This blog is based upon excerpts from my short story, "STANDING DEAD."
CHARLIEOPERA, my successful crime novel author friend, once confided in me that he liked eavesdropping on craps dealer conversations. I thought this was odd for such an interesting man to be thrilled by what is overwhelmingly tripe.
Actually, I was disappointed in him because those chats are usually banal blitherings that include: gossip, grousing about the job and comparing medical procedures Even if he got lucky and heard what he were talking about yesterday...jokes about the health risks associated with casinos and the need to work in full body condoms and bullet-proof vests, I doubt Charlie would have been thrilled.. Even worse, when you consider the bigger picture, I'd guess that these are the same mundane topics that anyone who deals with the public might discuss...sorry Charlie.
Luckily for him, I do recall one gem in the rough. Therefore, this column is dedicated to Charlie because one of my 1980 craps game conversations, when molded properly and shined-up, does make interesting reading.
I had fourteen months craps dealing experience in Las Vegas dives when I got hired at the Stardust Casino. Vegas casinos are divided into two status groups: downtown and the strip. If we overlook the rare exceptions, the simplest way to put it is, downtown is the minor leagues and the strip is the majors. That is why it was quite an accomplishment for me, at twenty-four, to reach such a lofty position...without any connections. ON THE FABULOUS LAS VEGAS STRIP, THE STARDUST WAS OPEN FROM 1958-2006. I WAS SO YOUNG AND DUMB BACK THEN, (MARCH 1980 THROUGH JANUARY 1982), THAT BY MY SECOND DAY OFF, I COULDN'T WAIT TO GET BACK TO WORK.
Within ten days at the Stardust, I was put onto a regular crew. My joy was skewed because my three cohorts ostracized me. Until a newbies proves his worth, an unwritten code requires that they are given the cold-shoulder.
Established big-time dealers recognize that they have a good thing and are over-protective of preserving their job security. The irony is, what makes the job so good is that the Stardust craps dealers went, "table-for-table." That meant that instead of pooling their tokes, (tips), with every dealer in the club, they divided their daily proceeds among the four member crew. It sounds ideal but the bugaboo is, craps players are notorious for getting so involved in their own conquests that the service of the dealer is often overlooked. So, a player's generosity, usually must be prodded.
Table-for-table dealers who want to eat, provide subtle reminders to encourage players to tip. Less polished dealers lack finesse and openly ask, beg or make demands. Either way you look at it, each method is considered hustling. The Stardust (and all table-for-table casinos) have a zero tolerance policy towards hustling so the first offense usually leads to termination. These policies are supposedly upheld by the primary and secondary supervisors, (boxmen and floormen). One of their largest responsibilities is to prevent these solicitations. However, nearly all these men are, "on the take," and accept bribes called lay-offs, to look the other way or actively join in the hustling. HONOR AMONG THIEVES. GOING TABLE-FOR-TABLE IS A CONTINUOUS, HUSTLING FOR TIPS JENGA, SURVIVAL GAME. THEREFORE A CREW, ACTING IN CONCERT WITH THE SUPERVISORS, RISK THEIR LIVELIHOOD BY TIP-TOEING AROUND THE BOOBY-TRAP OF BAD TIMING, POOR CHOICE OF WORDS, ILL-ADVISED GESTURES OR ANY COMBINATION OF THE THREE.
Veteran dealers don't care how well a new face (like me), technically deals the game. Their first concern is, is the newcomer a management stooge? (A planted spy who gathers derogatory inside information for the sole purpose of legitimizing firings). More importantly, the vets want the rookie to prove his toke earning mettle and see an unconditional allegiance to the crew.
On my third day, we were standing dead. That means our table was open for business with no players. During this down time, I hoped to win my crew over but one dealer and the boxman were immersed in their Tuesday afternoon darts league strategies. And the other dealer was explaining to the floorman what made some blond cocktail waitress a whore.
I hated being excluded. But everything changed when Gabe, our third and last dealer, came back from his break. They nicknamed him Dracula because of his ghoulish appearance. He was bone skinny, had thinning, jet black hair, sullen deep-set, blackened eyes and an ashen complexion. Plus, he had a thick, blue vein that ran straight up from his right eyebrow to the arc of his receding hairline.
