RIFFLE ☛ STRIP ☛ RIFFLE ☛ BOX ☛ CUT ☛ BURN
WASHING/SCRAMBLING: Randomly mixing cards facedown on the felt.
RIFFLING: Dividing a deck in two and interleaving the halves.
STRIP: A series of cuts (usually three to seven) stacked one on top of another.
BOXING: Placing the bottom third of a deck on the top, sometimes with a 180 degree rotation.
BURNING: Discarding the top card.
PITCHING: Dealing cards from the hand rather than a shoe (dealing box).
SHORT PITCH: A card that doesn’t make it across the felt to the player.
HELICOPTERING: Pitching the cards high above the table, risking exposure.
EXPOSED/FLASHED CARD: A card whose value has been accidentally displayed.
BOXED CARD: A card faceup in the deck.
STUB: Whatever the dealer is holding after the first card has been dealt.
LAYING BRICKS: The brutally repetitive nature of dealing blackjack.
Cocktail waitresses are a key part of a casino’s ecosystem; they work hard at charming guests and sustaining the flow of comped alcohol.
At the start of each shift, waitresses swap intelligence on players (“There’s a George on table two”) before setting out on their rounds. Once collected, orders are filled at backstage service bars. Here waitresses prepare their own glasses, ice and garnishes for the barmen and call the drinks in a set order, usually beers first, followed by mixed drinks and shots (in order: vodkas, gins, whiskeys), and then wine, soda and juices.
Most standard orders are dispensed via guns, which have key codes for different drinks and brands of liquor. House liquor is served unless a premium brand is requested.
Because waitresses keep their own tips (unlike most dealers), getting the best shifts and sections is crucial: Working grave graveyard in penny slots can be financially disastrous, whereas the craps pit on Super Bowl weekend is highly rewarding. Shifts and sections are allocated by seniority based on longevity; at the top of the ladder are day one waitresses, who joined when a casino opened. (This explains waitresses’ preference for new establishments.)
Slots players usually tip cash or vouchers; table players usually tip checks. Some waitresses linger at a table to develop a rapport with players; others are all business, figuring they’re just dropping off a drink. But if you don’t think waitresses are comparing the color of your stacks with what you tip, you’re crazy. King Georges are sometimes referred to by the value of their toke (“Mr. Black on table three”). Dealers will often encourage stiffs not to forget their waitresses.
If a shift has been profitable, waitresses say they made bank; if especially good, they made yellow (i.e., $1,000), or even “Get the milk ready! I got a chocolate chip” ($5,000).
Given the stereotypes of casino waitresses (and the uniforms they’re given to wear), many consider gentle flirtation to be part of the job. But dealers, supervisors and security are all alert for any banter that turns abusive. Some single waitresses wear engagement or wedding rings to keep pests at bay; some married waitresses work ringless to inspire hope.
Along with lucky clothes, charms, seats, tables, machines and dealers, players often have a host of superstitions. Some buy in for odd amounts or for sums featuring eights (such as $8,880); others think $50 bills are unlucky.
In craps, saying “seven” is considered unlucky and ill-mannered, as is applauding your own roll. Some believe a new stickman will prompt a seven; a left-handed female shooter is considered lucky; cocktail waitresses are thought to cool the action; and changing the dice after a winning run supposedly brings bad luck. virgin shooters are lucky if female, unlucky if male.
Blackjack players believe a strong anchor (the last player) prevents the dealer’s “destined” card from going awry. Others place two bets instead of one to change their luck.
Slots players tap the screen or the side of the machine for luck, or they crank the arm rather than push the button to spin the reels. Some believe cash bets win more than voucher bets or that machines are programmed to favor new players. Cell phone signals are said to influence a win positively—or negatively, depending on whom you ask. And opinions differ as to whether a casino loyalty card increases or decreases your odds.
Card players shout monkey (possibly a corruption of “monarchy”) in a bid to encourage paint (face cards) or tens.
It is curious how irrational even experienced dealers and floor men can be, though inexplicable runs of luck may signal a flaw in security.
Supervisors have been known to perform a range of rituals to cool the action: Shaking salt behind players or under tables, turning the drop-box paddle around in its slot, standing on one leg, swapping out winning dice or cards—sometimes for replacements that have literally been chilled in a fridge. One shift manager places a folded surveillance photograph of a “lucky” player inside his shoe before walking the floor.
Craps is a hotbed of superstition. Pit bosses have been known to place seven ashtrays around a table, to spray paint the number seven on the table when changing the cloth and even to have “hot” tables moved an inch or so. Unscrupulous dealers might throw coins under the table to bring bad luck or find any excuse to touch the dice or brush against a shooter.
Anxious floor men who sweat the money are known as bleeders.
