What goes on behind the scenes from a poker dealer’s perspective? Doug Hull interviews his friend Nathan on this week’s podcast bring you insights from the lifestyle of a top dealer in Las Vegas. Nathan isn’t just an in-demand dealer, he’s also a semi-pro player. He shares an unfiltered view of the ups and downs of life dealing the biggest games in Vegas all the way down to $1/$2. Join us to get a view poker players rarely get, and are sure to appreciate.
Doug: This is Doug from Red Chip Poker and today we have a special treat. We have my buddy Nathan, he is one of the finest dealers out here in Las Vegas. You may have noticed him if you’ve ever watched Bellagio Poker on the Strip, the new video podcast, or whatever you would call that, that goes out on Twitch every week.
Nathan: Thanks for having me Doug.
Doug: How is that you come from New England and now are broadcasting in one of the finest card rooms in the world? How does that happen?
Nathan: Dedication. It took nine years for me to come as good as a dealer as I am now. It’s just like anything if you put in the time and practice and you have patience, you’re gonna reap … you become better.
Doug: Where did you begin? Because we can look and see where you’re at now and that’s an enviable position, but how does someone get there? If you’re in a home game and you say, “You know what, I got a backpack and a dream and I’m coming to Vegas and I’m going to be a dealer as long as I need to, to make ends meet as I am becoming a pro player,” what kind of things that they need to do right now, in their home town that is going to get them ready to come to Vegas?
Nathan: Okay. I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts and when I was in high school I started playing poker with my friends, I feel like a lot of people have a story pretty similar. I became instantly obsessed with the game, I loved every aspect of it and one day, while in my local card room, they had a sign saying that they were hiring. I was currently working at Chili’s and playing $50 tournaments whenever I had the time. I thought it was a pretty sweet gig. I came in, they hired me and I’ve been doing it ever since.
As far as your second question, if you want to come to Las Vegas to deal, like strictly deal, you should be pretty good at that. If you want to come to Las Vegas and play, you should also be good at that.
Doug: Yes you should.
Nathan: You should. If you want to come to Las Vegas and do both, then there’s definitely a lot of opportunity and a lot of things for you … it’s definitely a breeding ground for you to flourish.
Doug: I understand that a lot of people really get their start in the dealing world about this time of year. Right now this is May and the world series, the circus is about to come to town.
Nathan: Let me give you a little timeline. The official WSOP series, I would say from every room, they would say starts the last week of May. Anyone who comes to Las Vegas knows that it doesn’t matter which poker room you come to in the summer, every single table is full. Every single table across Las Vegas is full. They need bodies, they need dealers. Every room typically puts out applications at the beginning of the year and have auditions in March. If you want to come to Las Vegas and you decide this is something you want to do, my best advice for you is to apply and just be confident in your abilities. You’re gonna have to take an audition no matter where you go, so just be prepared for that. I know it’s slightly unsettling and nerve wracking, but deal five hands and that’s it. You come to Las Vegas … you get an audition after you apply online, they call you and you fly here and you deal five hands.
Doug: As a learning experience for myself, I found out about some auditions about this time of year, or I guess it was March a few years ago. I went and I was woefully unprepared. I didn’t look the part, I didn’t dress correctly, and I stood out like a sore thumb and of course, I didn’t get the job. I really didn’t want the job, I just wanted to see what the auditions were like. One thing I would recommend, is look like a dealer when you go to this audition.
Nathan: You come to an audition and mostly everyone looks like you, sitting at a table and everyone looks like penguins. You’re surrounded by 80 people in black and white and everyone’s wearing the same thing and you have the person running the audition. I’ve had auditions where I sit down and I flipped over the first two or three cards and I just made an ass out of myself, and I still got hired and got the job. It just comes down to feeling confident and if you hold the deck in your hand … every dealer is going to make mistakes. If you go an entire day without making mistakes, I applaud you, my hat’s off to you. But, mistakes happen on both sides of the felt and it’s just how you present yourself. If you come to an audition and you’re confident and you can pitch some cards and you do okay, you’re probably gonna get the job.