Dracula, a petty scam artist, flicked the cellophane from an after dinner mint onto the floor, tapped into the game and whined, "I just had a 'cold' hot roast beef sandwich. But it's okay because I discovered that I been wasting money by over-tipping Gregory, (the employee's waiter). You know I trained him to write me a check for an 18c doughnut, instead of my full dinner, right? (The staff paid half price on selected coffee shop items). Then just now, I looked at the actual check and realized how stupid I was to wait on line, to pay an unnumbered check. Duh, why pay that fruitcake to phony-up my bill? I say, let him write-up the full price...and I'll just pocket the whole friggin' thing and walk out."
The others seemed familiar with his rantings and politely pretended to listen until one of the dealers named Don said, "This'll save you a fortune compared to your last million dollar idea...re-using postage stamps."
Dracula ignored him and changed the subject, "There goes that big piece of shit, Mick Savitz." At first, I was amused that a man who personified walking death would call someone else names. Then I seized my opportunity and spoke up, "What makes him so bad?"
What a great question. Suddenly everyone was enthusiastic about telling me different Mick Savitz anecdotes. The boxman said, "Savitz is the king of fleas. He must be part Gypsy because he'll make wild claims on stray nickels (five dollar chips), and I never saw him bet less than a hundred." Jerry another dealer said, "He's no flea...he's an abomination. I've dealt craps for twenty-five years and he's the worst player I ever dealt to. No, wait, he's the worse person I ever met...period!" The floorman said, "Jerry is right, That low-life used to own a string of used car lots throughout the southwest. He'd hire young girls as secretaries for much more than they were worth....and, he didn't care whether they could even type..." I said, "Heh?" The floorman continued, "The girl would be on twenty-four hour call. You get my drift?" When I didn't answer he added, "The only clerical skill required was taking his dictation."
My eyes were wide open when Jerry added, "In the forties, he bought his way out of a murder rap in the Texas panhandle." To follow each info burst, my head spun like a turret. That's when the floorman said, "Kid! You're not interested in ancient history..." Dracula cut him off, "Yeah, we gotta put up with a lot of his shit a couple a times a week...and the cheapskate NEVER tips!" Jerry said, "That's right, I never saw ole Mick give up ten cents." "Forget that," the floorman interjected, "this is what you need to know now...that buzzard don't pay no vig!"
I would find out that Mick Savitz's bet of choice was laying odds against the four or ten. This wager requires a 5% commission payment on the potential winnings, (this vigorish is also called juice). But Savitz refused to pay.
I said, "That makes no sense..." Jerry interrupted, "That old goat has some hold on management. They are completely scared of him. And you should be too. He spits on dealers, starts fights...and never loses. Plus, the weasel curses old women and bullies anyone who gets in his way. So don't be a jackass and NEVER ask him for vig."
I said, "He's playing now? Which one is he?" Dracula craned his pasty neck to scan the craps pit and said, "Dickhead is playing the 'don't come' on table three and table one." I said, "You can't play on more than one table at a time..." In unison they all chimed in, "Yes HE can!"
When the six-foot-six mountain man came into clear view, I thought of John Wayne as a depraved seventy-year old. If not for a slight bit of paunchiness in Savitz's belly, this senior citizen was a physical specimen. He had defiance in his body language and a mean streak in the scowl on his scarred face. Even from the distance, when he looked my way, his evil eye was so intimidating that I diverted my gaze.
Later, he wandered towards my game. I shuddered at my post...hoping he wouldn't play. Then I thought I would crap my pants when he stopped in front of me and lit up a Chesterfield. The cigarette looked like a toothpick in his huge meat-hook hand as he took a long drag. Then as he strode to the table adjacent mine and intentionally blew the smoke into the face of a passerby.
Savitz took out an enormous wad of cash from his pocket. There were so many bills folded in half that this bank roll was a rounded, money wheel. Dracula saw me staring and whispered, "Those are all hundreds, kiddo. Betcha there's over five grand..." Jerry joked, "Gabe would know, he probably tested it out at home with fifty singles." "Dracula shrugged, "What if I did?"
