In 1979 while living in Las Vegas, I flew up to Reno to visit a friend from the old neighborhood, (Canarsie). Up there, they called him the "Mad Russian," but to me he was, "The Incredible Mr. K."
It took a while before I caught on but Mr. K., despite having a great job, led a destitute life. He wanted to roll out the red carpet for me but because of financial shortcomings and his strange habits, he owned practically nothing, not even a car. So that first night, he took me by taxi, to the casinos in the neighboring town of Sparks.
In the dark of the back seat Mr. K whispered, "Be prepared to run." He showed me that he was going to hand the driver a ten dollar bill. The car fare was $3.55. Mr. K said, "Keep a dollar for yourself and give me $15.45 change." The driver accepted the "generous" tip and did exactly what Mr. K told him.
We visited five, tiny store front casinos. In each place, Mr. K bought twenty dollars in chips and took it to the one craps game. These sawdust joints used a full-sized craps table but to minimize expenses, they only used two dealers (instead of three) and no immediate supervisor, (boxman).
The first time around, I had no idea what Mr. K. had in mind. He quietly scoped out the staff and drifted to his prey's blind spot. Just before he was about to pounce on the weakest link he whispered, "Be prepared to run." Then at the proper moment, (when a seven rolled), he "past posted" the come, by placing his winning bet after the dice landed.
I never had to run. Mr. K. succeeded all four times he tried and treated me to Japanese food. But the bigger picture was that these micro-casinos factor in the loss of revenue due to a slower pace, theft, incompetence and honest mistakes and are more comfortable with the regularity of a guaranteed reduction in payroll, (no boxman). You might recall this concept was a central point in the 1991 movie, "CLASS ACTION." In this courtroom drama, the audience finds out that auto manufacturers use actuaries to figure out if it is cost-effective to pay millions of dollars to recall and repair tens of-thousands of cars or in the case of this film, pay out a smaller amount in wrongful death law suits.
Today's blog is dedicated to the indispensable boxmen in busy casinos. I want to commend their efforts, honor their service and canonize them because they may become as extinct as the dinosaur.
New Jersey casinos have seen other gaming venues discontinue the boxman position. However, their hands were tied until the state recently mandated deregulation which permits the casinos to minimize their supervisory staffs. So in the name of corporate profits, decision makers at some of Atlantic City's casinos are now experimenting with this idea...to see if they can rationalize "superficial" negative consequences, in the name of an improved bottom line.
The boxman, is the immediate supervisor on a craps table. They sit, facing the stickman between the other two dealers. Their job description focuses on; overseeing the general action, regulating an upbeat tempo, accounting for the cash buy-ins and settling minor disputes with players. However, the boxman does so much more.THE BOXMAN, TYPICALLY IN A BUSINESS SUIT, HAS THE BEST VANTAGE POINT TO REGULATE A CRAPS GAME.
An integral part of the casino landscape, the better boxmen take on additional duties, especially in cultivating inexperienced dealers or helping the weak ones. Their job is difficult because they must find a middle ground that includes; relating to the needs of the dealers and serving the public while maintaining the best interests of the casino.
I can look back to my break-in days as a fledgling in Las Vegas and pinpoint the lessons taught specifically by boxmen...that influenced my rate of progress and eventual success. I can't possibly list each individual or circumstance that has impacted me for nearly 33-years but I would like to share some memories that highlight their necessity as well as their dedication, knowledge, patience and entertainment value.
Like a drill sergeant, boxmen teach newcomers the difficult realities of the job as well as short cuts, diplomacy and inner strength. They take on the role of a psychiatrist when things aren't going well, as well as acting like cheerleaders, mentors, friends, protectors, teammates and confessors.
Who are boxmen? The sarcastic casino adage; those who can't deal (craps), sit box, was for the most part true, in Vegas. Therefore many people who didn't want to work on the feet or weren't mentally or physically talented enough to deal, became boxmen. Other diluted folks thought that the job would put them on the fast track into the rarefied air of upper management. But mostly, a boxman was an old man job.
At the Slots-A-Fun Casino, my first boxman, an aspiring casino manager, was a Polish-American from Wausau Wisconsin, named Chuck. He taught me a lot on the table. But the harsh blood and guts of this dirty business, I learned from what happened to him.
The spelling of Chuck's eye chart last name overflowed with consonants and was pronounced, "Shirts." He was thirty-three and as nice a fellow as you could imagine. At the end of each shift, his wife and two prekindergarten-aged daughters would come in to pick him up. Yet despite his genuine work ethic and clean-cut image, his supervisors (for their own childish amusement) tortured him over his nationality.
