Why do poker dealers hate working the WSOP?

Jon Pill
Posted on: June 04, 2021 02:59 PDT

On Thursday, September 30, 2021, the most important event of the poker calendar begins. Over the following 65 days, thousands of poker players will descend on the Amazon Room at the Rio to battle it out for the World Series of Poker's bracelets.

But not everyone in the poker world looks forward to the biggest event of the Vegas summer. Ask around the dealers in your local game which summer series they hope to be dealing in Vegas. Then don't hold your breath for one of them to say the WSOP.

We asked a group of dealers on Facebook for their opinions on working the WSOP. Out of 31 replies, 74.2% had low opinions, and just 6.5% enjoyed the experience.

The remaining 19.3% were ambivalent. Mostly the ambivalent responses described the WSOP as a good place to get experience, but expressed disapproval of the working conditions in general.

Most dealers are hoping for gigs a few blocks up at the Wynn's poker room. Or across the way at the Bellagio. Or with the big tippers at the Aria's high roller events. They might do it to make ends meet, or to get some experience, but no one seems to really wants to deal the WSOP.

Why not? It's the biggest game in town.

Live poker is showing a real bounce back as card rooms reopen. The WPT event at the Seminole Hard Rock broke records for attendance. It has been well over a year since we had a real WSOP. People are desperate to get back to the game. We can expect the 2021 WSOP to be a big one.

There are the cameras, the lights, the celebrities, some of the greatest players in the world, and as much work as you can shake a croupier's rake at.

The dealer's eye view

To meet demand the WSOP is looking to hire 1,200 temporary dealers. The pay is ostensibly $9 an hour. This is the new Nevada minimum wage if the employer doesn't provide benefits like health insurance. But in practice, that number is pretty meaningless.

Like many service staff in the U.S., a dealer's actual pay is an arcane blend of base pay and tokes. In the case of WSOP tournament dealers, there is also a named percentage of the rake. All this is factored into the dealers' down-rate. The down-rate is the actual dollar amount that a dealer receives for each half-hour session dealing at a table.

"Every tournament that I ever dealt or directed had a toke committee that handled the dealer's tokes," Richard Marianetti, another dealer, says. He continues, "This committee was a committee that was elected, by vote, by the dealers. They were the only people that distributed the toke money to the dealers. The WSOP does not and will not have such a committee."

This lack of oversight results in what dealers perceive as an unfair distribution of the tips that they earn at the table.

Or, as Marianetti puts it, in a rather blunter mode: "This gives the suits free rein to a*s-rape the dealers for their money every year."

Lost loveless labor

A charitable observer might view the WSOP as a victim of its own successes. Like most big organizations, it has attempted to cut costs and increase efficiency by stripping away pay and dignity from its workers.

That's a key word "dignity." If I had a dollar chip for every time a dealer used the word "dignity" to describe what was missing from working the WSOP, I'd need to visit the cashier.

The scale of the enterprise strips the personal touch from the employer. The need for efficiency turns the work into a call-center style grind in which breaks are limited and monitored.

Where the players are comped meals at restaurants, the dealers are given a rice-and-boiled-chicken buffet that is rarely refilled. One WSOP dealer mentioned that just seeing green chicken makes her feel sick to her stomach now.

Breaking in and breaking out

When dealers have anything mitigating to say about the WSOP working conditions it normally takes the form of, it's extra cash or it's a good way to break in or get experience.

It's every poker player's dream to go to the WSOP. But for the dealers, it's not even a nightmare, it's just drudgery.

"It’s not worth it," Ashleigh Kenny, a retired poker dealer, tells me. "It's what working Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios is for an actor. They use and abuse the dealers. People drop out for being exhausted. The players all think they’re pros, so the tipping is crap. But it’s great for traveling dealers, or people trying to get a foot in the door."

Not only that, but several dealers I spoke to referred to a kind of anti-hierarchy where the better dealers — who know their way around more games — get banished to dealing slow games at the Chinese poker and pot-limit tables. Meanwhile neophytes — who know how to deal hold 'em, but not much else — get the plum roles dealing high-speed Texas hold 'em hands. At a cash game table this impacts the number of tips, and in turn your down-rate, for the worse.

Not a number

Benjamin Thompson dealt a WSOP TV final table in 2012, his first year on the job. He went back in 2013, but after that, he stuck to dealing at Harrah's where he had "financially great summers."

He describes the exhausting chaos of trying to do a good job under WSOP conditions.

"My WSOP audition in 2012 was very early in the process, and three of my group of ten passed," he says. "Two dealers who were employed off-Strip at the time both failed. By the end of the process, they were passing everyone. There was no tier system or dealer rankings. Even if there was, there was no consensus on where the better ones should be assigned. You just had to hope your shift supervisor recognized your name or face."

Then he adds, "I’ve had more personal treatment in jail."

So if you're planning to go down to Vegas for the WSOP. Spare a thought for the person in the dealer's chair. They're under-paid, over-worked, under-fed, and over-wrought.

Tip well, be kind, and slip them some pamphlets about how to unionize.

Featured image source: Flickr by hareshd5000