The next night, a new boxman with a Southern accent came to our shift. Probably a hulk as a younger man, he was an unhealthy looking, sloppy fat, old man who immediately was disrespectful to dealers. One of our old-timer boxmen remembered him from the Shy Clown Casino in Sparks and said, "That prick was a bone-breaker when we opened. He's too old to mess people up now and he's not a table games guy so that means, he's probably a headhunter." THE SHY CLOWN CASINO OPENED IN THE TOWN NEXT TO RENO, IN 1974. ACCORDING TO THIS OLD-TIMER, TO MINIMIZE PAYROLL, THEY HIRED GOONS TO HANDLE PROBLEMATIC PLAYERS.
This curmudgeon made it obvious that he was a hatchet man. He just sat there with no real knowledge of what he was doing and croaked out unnecessary orders. His presence also meant that there would be no hustling especially when he told us, "No jibber-jabber with the players. If you test me, I'll take it all the way to the top...and you and your sorry ass will be out of a job."
A couple of wise-guy dealers from other crews thought he was bluffing...and were unemployed in a flash. This bastard created a hostile work environment and was nicknamed Cool-Breeze because he reminded us of a chain-gang boss.
The Stardust was unique to any casino I worked in because Ernie Trohlmann, the lead floorman (relief pit boss) conducted a five minute rah-rah speech outside the pit as a part of the daily muster call. During this time, the dealers would be reminded how great the joint was and were appraised of the entertainment updates, restaurant schedules, special promotions and any changes in casino policy.
Minutes before one of these meetings, Johnny Balmer the Stardust's senior-most dealer gathered us in secret huddle and suggested, "This horse's ass Cool-Breeze is costing us a ton. We gotta come up with something to jackpot him with. But until we do, I got a long shot plan...that even if it doesn't work, will still ruffle his feathers and Mick Savitz's at the same time."
Jerry from my crew nodded, "Yeah, I get it...don't tell Cool-Breeze that Savitz doesn't pay vig." Balmer said, "Right! Even if we don't get rid of him, it'll be fun to see the fur fly off of those to old farts."
That night, we were standing dead and Dracula said, "See in the paper, they robbed that little bank on Swenson? Those jerk-offs got less than two-hundred bucks. When they get caught, that's a federal rap whether they got two-hundred or two hundred-thousand. I say, why take a chance on winding up with chump change. You take an easy mark like Mick Savitz. He's strolling through here flashing at least five-grand all the time. Instead of risking hard time, just follow the fucker out to his car and jump him?"
Dracula's timing would have impressed even Kreskin. Towards the end of our shift, Savitz showed up. We were all watching him approach while he pulled a giant rubber band off his money wheel. Suddenly, a young Latino darted out from behind a row of slot machines, ran up behind Savitz and punched the old man in the back of the head. Savitz went down and he dropped his bankroll. It took the assailant a few seconds to scoop up the cash before running to the main entrance. Savitz was dazed but got up quickly and gave chase. When the thief pulled at the heavy glass front door, Savitz body slammed him and crushed the kid against it. The mugger's face became a punching bag. Then Savitz grabbed the Latino by the back of his shirt and crashed the victim's face against the door, twice.
From the distance, we could see the blood stained door as Savitz acrimoniously picked up his hundred dollar bills that were strewn all about. Savitz trudged to the craps pit and started playing as if nothing had happened.
Security hand-cuffed the would-be robber and ushered him into the back of the house for "rehabilitation," (which might have included falling down a flight or two of concrete steps, a broken leg or the ultimate deterrent, a one-way trip into the desert).
Savitz's self-defense tactics were fresh in my mind the next day when our crew was saddled with Cool-Breeze. In the back of my mind, I was hoping Dracula would make another prediction and put Savitz and Cool-Breeze together in a cock-fight.
For the first two hours, Cool-Breeze succeeded in making my crew miserable. Then the unlikely hero, Mick Savitz mystically appeared, squeezed next to me on my crowded table and rasped, "Two hundred, no ten!" I noticed Johnny Balmer give me the thumbs up signal. Then I saw everyone from the other nine craps tables sneaking peaks of anticipation my way.