Doug: I understand that when you were getting ready to really hone your craft, you were actually pitching cards into a hat for a while?
Nathan: I saw this position and I have never ever dealt card in my life. With the extent of home game, pass the dealer, etc., I had no idea how to pitch, my shuffle was mediocre, and I had a pretty underwhelming understanding of how to run a game. It’s just something you learn, sink or swim you just decide you’re going to do it and from there on, everything becomes easier and easier, it’s all muscle memory and repetition. As dealer, you just get up, you sit down, you deal for 30 minutes, and you do that over, and over, and over, and over again, until you don’t.
Doug: Okay. I think that the dealer, if he really wants to make the most of his time and learn, this is an ideal situation. I know, I should be paying attention to every hand that’s being played as a player, but I don’t. You have to, though.
Nathan: I can’t afford to doze off and lose track of the action, that’s not part of my job description. I have to be paying attention to every action, I can’t miss a single action. I have to square off every bet I know exactly how much is in every pot, it’s just makes you … literally just being on the clock forces you to pay attention. It’s a blessing.
Doug: You’ve been doing this nine, ten years you said?
Nathan: I’ve been doing it a very long time, I think about eight or nine years.
Doug: You probably have seen a million hands.
Nathan: Between playing and dealing, absolutely. I would say that I’ve dealt over a million hands.
Doug: That is a lot of hands. I’m sure you’ve seen some crazy stuff going on.
Nathan: I’ve dealt some coolers that would make your hair fall out. If you saw some of these hands happen in real time you would be screaming and trying to get your phone out and put it on YouTube and all these things.
Doug: If you see enough hands, you will see everything.
Nathan: That’s exactly what it comes down to, if you see enough hands, if you deal enough hands, you’re gonna see everything.
Doug: There’s a little bit of a situation here. A lot of people think that when they see an off-duty dealer come to their table, that it is going to be a really soft player.
Nathan: It’s funny you say that because honing my poker skills, I used to play in a game with a lot of dealers and it was very lucrative. I thought it was because I was awesome, then over the years I realized that most poker dealers that play poker, aren’t very good. They just love to gamble, they like to see too many hands, they don’t like to play optimum. I can’t explain to you why, I don’t understand, they just want to give away money.
Doug: To be fair, most people are really bad at poker.
Nathan: That’s definitely fair.
Doug: Most dealers are also bad at poker, really shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s a statistical guarantee. But you do mention something that’s very important for the people that want to come out to Las Vegas and there are a lot of pitfalls to living here.
Nathan: There’s millions. You have to be careful everywhere you go, you have to be careful. I personally know so many dealers that came out here, personal friends that came out here to deal the series, and they were gonna run it up, and they were gonna play and almost all of them have gone home with a tail between their legs just dead broke. It’s not because they’re running bad, it’s not because of this, it’s because they have too many life leaks.
Doug: Life leaks, there are plenty of them, whether it is the sports book, whether it is just gambling out in the pit, whether it’s the slots, whether it’s going over the hill to Pahrump.
Nathan: Las Vegas is definitely a town where if you have vices and you have leaks and you’re not strong willed…
Doug: This place will absolutely break you.
Nathan: It’ll chew you out. If you lean too hard one way, then you’re gonna go off the deep end. Especially in a town that never closes and you can literally get whatever you want, anything imaginable in this town 24/7 at your fingertips.
Doug: If every time you run good, you go and spend it, you are going to have some serious bank roll issues.
Nathan: Speaking of bank roll issues, I feel like that’s the biggest problem that all these dealers have. I work with these dealers, I hear them, I talk, I interact with them all the time. I worked all day and made this much money and then they go play and sometimes they run it up and sometimes I talk to my friends the next day and they’re like, “Oh, I lost $500 on Lebron,” or, “I can’t believe that I missed a 15 out,” or whatever. But, they’re just always broke. They go into clubs, hanging out with girls. Whatever your vices are, especially dealers in general I feel are more prone to being degenerate, just because they’re around the degenerate lifestyle. When it comes easy, it’s all cash, it’s very liquid and if you have a problem holding on to liquid money, then you’re not going to make it.