Finally, many on both sides of the table are convinced it’s unlucky to be superstitious.
CASH, CHECKS & CHIPS
Although many use check and chip interchangeably, there is a difference. Checks have a value and are color-coded:
(These are common check colors, but they vary by casino.)
Chips—commonly used in roulette—have no set value until a player buys in and denominates them according to his bankroll. Some players request colors they consider lucky.
When players buy in, they place their bills on the felt, and the dealer sorts them by denomination before breaking them down in an overlapping pattern visible to the eye. The largest-denomination bills are placed nearest the wheel (roulette) or the shoe (cards) for security. Then the number of chips or checks is manually proved to the player (and to the cameras), before being pushed (sent/passed) across the table with the dealer’s outside hand (in roulette, the hand farthest from the wheel). Standard twenty stacks are usually pushed using the formations illustrated below.
With table games, the house’s checks are stored in the rack (bank/tray/well) in front of the dealer and are arranged by color in the various tubes. (Larger denominations are stored on the inside of the rack for protection.) Dealers use various techniques to remove checks from the rack, including:
PLUCKING/PICKING: Taking chips one at a time, at high speed.
SHORT STACK: Any stack under 200 but still in a house-approved format.
DIRTY STACK/BARBER’S POLE: A stack of different-value checks.
CUTTING: Separating chips from a stack or dividing a stack into smaller units.
SPLASHING/SPREADING: Sliding (wiping) a stack of checks (usually four or five) into a line along the layout to demonstrate (prove) the number.
DROP CUT: To skillfully release a number of checks from the bottom of a stack by feel.
COLOR FOR COLOR: Paying a winning bet by matching the checks a player staked.
CONVERTING: Paying a winner with a larger value check and taking change.
DIRTY MONEY: Checks collected from a losing bet. Some think it bad luck (or bad manners) to pay winners with dirty money—and many casinos think it’s bad game security.
COLOR UP: To exchange a number of low-denomination chips for fewer chips of higher value. The opposite is check change.
MUCKING/CHIPPING UP: Gathering chips from the layout into your palm—a test of skill and speed examined when auditioning for a job as dealer. Mucking can be assisted by a colleague (mucker) or a chipping machine.
TIGHTENING THE POT: Rearranging a large pile of chips (in poker) for neatness or game security, or so they can be pushed easily.
HAND TO HAND: Passing chips, cash or anything else by hand without placing it on the layout first—a breach of game protection.
TAPPING TOKES: When the dealer knocks a check he’s been tipped against a hard surface before dropping it into the toke box. Tapping notifies the supervisor and security, and soft hustles other players to zuke (tip).
Roulette dealers pick and fill the pill (ball) in various ways, including snapping it between their fingers or whipping it around the wheel. Casinos require dealers to vary the position and strength of their spins to prevent players from clocking or tracking patterns. The ball must make at least three revolutions; many players won’t bet until it is in motion, so dealers often sling the pill with vigor to allow extra time for chips to be placed. That said, more spins mean more profit, and dealers are under pressure to keep the game moving. Winning numbers are marked with a dolly.
Some dealers memorize picture bets to help them calculate odds. For example, the bet below (two corners, one straight up) is known as the Mickey Mouse—it pays 51 to one.
The four-man craps crew comprises a stickman, two basemen (who place and supervise bets) and a rotating relief. They are supervised by a box man, who sits opposite the stickman, in front of the chip rack. The stickman checks the dice after each throw, returns the dice to the shooter with the sitck (mop/whip/pole), hustles up action, places and encourages high-risk proposition bets in the center of the layout (selling props) and calls the rolls.
Rolls are called aloud to announce the total and how it was made (easy or hard), and to help dealers pay out correctly. Calls are designed to avoid mishearing, for example, “Five, five, no-field five” ensures a roll is not confused with “Center field nine.” “Yo” or “Yo-leven” is called when the total is 11, to avoid being mistaken for the dreaded seven. Many stickmen take pride in quirky or risqué calls, such as “Ten, hard ten…girl’s best friend!”
COMMON STACK-PUSHING FORMATIONS
CHEATING & ADVANTAGE PLAY
The eye in the sky (surveillance) hunts for criminals, cheats and advantage players. Cheating (breaking laws or casino rules) is illegal; advantage play (exploiting weak casino procedures or equipment) is not, though houses will ask advantage players to cease or leave.
BASIC STRATEGY/THE BOOK: The “correct” way to play. Cheats are often caught by playing irrationally—sticking on a weak hand, taking insurance inappropriately.
TAKING SHOTS: Attempting to cheat.
SMOKE: Deliberate bad play intended to avert suspicion; a form of camouflage.
PINCHING: Removing chips from a bet.
CAPPING/PRESSING: Adding chips to a bet.