That's when Cool-Breeze said the magic words, "Hey buddy, you owe me the five dollar vig." Savitz ignored him. So Cool-Breeze without consulting me or anyone else, set aside five dollars as a table marker and croaked, "I'll just mark the vig up for you." A table marker, like setting up a bar tab, was an accepted casino courtesy in Vegas.
Savitz got on an amazing winning streak. In a short time, a hundred vig dollars were marked up. Cool-Breeze said, "Hey fella, throw me a hundo so I can take this marker down." Cool-Breeze was getting antsy when he was ignored again.
Savitz never lost and kept raising his bets. Soon the commission on one bet was fifty dollars. Cool-Breeze's temper worsened when he was ignored after the marker ballooned to over two-hundred-fifty dollars. He finally gave in and looked for assistance from the floorman. But the floorman who usually watched from the little podium behind the game, remained glued to his other table behind us.
Savitz then counted out all his chips, peeled off a big bunch of hundred-dollar bills and called out, "Four thousand each, no four and ten!" Cool-Breeze counted out all the money and shouted to the invisible floorman, "Table max, no four and ten." He then said to Savitz, "How about it friend, y'all gonna take care of this three-hundred and sixty-five dollar marker?" Savitz again ignored him.
The game continued even when Cool-Breeze stood up to confront the debtor. The next dice roll produced no decision on the big bets. Savitz then shocked everyone by proving that he wasn't Superman and put on a pair of glasses. When he took out his wallet, Cool-Breeze must have thought he got the point of his threat across and sat down.
I finished paying my other bets and peered over at Savitz. His far-sighted eyes strained as he stuck his nose into his bill-fold until he plucked a filthy, moth-eaten five-dollar bill out. Savitz stared Cool-Breeze down and snarled, "Five-dollar any seven for the dealers."
Jerry's jaw dropped from the shock of seeing this historic event, Savitz's first-ever attempt at a gratuity. Simultaneously, the dice were in the air as Cool-Breeze sprang back up from his stool and pushed between me and the table.
Don the stickman called out, "Four easy, field roll four." Savitz lost one of his four thousand dollar bets, (the dealers lost too). When I removed his "no four" from the lay-out, Savitz cursed. At the same time, Cool-Breeze got in his face and screamed, "You payin' thissy here marker or what?" Savitz exploded, "Fuck you!" When Cool-Breeze's liver-spotted hand made a grab for Savitz, Savitz slammed his open palm into Cool-Breeze's flabby chest. The massive push knocked Cool-Breeze reeling backwards. He lost his balance, fell and toppled the podium on his way down.
For a few seconds, the game came to an awkward halt. Savitz shocked us back in action by barking, "Take down my no ten." Behind me, laying on the ground Cool-Breeze was dazed and groaning in pain as I handed off the bet.
Savitz looked down at him. I was sure he was going to spit on the prick but instead announced, "Now you know why I never bet for the fuckin' dealers." Savitz, as if nothing had happened, stuffed his chips into his pockets and sauntered to the furthest craps table at the other side of the pit.
Three security guards were helping Cool-Breeze to his feet as the casino manager arrived on the scene. In whispers, the big boss comforted the wounded soldier. He was leading him out of the pit when I heard Cool-Breeze squawk, "I'm getting too old for this shit." The plan actually worked, our pariah was never seen again.
An hour later, Savitz was walking fast and bumped into a young, six-foot-six cowboy. The sleeves of his Western shirt were cut-off to show the dude's python-like arms. Savitz snapped, "Out of my way ass hole." A button flew off Savitz's shirt when the cowboy grabbed him and laughed, "Who you calling an ass hole...ass hole?" On that miraculous day, Savitz squeaked, "Sorry," and slunk away.
Down through the years, I have told that story on many dead games. But I've never been satisfied with the whole "STANDING DEAD," short story. That is why none of you have ever read it. Maybe this blog will motivate me to clean it up and finally release it. I know Charlieopera would like it and you will too.