Doug: But if you come in here with the professional mindset, then I think you can absolutely make it.
Nathan: Absolutely. I moved to Las Vegas primarily, actually as a player. I came here to play and supplement my income by getting a dealing job or two. As somebody that’s put in so much time and effort in my craft on both sides of the felt, you gotta want to come here, you gotta want to be dedicated and you have to be tunnel vision and you have to know what you want. If you stray too far on either spectrum its just not going to work out well for you.
Doug: That’s why I think we keep referring to this as a profession, you have to treat this as a profession, this is not working at … what did you say you were at before, Chili’s?
Nathan: I was working at Chili’s I was a bar back and I was not happy.
Doug: Right. This is a career and in my favorite card room, there are people that have been dealing there for 20 years. It’s a profession and they are professionals.
Nathan: Absolutely, but at the same time, if you can get a job dealing at a place that you don’t have to worry about them going bankrupt next year, it’s a really good job, it’s a really good career. I have worked really hard for minimum wage, I have a lot of friends who work so much harder than I do and make less. I’m just fortunate that I found a job that I can do and it doesn’t even feel like work. I come to work and I deal to all my friends, all the regulars and I just have a good time and they give me money.
Doug: It’s a good thing. Since you play on both sides of the felt here, there’s a question that people ask all the time. How much do you tip? For those that are thinking of becoming dealers, I think a lot of them have this vision of dealing in the biggest games and that’s where the tips are going to be the biggest. Is that a fallacy?
Nathan: It actually is the exact opposite of what you think. I work at the Bellagio, I deal in some of the biggest games in the world. I deal Bobby’s Room, I deal 10/20/40, 25/50 No-limit, PLO, all these games. I would actually prefer to deal 1/3 No-limit and 2/5 No-limit.
Nathan: If I’m thinking of just a plus EV standpoint then it’s more lucrative to deal those games; however, playing both sides of the felt, the amount of things that I’ve learned from sitting between nine great players, playing for a lot of money, the amount of things that I’ve learned and seen, I’m not going to make as much money dealing these games. It’s still valuable to me in a lot of ways.
Doug: I would think that you become friends with the players. I know I’m friends in my local room with basically all the dealers. You have access to some really high level players that you can ask questions of, right?
Nathan: Absolutely. It’s definitely something that I’ve utilized a lot. As somebody that plays at Bellagio and works there, I know a lot of good players, I know all of the regulars. If I ever have a question or if I’ve been thinking about folding that set on the turn, I can just go ask one of five players who I can say are the best players in Las Vegas, in a line-up I have all these people I can bounce ideas off, I can ask them how they would play this. A lot of people don’t have that. As a dealer, as part of the community, you know all the regulars, you know all the other dealers, and you shouldn’t be afraid to go and just shoot the shit with a regular.
Doug: Especially if you’re a competent player, I know I get this quite a bit that dealers will come to me and if they start their story off with, “Well, I limped Aces,” then I just interrupt them and tell them they don’t get to tell me anymore of this story. I don’t think you’re going to come to them with that kind of story.
Nathan: At least they come up to you and they’re like, “Hey, can I ask you a question?” I just hear this stuff all day. These guys are like, “Alright, so, I have Jack, seven of spades,” I’m like, “Okay, this is a great story.”
Doug: Yeah, we don’t want to hear that story.
Nathan: When I’m personally having hurdles or a question, when I come across something in my game that I’m unsure about or I could go either way, or I just want somebody’s opinion, I have all the feedback that’s available to me. I can go ask some of the best world-class, high-class players you’ve seen on TV and just be like, “Hey, what do you think about this?” And, they’re all cool. They love to help and I can go up to them and ask them about the basketball game, or whatever. They’re all just really good dudes.
