Tuesday, Dec. 29, 1998 | 11:47 a.m.
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- It was just before midnight in the perpetual fluorescent twilight of the Taj Mahal Casino poker room when an uproar at a corner table grew so loud that three casino managers ran over to intervene.
The game was seven-card stud; a player with a British accent was holding eight cards.
With his competitors angrily demanding an explanation, the player with the extra queen blamed the dealer. Thomas Gitto, vice president of poker operations, quickly scanned the scene and noticed how the other players' cards had been splayed sloppily around the table.
The dealer, a man in his 40s, sat silent, drumming his fingers on the table.
"Let him play," said Gitto, shaking his head. "The dealer made a mistake."
In a Hollywood western, that kind of error would invariably lead to a shootout, but in Atlantic City today, where poker dealing is becoming a lost art, mistakes at the card tables have become all too common.
A change in New Jersey's strict gaming regulations last year cut poker dealers' take-home pay by nearly 40 percent, sending many of the most skilled dealers to better-paying jobs at Atlantic City's blackjack tables or baccarat games or to poker rooms in Las Vegas or Connecticut.
Dealers who remain at Atlantic City's two round-the-clock poker rooms say the pay cut has left them demoralized. Casino managers complain that the strict regulations enforced by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission have made it that much harder for them to attract and retain skilled dealers.
The state Legislature recently passed a bill intended to increase dealers' pay by letting them accept direct tips from players, which tend to be more generous, instead of the current system of pooling gratuities and splitting them among fellow dealers. But Casino Control Commission officials say they fear that such a system might encourage dealers to cheat, so Gov. Christie Whitman conditionally vetoed the measure.
The Legislature and the commission are now trying to forge a compromise, but in the card rooms of Atlantic City players say that unless some change is made, Atlantic City will remain relegated to the minor leagues of the competitive poker circuit.
''It's horrible here," said Layne Flack, 29, a professional card player who flew from Los Angeles last week for the tournament. "Half the dealers don't pay attention or know what they're doing. If Atlantic City wants to get serious about poker, the commission has to do something. If not, it's almost not worth the trouble to play here."
The dispute over tipping policy has strained the complex relationship between dealers and players, because nearly half of the 3,000 people who play poker at Atlantic City casinos on any given day are professionals who earn their living at the card tables. Since poker was legalized in New Jersey, a new generation of card players has become ensconced around Atlantic City: former factory workers, secretaries, college students and the like have migrated to the area, people who earn an average of $50,000 to $100,000 a year working a 40-hour week in poker rooms.
Dealers and players know each other by name or nickname, socialize together in a handful of South Jersey bars, commute to Atlantic City from the same neighborhoods in working-class towns like Ventnor, Absecon and Egg Harbor. But most skilled players are also stingy with tips. So when the chips are down, well, the players aren't exactly eager to deposit them into the small plastic tip boxes attached next to the dealers' seat at every table.
"When the players' luck is bad a lot of them blame the dealer," said Okham Rathpakey, who has been dealing at the Taj Mahal for two years. "They swear at you or throw their cards. But when they win, what do they do? Most of them throw you a dollar."
Poker players are so notoriously tight with their tokens, especially compared to the free-spending gamblers who play other games, that they have made poker dealers pariahs among other Atlantic City gaming employees. When Atlantic City legalized poker in 1993, state officials decided that dealers should be compensated like their colleagues at the black jack or craps tables: Casinos would pay an hourly wage ranging from $3.85 to $7.50 per hour depending on experience; any tips from customers would be put into a pool and distributed evenly among all gaming employees.
The trouble began when the other casino employees noticed that poker dealers were being paid far more in tips than their players were contributing. They lobbied state Sen. William Gormley, an Atlantic City Republican, to sponsor a law that ejected poker dealers from the communal-toke pool (casino employees call tips "tokes," which is short for tokens). Instead, they were placed in a pool strictly for poker dealers.
Atlantic City's 390 poker dealers already had to contend with high-pressure, tedium, paper cuts, graveyard shifts and a humbling form of repetitive strain injury that compels many of them to tote seat cushions from table to table. So when the new law was enacted in January, and their toke rate fell from $16 an hour to about $8, nearly half of the Taj Mahal's dealers either quit or went out on disability, Gitto said.
Even though the casinos have sought to soften the financial impact on poker dealers by adding a dollar or two per hour to the tip rate, Rathpakey said her take-home pay immediately dropped from $450 a week to about $300. She has been forced to cut corners to pay her bills and has had to curtail how much money she sends to family members in Laos.
"I tried to work a second job as a cocktail waitress, but I was too exhausted to keep doing it," she said. "So now I just don't buy as much."
Darryl Phillips, publisher of the web site Pokerwwworld, said Atlantic City dealers have always been considered a cut below their counterparts in other poker venues, and the drop in pay has made matters even worse.
To players, the dealers' lackluster performance means more than just inconvenience and lost time; it means money. Skilled poker players know they must wade through a lot of bad hands before finding a hand worth betting. So in high-stakes poker, where players compete for each others' money but pay the casino $16 an hour to sit at the table, the best dealer is the one who keeps the game moving as quickly as possible.
"I'm paying every minute I sit at that table," said Flack. "So if I see 20 hands an hour I've got a lot more chances to win than if I see 10 hands an hour."
Don't more hands also mean more chances to lose?
"If you thought you were going to lose," Flack says, "you wouldn't be sitting at the table in the first place."
Virtually every other state with legalized poker allows players to tip dealers directly, said Steve Radulovich, managing editor of Card Player Magazine. Players say common sense, not to mention sound capitalist theory, suggests that any dealer who is being tipped directly would be faster and more courteous.
"The way it is now, every dealer only gets a small portion of each tip, so they don't really care what you put in," said Charlie Indyg, an Atlantic City hotel owner who plays recreationally. "But if the dealer keeps it all, they'll deal faster, the players can make more money, and they won't mind tipping more."
New Jersey officials have resisted adopting such a policy because they fear it might encourage corruption, said Dan Heneghan, spokesman for the casino commission. When New Jersey voters passed a referendum to legalize gambling in 1976, state officials devised dozens of regulations to prevent cheating and infiltration by organized crime.
The toke pool was intended to place distance between the bettor and the dealer, especially in games like blackjack, where a dealer plays with the casino's money and could conspire to help a player by failing to collect a losing bet.
But every Atlantic City gaming table is now kept under constant video surveillance. Jack McClelland, who is running the national poker championship, said that because poker players are betting and playing against each other, "it's like having eight sheriffs at every table."
The chairman of the casino commission, James Hurley, has indicated that he might be willing to drop his opposition to the bill to allow direct tipping, according to an aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Even with the prospect of higher tips, Michelle Zames said her days behind the card table are numbered. Last year, she had the kind of magical experience most casino employees can only dream of, when she was chosen to play a dealer in the film "Rounders," which starred Matt Damon as a struggling poker player. But the real world of the poker dealer is far more grind than glitz, Zames said, so she has since taken the entrance exam for the Atlantic City Police Department and is awaiting an opening on the force.
"There's nothing glamorous about dealing," she says. "It's like working at a factory. Same people every day, same thing over and over. Or like a gym, one that doesn't smell so bad. So people ought to at least be paid fairly to do it."