To prove his greatness and sensitivity, despite working in his own hostile environment, Chuck protected me (and the other break-ins), from these narrow-minded asses. All the craps dealers were open to constant criticism. We were so new that Chuck had to demonstrate the most fundamental aspects of dealing over and over again...even the most basic thing, handling the chips. Sometimes, our on-the-job-training included him standing up and fixing a screw-up himself because I (we) weren't sharp enough to follow his instructions.
Nobody realized how each pressure-filled shift was internally taking its toll on Chuck Shirts. It all came to a terrible end after a hectic and mistake-filled day. Chuck had spent eight hours deflecting the bosses' nonsense off us and enduring their wrath himself. A minute before his shift was over, Chuck's happy family, like clockwork, approached our table.
The dealer who substituted for Chuck on his days off and pined for the job full-time, flicked his ear. The innocent prank went haywire when the shock caused Chuck to have a seizure. He fell off his stool, vomited and convulsed on the ground in it. To the horror of his family, his eyes rolled back into his head as he screamed and cried.
He was sitting on the floor, in a trance, shivering and sweating at the same time as the emergency team strapped him into a straight jacket. Through teary eyes, his girls saw Chuck wheeled on a gurney into an ambulance and rushed to a hospital. And yes, the moron who flicked his ear (Willard Lafitte from my short story, "THE HEAT IS ON,") did take over his job.
I saw Chuck Shirts only one other time...two years later.
Another great boxman was Dick Paynlewski. In my short story, "RETREADS," he was the man who got bit by a ferret on a craps table at the Holiday International Casino. That has to be the funniest boxman story I ever witnessed. It's so bizarre that the usual ten percent embellishment factor that readers should expect from me, is NOT present in this true event. Nevertheless, for the full brunt of the plot, you should read "Retreads," in its entirety.
By the time I got to the Stardust Casino in March 1980, I still needed technical assistance from boxmen, (I still do...all craps dealers do). But among a veteran dealing staff, the boxmen, (nearly all old-timers) were there to make sure nobody was cheating or stealing, keep the game moving and to entertain the troops.
These boxmen all had colorful stories. One started dealing poker in a Runyanesque back-alley casino in New Orleans when he was twelve. Another was treated like a king when he dealt craps in Havana's golden-age before Castro took over. There were stories about prize-fights being fixed, rigged horse races, shaved dice in the military, scamming charitable organizations during casino nights and point shaving schemes in college basketball. One guy even claimed that Elvis gave him two-thousand dollars to take him all over Vegas to teach him to shoot dice. But it was the dullest of them all that I remember most fondly.
Perry Lane, on the verge of retirement, was a hemorrhoid ring toting curmudgeon. UNLIKE THE CURRENT DOS EQUIS TV BEER COMMERCIAL FEATURING, THE MOST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD, PERRY, WAS THE LEAST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD.
Perry Lane was married for forty years, had no children and bragged that he hadn't left Las Vegas in twenty years. While the other boxmen were telling stories about the women they had or the celebrities they hung out with, stone-faced Perry came off like a hard-ass. Actually, he wasn't tough, he just couldn't be bothered. He wanted to sit there quietly or complain. But he understood the true nature of his position. So when the game perked-up, which was nearly all the time, he dropped his low-profile and was an inflexible houseman, (making sure every advantage went to the casino). It was this gruffness and unapproachable facade that made dealers afraid to hustle tokes around him.
Two times I tried to get on his good side by striking up a conversation and both times I failed.
I once said while dealing, "Whoever named the streets where I'm moving must have been a big Superman fan." When he didn't react I continued, "There are four small streets in a row called, Lois Lane, Clark Lane, James Lane and Perry Lane. See that Perry, they named a street after you." He scoffed, "Dummy up and deal."
When I moved into that condo I told him that my girlfriend was going to live with me. He said, "This place, does it have a garage?" I said, "No. But it has a carport." Perry said, "You messed up kid. Where are you gonna hide when your little lady's dander is up?"
Perry didn't like me because I wasn't as polished as the other dealers. He wanted to stare off into space instead of being responsible for me. So on the rare occasion that he spoke, nothing was directly addressed to me. Which was fine because all he did was grouse. He mostly blamed the boxman stools for the pain in his butt. But hardly a night would pass that he didn't mention that his feet needing a good soaking or how annoying it was to correct the kid's (my) mistakes. Also, he apparently used to forget that bell peppers gave him heartburn and when he really got angry, he'd go off on the social security system.