Doug: I’ve got a question. How much do you tip? What can a player do to be a good player and support people that are working hard to make the game good for us?
Nathan: I moved out to Las Vegas and I’ll never forget the first time I shipped a $60,000 pot and the guy gave me $1 and at first I was outraged, I was like, “What is this craziness, this guys just won $60,000, he gave me $1?” The more that I play, I moved up in stakes, I realized that most players when they win, they’re going to give you $1 and you say, “Thank you,” and sometimes they give you more. Sometimes they give you a lot more. I’m always like, “Awesome, thank you so much.”
As a poker player from the opposite spectrum, we play this game to make money, big blinds, every dollar counts in the margin and if you’re tipping too much, that’s probably leaking your game. I understand that you like all the dealers and you’re a regular, but it’s not about the monetary amount that you tip, it’s the thought that counts and the appreciation. As a dealer, I like the big tips and as a player, honestly, I tip $1 per hand. As a player, playing there to grind money, I will tip $1 per hand. Let’s say I have a friend or someone I really like that’s dealing, sometime I tip a little bit more. If I win a much bigger pot, I’ll tip a little bit more. Standard, I think the dollar, that’s what I get and that’s what I give. I’m never upset when someone gives me $1, I’m like, “Thank you sir, clink clink.” I cap my cards when I play and for the most part I ship the dollar on the cap card.
Doug: Something that I’ve seen, people feel like the dealer is the priest of priestess at the alter of luck. That you embody luck and after someone sucks out really in a horrible way, they feel like they owe something to the universe and you are the embodiment of the universe. Is that something that you see over time.
Nathan: Absolutely, I can’t tell you how many times players have cursed me, I’ve had a player tell me that he hopes I don’t wake up in the morning ’cause he was running so bad. It’s like, I just deal the cards, I don’t have any biased, I don’t wish you any ill well or any what way. I just deal the cards, as a poker player it’s all randomness and variants and everything equals out. Please just don’t shoot the messenger.
Doug: One of the things, I feel like, even though I’m at the Mirage pretty much everyday, I’m not actually employed by the Mirage, so when someone gets out of line with a dealer or with a waitress, they can’t defend themselves they can’t say anything. I can, I can tell them to go … I can tell them all kinds of things.
Nathan: It’s funny you say that, ’cause whenever I see a player, when I’m on the other side of the felt, I’m playing, I’m incognito, nobody knows who I am, I’m a random card room and I see a player just go off on the dealer or floor or chip runner or any of these people. I get it from when I’m working and I understand that we’re playing for money and all that stuff, but it just doesn’t take much to be a good human being at the end of the day.
Doug: One of my favorite things, and I don’t know if you see this from other players, but when someone starts berating the dealer, I’ll just interrupt him and say, “Hey, I think you’re doing a great job, dealer,” and I’ll just keep throwing him dollars until the guy shuts up.
Nathan: That’s so funny. I always try and stick up for the dealers whenever I can, when I’m playing. I show up to play and I’m incognito, some people know who I am and know that I’m a dealer, but I don’t broadcast it, I don’t tell everyone at the table that I’m a dealer, if I can avoid the conversation. If you’re gonna berate me for the way that you’re running, then you definitely need to praise me whenever you’re running good, double-side sword.
Doug: I don’t think most people see it that way.
Nathan: Of course not. But, it’s my fault when they lose and they get cooler or when they play bad and when they win it’s cause they played great. Playing small stakes and dealing small stakes in Las Vegas you’re going to encounter a lot of these people. I think it’s a great skill to have thick skin ’cause I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen new dealers physically just cry. These people can be so ruthless and mean.
Doug: I’ve absolutely seen dealers break down in the box and start to cry. It makes me want to pound on the player that is doing that to them.