PAST POSTING: Adding chips to a roulette or craps layout after a number has won.
(HAND) MUCKING/SWITCHING/CARD PALMING: Techniques to swap cards on the table or introduce winning cards.
GAFF: Any equipment used to cheat. Dice can be gaffed in many ways:
♣ Misspotted/tops & bottoms/tees: Dice misnumbered in various configurations to avoid or ensure certain rolls.
♣ Loade: Weighted dice.
♣ Flats : Misshapen dice.
♣ Shoeboxes: Grossly misshapen dice, easy to spot with the naked eye.
GLIM/SHINER: A reflective device.
COLD/STACKED DECK: A deck or shoe prearranged by a cheat, a.k.a. cooler.
PAPER: Marked cards, usually aces and tens. A range of methods allow a deck to be read:
♣ Crimping: Folding or bending a card.
♣ (Thumb) nailing/dimpling: Indenting a card, sometimes using a check that is then toked to the dealer as a distraction.
♣ Daubing: Applying foreign substances (a.k.a. shade) to the backs of cards.
♣ Pinning/punching: Making small holes or indentations in cards.
♣ Edge work: Shaving or nicking the edge of a card.
♣ Border work: Marking the printed borders of cards.
♣ Sanding: Filing the back of a card, say with a speck of sandpaper stuck to a finger.
SLUG: A block of high-value cards (tens and aces) introduced into a game, either deliberately or through a weak shuffle.
CARD COUNTING: The most well-known advantage play, in which players tally the cards dealt and bet big at key moments.
BACK COUNTING: When card counters play only advantageous hands, a.k.a. wonging, after blackjack ace Stanford Wong.
RAT-HOLING: When advantage players sneak their own checks off the table to conceal the amount they’re winning.
EDGE PLAY/PLAYING THE SORTS/PLAYING THE TURN: Exploiting printing errors to identify cards by patterns on the reverse.
CONTROL ROLLING/RHYTHM ROLLING/SLIDING: Trying to influence a craps roll by setting and shooting the dice in a specific way.
SUB: Anything used by a dealer to conceal stolen checks—from a thick watchband to shoes with specially created cavities.
DUMPING: When a dealer deliberately pays losers, overpays winners or misplays a hand.
HOP CUT: A false cut in which the cards are returned to their original order.
FLUTTER CUT/BUTTERFLY CUT/STUTTER CUT: Riffling the cards during the cut to expose their values.
STEP: When a dealer misaligns the deck to indicate where a cheat should make the cut.
MECHANIC: A dealer who manipulates cards to cheat—for example by bubbling (squeezing) a deck to peek at the top card(s) and then deuce dealing the second card.
FRONT LOADING: When a sloppy or weak dealer flashes his hole card.
FIRST BASING/THIRD BASING: reading the dealer’s hole card from the first or last seat. spooking is when a spectator communicates the dealer’s hole card to a player.
BACKING OFF/THE TAP: Stopping an advantage player from playing. Some casinos flat bet card counters, permitting them to wager a fixed sum for the duration of a shoe.
TRESPASSING: When a casino instructs an individual to leave. Known sometimes as nrs 207.200—Nevada’s trespass statute.
Although less glamorous than table games, slots contribute a significant proportion of gaming revenue: 46 percent for casinos on the Strip, 63 percent across Nevada, in 2014. Indeed, slots are a star attraction at some casinos—not least the El Cortez in Las Vegas; it has 237 traditional coin-operated machines and one of the last remaining “hard count” rooms to handle all the change.
Players develop affection for specific machines (“You can move ’em, but they will find ’em”), which can make decommissioning games problematic.
VOLATILITY: The risk-reward ratio of a game. High-volatility slots make infrequent payouts of larger sums; low-volatility slots, the opposite.
TASTE: Small wins that are designed to keep players at the machine, a.k.a. intermittent rewards.
ATTRACT MODE: The sequence of sounds and lights designed to beguile passing players.
APPOINTMENT GAMES: Games that draw players into a casino, such as Buffalo Slots.
HOLD: The percentage of bets kept by the house. Holds can be loose (marginally more favorable to the player) or tight (favoring the house).
BONUS VULTURES/FLEAS: Never-do-wells who intimidate (older) players into abandoning a game just before it is due to pay a bonus. Casinos are conscious of flea factor when purchasing new games.
Coin slots are susceptible to a range of cheating techniques, including the monkey paw (a metal hook designed to fake a coin) and shaved tokens or slugs that register a credit but fall through the machine. Experienced slot workers instantly recognize the clang of a slug as it falls through a machine.
Thanks to the staff of the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Todd Greenberg, Michael Shackleford, Bill Zender, Marc Shumsker, Eric Jacobs, John Robison, Kenny Epstein and the staff of the El Cortez.