When God was designing the perfect croupier, he did not have me in mind. The great pit boss in the sky was, one imagines, thinking more along the lines of a Bond extra – a sleek, feline citizen with pneumatic fingers and an inclement heart. Not a second-row forward with poor arithmetic and hands like gammon.
Despite these natural disadvantages, The Independent has dispatched me to Britain’s first and only gaming academy, in Blackpool, to learn the dark arts of the casino employee. And, this being the age of „faking it“, my skills will then be tested the following day in a chic Piccadilly casino before a ruthless industry professional. I will spend a day at the gaming academy. Most students spend at least 12 weeks. The challenge, mildly put, seems huge.
Just arriving at the academy is an otherwordly experience. Lodged high in the knotty entrails of Blackpool and the Fylde College’s concrete structure, the centre lies behind stout security doors, two flights away from the hollering tracksuit-toters who loiter by the college entrance. Behind the security doors one discovers eager boys, students on the slot machine module, putting a one-armed bandit back together.
In the academy’s main hall, where four roulette and four blackjack tables take pride of place, one eager beaver, Kirsty, has arrived two hours before class starts to practise her „chipping up“ skills. She is one of 15 students that the academy takes on each three months, and looks like a pro.
„But I’m weak with my left hand,“ she says, furiously collecting chips from the roulette table in front of her as Bob Marley hums on the stereo.
Colleen McLaughlin, the academy director, shows me what Kirsty is practising. She explains how all croupiers need a basic facility with handling and counting chips by feel. Every croupier should be able to pick up a stack of chips and know, by how it feels in the hand, whether there are 19, or 20, or 21. Then, having established that there are 20 in your stack, you should be able, by gripping firmly with two fingers, and „cutting“ with another, be able to separate the chips into equal stacks of five.
It’s really difficult. I think I’ve got the hang of what 20 feels like in my hand – just about as much as I can hold without getting cramp or dropping the lot – but I’m frequently wrong. How Kirsty, who is on the small side of tiny, even manages to fit 20 in her hand is anyone’s guess.
„Just practice and time, isn’t it?“ says Kirsty, picking the two commodities I’m a little short on.
Colleen, who, after 17 years in the gaming industry, knows a frustrated punter when she sees one, moves me on to something requiring mental, rather than physical diligence: how to calculate winnings on the roulette table. But, unlike both Colleen and Kirsty, my 35, 17 and 11 times tables are a little rusty. Even when I can calculate the answers – 17 chips for a split, 8 for a corner – it takes at least 10 seconds to give the final, correct answer. A real croupier would have handed over the chips, spun the next ball, and written an Elizabethan sonnet in that time.
Still, maybe blackjack is where my talents lie. I’ve certainly displayed an uncommon talent, in my rare previous visits to casinos, in handing over chips on blackjack tables. As the afternoon’s „introduction to blackjack“ session gets underway, the course tutor and casino veteran Wendy Bradley leads my table through the basics.
You start with cards. Every dealer needs to be able to shuffle quickly and discreetly, and, to that end, everyone knows the riffle shuffle. It’s your garden-variety shuffle, whereby two equal blocks of cards are placed against each other diagonally and flicked together. I can do it, albeit a little untidily, for my irregular poker game in London. But it’s more tricky in the casino, where you are shuffling one-and-a-half packs of a cards, rather than just a pack, every time. Easier to perfect is the „chemmy“ shuffle, an institutionalised version of the old bully’s favourite, the 52-card-pick-up. My chemmy’s slow but well-formed.
Normally, the introduction to blackjack afternoon involves no actual blackjack. So, after learning the shuffling skills, and pulling cards from the „boot“, students would call it a night and go home. It seems odd, rather like a sex education class that stops abruptly at heavy petting.
Colleen, though, is aware that I’ve a test to pass in the morning, and she’s damned if she’s going to send me up to London looking like a wet-eared novice. She doesn’t mind if my skill-set is built on Jenga blocks. So our table starts its very own clandestine blackjack game. We take turns to deal. We try not to draw attention to ourselves. It’s all very Guys and Dolls.
It turns out I’m not bad at dealing blackjack. I put the cards in the right place, can just about count up to 21, and take the money off the right punters at the right time. It’s all going so well. But then I forget to give myself a card.
This seems a world away when I’m stood in front of Geoff Peck, the manager of the Gala Piccadilly casino, the next day. Fibre-optics sparkle in the vaulted ceiling of the club as Geoff, a man with a suit as sharp as his tongue, reels off anecdotes about his life in the trade – card tables in the Bahamas, Kerry Packer dropping a million in an afternoon. But, as Geoff reminds me, my days as an international croupier are a little way off.
„You’d never do that,“ he says, pointing to the hands that are currently lodged in my pockets. „Never. As a new croupier you’d always have your hands where everyone can see them. Punters, CCTV. Everyone.“
So far, so bad. Geoff suggests that I deal a blackjack game for real. He studies how I stand at the table. He pores over how I deal with the chips („ah, the old claw cut“, he comments, surprisingly). He scrutinises how I address him and the other employee who is posing as a customer.
Nervously, I draw the first card.
„No, no, no,“ he says. What did I do wrong?
„Well, is there something missing?“ he asks.
No one has placed a bet yet. That’s what’s missing. It’s a genuine rookie error, and the sort of thing I wouldn’t have done wrong yesterday. I mumble an apology and knock over a stack of chips in the process. This is not going well.
„All right, start again,“ says Geoff. Bets are placed, with he and his fellow employee playing at three positions each. I draw a card.
„What have you forgotten?“ he asks. I haven’t run my hand past the bets – a gesture that signifies the end of betting and the start of drawing cards. Damn it. This was all, infuriatingly, covered yesterday. Geoff looks faintly amused by my amateurish efforts.
Next time, everything goes right. Bets are placed, the hand runs round, the cards come out. I ask whether the customer currently on 9, 10, or 11 wishes to „double or card“. I know how to split cards, and that you can’t split 10s. I’m all right. Then, the old Achilles-heel flares up again and I start dealing hands without remembering to deal myself a card.
What one realises, from even the most cursory dip into the croupier’s world, is that flair has nothing to do with a job well done. It’s all about method. A hundred tiny things done well and accurately are what make a good dealer. An ability to calculate, to spot a problem gambler, to pitch your levels of wit and charm just right. It’s a tricky business, populated by skilled operators. And the idea of an academy specially formulated to guide people through this minefield might sound ludicrous, but it makes sense. Better they make the mistakes on the second floor of a further education college than with £1,000 chips.
By the end of my trial by fire in the Piccadilly joint, I have dealt a few hands perfectly. The thing, of course, is to deal every hand perfectly. Still, baby steps. I turn to Geoff for my final assessment. He looks like a man whose patience has been tested, although he is gracious enough not to admit it.
„All in all, I think you did very well,“ he says. „You start Monday.“