Nathan: It happens a lot at the beginning of every year at the series. You got these new dealers that are a little nervous, they come, they deal these games, they dealt a lot of Hold ‘Em or Omaha. They’re not used to dealing a lot of these games, and they’re a little nervous, and they make a mistake and the players, some of the, just take every opportunity to point out your mistakes and you become more nervous. You start making more mistakes, then you have this guys who’s losing and he’s just rude to you, and he berates you, and he just goes off on you, and just the worse. I’ve known dealers that have quite after days like that.
Doug: A statement that I like to make when I see one of these jerks doing that to one of my dealers, I’m very protective of my dealers, when I’m at the Mirage, that’s my home room, I know every dealer, I’ve spent hundreds of hours with all of them. I feel like, they’re part of my team, they’re part of my crew.
Nathan: You’re friends. You interact with them, you see them every day. It’s not okay for someone to treat your friends like shit in front of you, especially if it’s uncalled for.
Doug: Right. They can’t defend themselves, from the box you will get written up so fast if you go off on a player, but what’s the floor gonna do to me if I tell someone he’s being a jerk. They’re probably going to thank me afterwards at the bar sometime. But, what I’ll do, is I’ll make a side bet and be like, “Alright you get to deal two orbits and if you can do it flawlessly, I’ll give you three buy-ins.”
Nathan: I’ll give them five to one on one orbit, cause it’s not an easy job. If you take a random person and you ask them to fly a plane, they probably can’t. Take a random person ask them to operate this thing or machinery they probably can’t. If you take a random person and tell them to run a poker game by themselves, they probably can’t.
Doug: Something that surprised me as I got more immersed in the world of poker out here, is that dealers can actually play on the clock. What does that mean and is it a good idea?
Nathan: There are a few rooms here in Las Vegas that will allow you to chill or play on the clock. When they have an influx of dealers, when they have too many dealers, instead of just cutting down the EO list, they will allow you to play and keep games moving.
Doug: What’s the EO list?
Nathan: The Early Out list, every single poker room as an EO list, meaning if you want to come in you’re not really feeling it you wanna go home, you can sign the EO and they’ll cut you as soon as they can. Let the people who want to go, go and let the people that want to work, work. The same thing is the play list. There’s a lot of times where you don’t want to work or you’d rather play and they can’t really cut you yet, because they don’t know, “We might open six or seven games, but while you’re sitting around and we don’t need you, absolutely, sit down, take a seat, play, and try your luck.” The Bellagio is one of the primary rooms that you can play and work at the same time. You can punch in, sign the play list, be sitting down five minutes later, and just play until they need or they tell you that you can go home or whatever.
Doug: You’re not playing with the houses money, you’re with your own money.
Nathan: Absolutely not. I’m sitting down with my own bank roll, my own action.
Doug: Okay. That’s great if you can come in … if someone does sign up for the play list, how long do they get to play and would they end up in that same game 20 minutes later dealing it?
Nathan: It’s funny, it seems as though, at least my experience when I have play listed, there’s been times where if I’m stuck I always get picked up and if I’m winning I always get to stay. We joke around that, me and some co-workers, that the moment you get stuck, you get picked up and have to go start a dead spread.
Doug: A dead spread, so that’s where you’re just sitting there waiting for something to happen.
Nathan: You’re just sitting there waiting for something to happen wondering how you’re stuck $300 and you’re just miserable. That happens sometimes.
Doug: The dead spread seems like the purgatory for dealers to me.
Nathan: That and Open-Face Chinese poker are the worst two things that can happen to you. Dead spread is probably better cause you can at least watch sports or have a conversation with somebody or whatever. You’re gonna make the same amount at Open-Face Chinese poker that you will at a dead spread.
Doug: A lot of times Open-Face Chinese poker, it might as well be dealt from a shoe. Most of the time, the dealer is not doing any of the hand reading or making the payouts or anything right?
Nathan: All you do is deal the cards. You don’t touch the chips, you just deal the cards and you sit there and you shuffle, and you deal the cards, and they’re all doing stuff. It’s very rare that you’re interacting with any of the players other than giving you direction or complaining about something.