My relationship with Perry changed when a grungy bum who I dubbed Aqualung squeezed into the last spot on my side of the craps table. Aqualung, probably a homeless man, played one dollar at a time in the field. He stunk from putrid body odor and wore a badly blanched, yellow Happy Face tee-shirt. When he lifted his arms, brown veins of filth were etched into his shirt's underarms. The shirt had dozens of small moth holes and a cluster of larger ones around his navel. I couldn't believe the other players weren't offended by him or his aroma.THE ARTIST RENDING OF AQUALUNG FOR JETHRO TULL'S 1971 ALBUM COVER LOOKS LIKE "DAPPER DAN" COMPARED TO THE MAN I WAS DEALING TO. AND...IF YOU HAVEN'T HEARD THIS ROCK-N-ROLL CLASSIC IN A LONG TIME OR LIVE UNDER A ROCK AND NEVER HEARD IT, CLICK ON THIS LINK AND ENJOY. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7-EEGiABBU
Aqualung's long hair was a greasy mess of stringy, matted-down black and gray strands. On his face, a week's worth of stubble couldn't camouflage three open sores. The biggest one, on his left cheek, was a dime-sized, dark red mole that jutted out. It was disgusting to look at it but I found it hard to avoid stealing looks when he started nervously picking at it with his cruddy fingers.
Perry was mumbling about the increased price of avocados when I cut him off, "They should kick that flea out." He yawned, "His money is as good as any ones." Seconds later when Aqualung's pustule started bleeding, a rush of bile erupted into my mouth causing me to whine, "Perry, there's blood all over the chips." He looked over his bifocals and snarled, "Kid, I could go out in the street and in three minutes, find a hundred fellas willing to pay ME, to take YOUR place."
Aqualung lasted about thirty minutes. When he lost his last dollar, I was thrilled. But instead of leaving, our hero reached into his mouth. After struggling for a moment, he pulled something out. At first, I thought it was a tooth. But when it was tossed onto the table, I guessed it was money, all crushed down and chewed?, to the size of a penny.
The bill laid in limbo for several seconds as this saliva-laden orb slowly unraveled. Strings of spit snapped as this nauseating clump morphed into a twenty-dollar bill. I said, "I ain't touching that scummy thing." Perry slapped his left palm on the table with authority twice and bellowed, "Just give it here."
I took two, one-dollar chips and slowly alternated knocking the spit-ball, like a soccer player's dribble. When the players laughed, Perry lost his patience. He pulled the money-drop paddle out and used it to pull the bill closer. It was at this point that he realized how disgusting the situation was. Gingerly, he pinned one edge down with a one-dollar chip and scraped the wet bill flat with the paddle.
When Perry felt that he had proven to the eye-in-the-sky that it was indeed a twenty, he tried to fight off a laugh but couldn't. Perry pointed at this derelict and said, "Give this gentleman twenty-dollars." After he and I shared a grin of validation Perry said, "Kid, you're not so bad, for a slacker." We then buried our "infected" one-dollar chips in the back of the bankroll.
The Aqualung incident took Perry Lane out of his shell. He became an ally to my craps crew (even to me). His greatest act was sharing the valuable information that lead to the conspiracy in my short story, "LAST OF THE GREAT INDEPENDENTS."
About two years later, I did see Chuck Shirts one more time. I was at a red light in front of the Riviera Casino when Chuck's wife and kids pulled up on my left. From the passenger seat, a feeble version of the Chuck I knew, got out in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard and started ranting, waving his fist and cursing our old casino. His girls were all crying as his wife got out and assisted him back into the car.
The gaming industry isn't for everyone. For the craps dealers who have endured the back-stabbers and eluded the dangers of burn-out, the added cushion of a boxman is not a luxury but a necessity. Here in New Jersey where craps games are consistently intense and busy with fast-paced, complicated and high-end action, it is the boxman who usually keep the game from getting out of control. It would seem ludicrous to eliminate the position but some bean counters only look at profits. Their rationale is, everyone else would just have to work harder. But the reality is customer service would suffer, the quality of the fantasy that gambling provides would suffer and players would go somewhere else.
I say, long live the boxman! I applaud your service and sincerely hope that the powers that be, come to their senses and let you continue being the great warriors that you always have been..