Voelker is a casino dealer in Reno, Nevada. (They are all called dealers, whether the game is blackjack, roulette, or craps - sure, they have other names, like "croupier" but everyone calls them dealers.) She works in an environment of high conflict, because, as Roger Hobson, Voelker's manager at The Gambler casino, explains; "In gaming, you're dealing with two very powerful things; greed and alcohol - and the two don't mix well."
In 1976, 20 year-old Voelker was a naive Montana girl who moved to Reno and got a job in a ski shop. She had no respect for casino dealers ("I thought they were all whores.") But her friend became a dealer, and since nobody was tipping her at the ski shop, she applied at Harrah's, where they taught her the trade. She felt guilty and embarrassed telling her parents about her new career. That's when her father (a railroad engineer) and mother revealed that they had visited Nevada before and had gambled and enjoyed it. "I tried to apologize," she says. "But my Mom said; 'you're in the entertainment business.' They knew what this is all about."
Voelker is a professional, and she deals game after game, after game without pause. She draws customers toward her table with her smile, and she keeps them there with her charm. Her hands move the game along with deft speed, unadorned with flourish, but graceful and precise. Her table is close enough to the front of the casino for passersby to see her, and to step in and watch her for a while, and maybe play a hand or two. There are fewer and fewer passersby these days, as dozens of states now have casinos, and Nevada no longer enjoys the draw it once held. A barker on the sidewalk entices people with coupons, and the restaurant offers food specials - old promotions with new import.
Everybody knows that the casino is supposed to win - that's why it exists - and Voelker wins more games than she loses. But the casino does lose quite often, and that's the hook. Most gamblers believe that they will be around during the payout. They hope they will walk up to that slot machine just as it's about to roll sevens. They hope that the cards will fall, the marble will drop and the dice will land just how they want them to, and they are counting on Lady Luck to deliver.
"15 years ago, I would feel guilty for losers, but I've changed," she says. "I once had a young guy at the table, and I think he was using the rent money, and his wife was sitting behind him, pregnant." Voelker let that one get to her for a while. "Now, I realize that everybody makes their choices," she says. She'll comment on an occasional loss or two; "Those are the hands that pay our electric bill," she tells a player after dealing him a losing hand. But she won't show pity for big losses. "You can't show your feelings and not have the other customers see it," she says.
"It's not the money that makes me happy," Voelker says, "it's the satisfaction," which is a good thing, because there is not much money in this job - at least not for the dealer. Casino dealers handle thousands of dollars each day, and must be licensed by the Nevada Gaming Commission, yet they only earn minimum wage. How is this? Tokes. When you play a casino game, it is common to tip the dealer with a chip or two, in what they call a "kickback" or a "toke."
Voelker will usually earn more in tokes than in her wages, and she usually takes home less than $100 total per shift. One night, she made $2,000 in tokes, half of which was a $1,000 toke from a man who won #239,000. But she still likes the average players. "The $20 players toke more than the big guys," she says. When you're gambling, money takes on a different life. It's not like it's real money, but just numbers, and since you are winning and losing it so randomly, it doesn't matter so much if you take a chip off the stack and toke it to the dealer every once in a while. In fact, at the least, it's good karma, and to some, it's a part of doing business.
Even though the customer and dealer are apparent foes, Voelker does want the customer to win sometimes. "I don't expect people to just hand me money," she says. "They have to win. I know what it's like to be a loser - I've been a loser and you can't share the wealth when you're losing." So, how do casinos handle this conflict of interest? Good, old-fashioned trust. "Honesty is, naturally, the first quality we look for in a dealer," says Pit Boss Mike Myers. How do they ensure honesty? Through a battery of good, old-fashioned video cameras. Every table is in clear view of a camera, and every hand is put on tape. Get caught cheating and you lose your job, you lose your state gaming card and you might end up in jail.
Honesty is needed on both sides of the table. "You always have to watch," she says. "It's not that you're suspicious of everybody, but if they see that I'm alert and aware, they'll try something on the next, dumb dealer." She lost to a cheater one time, in a big way, years ago, and she's still sore over it. "The videotapes showed it all - it was so obvious!" But that element represents a small part of her job. "I like my job so much and I have great confidence in this work," she says. "To feel confident and sure - that is the greatest feeling!"
Voelker not only deals 21, but also roulette, craps and Bacarat. Her favorite game? "Craps!" This is the game played on a long table, with rolling dice. "You get to work on a team," she says, "and I get to be the girl, and I get to be the star." She doesn't mind splitting her tokes with the team, because she likes the action - and the glamour - of craps.
She went to Vegas once, about 20 years ago, but didn't like the strip. "I don't think I'd fit in there," she says. "I don't have that edge." She fits in nicely in "The Biggest Little City in the World" and she wouldn't live anywhere else. "I love living in downtown Reno!" she says. "It's a lot more low-key."
Living downtown, with a slot machine on every corner, and the call of the dice 24 hours a day, you might think that Voelker would be an avid gambler. "I am the worst gambler in the world," she says. "I hate gambling - I would no sooner gamble then fly to the moon." Nine years ago, she had 3 children in diapers, and she had to make a decision. "I said; I can either have this 12-pack of beer each day, or I can gamble, but I can't have both." Today, those children are ages 13, 11 and 9, and she is raising them nearly on her own, in her own way. "They can all play craps like champs," she says. "I teach them fractions and odds - they're all math whizzes."
Voelker is so pleased with her job, that she can see her children enjoying a career in casinos. "I would have no problem with my children being dealers," she says. "Dealing has certainly made me happy - but I hope they would go to college first."
Two dealers take turns at a table, in 40 minute shifts. This is not how she prefers it ("I could deal ten hours straight," she says.) But it disrupts the cheaters, and Voelker gets frequent breaks, to read a novel or even walk home for lunch. Broken shifts aren't the only downside to her job; she'd rather work the graveyard shift, preferring the nighttime atmosphere. "The day shift is pure torture," she says. But, even after two decades of dedication, she has little say in these things. "There's a million people lined up to do this job," she says.
Her mother was right, Laurie Voelker is an entertainer, and part of being an entertainer is to keep smiling. "There are days when my face hurts from plastering that smile on," she says. She'll keep up the cheery hellos and the friendly banter, stopping only when the customer wants her to. "There are people who want you to shut up and deal," she says, "and then you better just shut up and deal."
It's pretty much a no-brainer that the secret to life is simply enjoying and appreciating what you have, and Laurie Voelker is holding a winning hand. There are many people in this country with resort-sized homes, luxury cars and seven-figure incomes who are not as happy as Voelker. There are people with every toy you can imagine, but who only want more. With a job she loves and feels confident in, three children she adores and a home in a town she loves, well, she is one lucky lady, for in her simple life, she has a beautiful life.
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