Doug: That is one of the games that you don’t want to deal. One of the things that I’ve heard and maybe you can confirm this, is that if you happen to deal at the World Series of poker in the big room, the most lucrative spot is actually the single table satellites.
Nathan: The satellites are really hit or miss. I had some friends that swore by it, I had friends that would deal and never touch it. Personally, I prefer to deal cash games, seeing that I’m a faster dealer and I feel like I make more money. However, I have dealt satellites and some of them I’ve done really, really well and some of them I’ve done really not so well. It’s really hit or miss. Probably at the beginning of the series everything is better no matter what you’re dealing. The cash games are better, the satellites are better, everyone comes to town so happy to be here, seeing all their friends, everyone has money, and then towards the middle and the end of the series, everyone stuck and they’re just miserable. Let’s say I deal to Dave and Dave wins a satellite, he wins $1,000 and he tips me $20 or $25 and it happens to be and I say, “Thank you.” Dave wins that satellite at the end of the series, he might be a break even player, it might be slightly winning, but through all the expense of the summer, he’s stuck money and he’s not as generous as he was feeling when he first got here.
Doug: One of the things that I’ve seen was a dealer at a dead spread at the singles tables that was pushing really hard for the suicides. The suicides are when basically everyone comes in, puts in $1,000, they deal out one hand and someone has a seat to the main event.
Nathan: They fire those off every five minutes. Every year at the World Series, I don’t remember whether it’s the day before or two days before. Last year it was the day after the Fourth of July, they shut down the entire everything and it was just satellite day. Right before the main event started and it’s very common to see players come in, everyone throws in $1,000 plus the juice, the rake is about $25 or $30. Everyone buys in for $1,000 plus the rake and one hand, face up, whoever wins gets the seed, that’s it.
Doug: I’ve done the rake calculation and you would be better off taking your money and going and putting it on one of the squares at roulette.
Nathan: Black, absolutely.
Doug: No, no, bet on the inside, like black 13. Take 127th or whatever is on a roulette wheel of $10,000 and you’re far better off.
Nathan: From a mathematical, in a vacuum plus pure EV standpoint, sure. One of these players, they want to play the main event, they’ve had a decent summer. Think about it this way, if I have a great summer and I decide I want to play the main event, I’m gonna pay $10,000 to play. However, if I’m having a great summer and I feel great about myself and I feel like I’m luckier than you and I can win a flip … if you’re playing in a flip with nine or ten random people, you’re going to win one out of nine or one out of ten times. But, if I feel like I’m luckier than you, then I might win one out of six or one out of five times. I’ve seen guys that hit it on their first shot and I’m like, “Okay, thank you.’
Doug: There you go.
Nathan: Tip the dealer all the cash and be like, “Alright-
Doug: The point I was getting at, was they are very clever when they pay out these single tables is they give plenty of cash in small bills to the winner. Let’s face it, if you just put $1,000 down and won a main event seat, and they hand you $10,000 in lamers and $120 in cash-
Nathan: They usually just give you the $120 in cash. Five minutes of work, not even, setting the deck, setting the chips, there has to be chips on the table, but-
Doug: I love seeing that, ’cause I see the dealers and they’re hustling for it, they’re like, “Hey, come on over.”
Nathan: I’ve dealt a horse satellite that took me about three hours and I was just chugging along the entire time and I got all the cash, it was great. I’ve dealt that same tournament before and it took slightly less time and made a third of the money. It’s really hit or miss.
Doug: Okay. I want to thank Nathan for coming on tonight and where can we see you online or in person?
Nathan: Thanks for having me Doug, glad to be here. If you decide to come to Las Vegas I will be at the Bellagio almost every day this summer, either dealing or flooring, come say hi, I’ll be there any questions you have. Or also you can come check out the Twitch stream on Wednesday’s, that’s Twitch.tv/Bellagiopots. Which case, I’ll probably be dealing and it’s great stream. Like I said, thanks for having me Doug.
Doug: Alright, thank you.