Once, when I was booked for a “fun casino” the other person due to work dropped out at the last minute, leaving the job a dealer short. A “fun casino” if you haven’t come across one, is a casino at a private event – usually a Christmas party – where the “customers” come to the table with fun money. No real cash changes hands, and there’s usually a bottle of bubbly for whoever wins the most chips. The casino dealers tend to be former croupiers who no longer work in casinos, although a few will be doing the job on their night off.
On this occasion, with no time to ring around for another dealer, I roped in my brother, who happened to be staying with me. I had 20 minutes to teach him the game of blackjack and how to deal. “Don’t worry about working out the blackjack payout,” I told him. “Just give the players two cards each, one for yourself, then ask them if they want another card. If they go over 21, take their chips.”
This pretty much sums up my brother’s fast-track training, and he made it through the event without anyone outing him as an imposter. So is it really easy to learn how to play blackjack? Well, the owners of “fun casinos” are increasingly training up their next-door neighbors’ dog and sticking them on the blackjack table instead of employing professional croupiers. But real customers are a different breed to the pissed-up punters at Christmas parties, most of whom have never set foot inside a real casino. And real customers – quite rightly – have much higher expectations.
So while it’s easy to get the gist of blackjack, learning to deal it like a pro takes a lot more work. There are chip handling skills, managing your float, pulling the cards smoothly from the shoe, and positioning them neatly in front of the punter’s box first time (no nudging them into place afterwards)! There’s knowing where to place the cards in the case of multiple splits, and knowing where in the box to position the chips, to indicate whether they’re splits, doubles or the bets of multiple players. There’s learning how to “see” the total sum of the cards, rather than standing there adding them up, and there’s working out how much to pay in the case of blackjack, when the odds are one and a half to one. There’s the dexterity of paying each box with alternate hands, learning to shuffle like a pro, and becoming adept at dealing with tricky customers who are trying to get one over on you.
Some of this will be taught in the training school, and improved on over time - nobody’s perfect when they deal their first game! Other aspects, such as dealing with cheating casino players, can only really come from experience on the casino floor.
The majority of courses (which are usually about six weeks long) will spend the bulk of the time teaching how to play roulette, with just the last week working on blackjack. The advantage of this is that by the time you get to blackjack (a) you’ll already have basic chip handling skills, and (b) it will seem like a doddle after roulette! Seriously, after pushing seven stacks across the table, learning your 17 times table, and doing all sorts of mental arithmetic, you’ll be grateful for a bit of blackjack! It’s also done this way due to a “survival of the fittest” element. My friend Anna explains, “we learned roulette first and they were kicking people off the course along the way. I guess they figured that if someone couldn’t grasp roulette, there was no point in teaching them blackjack!”
Some UK casinos have training schools, where you can earn while you learn. In the meantime, here’s some advice to get ahead of the game:
TIP #1: WORKING OUT BLACKJACK PAYOUTS
The majority of bets on blackjack pay even money, so if a customer has £25 on the box, they’ll win £25 – simple! However, when the customer wins with a blackjack, ie when their first two cards consist of an ace and either a ten or a face card (a Jack, Queen or King) the payout is one and a half to one. So if the customer has £10 on the box, you’d pay £15. This is an easy example. It gets a bit trickier if the customer’s bet is something like £1,375. So to make it easier for yourself, the first thing to do is memorize basic payouts, eg you should know on autopilot that £25 pays £37.50, and £75 pays £112.50, as you’ll see these bets a lot. It’ll also make it easier for you to work out the bigger bets that are a bit trickier.
Everyone has their own way of working, but it tends to consist of having the bet, then adding that on (eg if the bet is £10 and you halve that, you have £5. Add £5 on to £10 and you get the payout of £15) as well as using figures you know from memory. So in the case of £1,375, most dealers would break this down into more manageable amounts, working with even numbers. One way would be breaking it into three parts, eg £1,000 pays £1,500, plus £300 pays £450, plus £75 pays £112.50. Other dealers might break it into two parts. So some might see it as £1,300 pays £1,950, plus £75 pays £112.50. Others might see it as £1,370 pays £2,055, plus £5 pays £7.50. Whichever way you do it, you should get a payout of £2,062.50.
Depending on the casino’s procedures, there may be times when you don’t need to do any maths at all! If the bet consists of an even number of chips, and they’re all of the same value, (eg ten chips at a value of £25 each) you can split the ten chips into two piles of five, and cut into one of the piles three times. So in this case, you’d be paying out £375 for a £250 bet (which is equivalent to paying out £37.50 for £25 bet).
TIP #2: ADDING UP THE CARDS
When I asked my friends what they found trickiest about learning blackjack, adding up the cards came up more than working out blackjack payouts. Dagmara says, “when I first started dealing, a nasty punter made a comment that I should just 'see' what the cards added up to, not stand there counting! I took it to heart because I wanted to look professional!” Kasia says, “when I was learning how to become a blackjack dealer, I was rubbish at adding up. If I went over 21, I just knew it was too many! I struggled to remember that the picture cards are ten, and Aces also gave me problems - I had to kind of imagine whether to use it as 1 or 11!”
Not every land-based and online casino will allow dealers to say “too many” when the cards add up to more than 21. In some, the procedure is always to announce the total, even if the hand’s gone bust – so don’t rely on having this as an easy option! Besides, you’ll get the hang of “seeing” the total. It’s just a case of adding up cards over and over until you see the sum total automatically. Anna says that when she was in the training school, “we’d get a deck of cards and add two cards together. Over and over. Just adding six and seven, or eight and six, or eight and seven and so on. That really helped.” This can easily be done at home, holding a deck of cards and turning over two at a time.
TIP #3: PULLING THE CARDS
On the blackjack table, you’ll pull the cards from a shoe on your left, before passing them out with your right hand. Richard remembers, “the trainer would put a pencil in your left hand to make sure you pulled the cards with only your thumb and index finger. Holding the pencil kept your hand gripped tight, so it stopped your other fingers from getting involved.”
Ultimately, it’s about precision, as you need to lay the cards down neatly first time – there shouldn’t be any fussing with them once they’re on the table! It’s also about style and dealing smoothly. Chloe says that as an inspector, her number one bugbear when watching blackjack is: “When people practically punch the table when they pull the cards out!”
TIP #4: FLOAT MANAGEMENT
The float will have a certain number of cash chips at each value, and it’s your job to keep the majority of them in the float, rather than letting the customers collect them. Richard explains, “When you first start dealing, you give out all your chips and ask for a fill to replace them, but a good pit boss knows when to say no and they’ll tell you to manage your float!”
So if you’re running short of £25 chips, and a customer has a winning bet of £375, you could pay out four chips at £100, and take £25 from the customer’s bet. Similarly, if you’re running short of £5 chips and a customer has £25 on the box in fives, you could pay him two chips at £25, and take back all the fives. You can also ask the customers to colour-up their chips (ie swap them for chips of a higher value) – and sometimes they’ll offer, but many customers are superstitious and want to hold onto the chips they see as lucky. They may even insist on being paid out in chips of the same value, even when the float is empty - at this point, you’ll have to ask the pit boss for a fill!
TIP #5: MIND THE BOXES
In the training school, you’ll practice by dealing to every box on the blackjack table. Don’t do this in the casino or you’ll give your inspector a coronary! Barbs says: “I remember watching a trainee deal to empty boxes. I levitated from the chair screaming “STOP!” They'd been so used to dealing to all the boxes in training, they’d done it on autopilot!”
TIP #6: DON'T ACT LIKE A ROOKIE
Ever heard of the trainee decorator who was sent to buy a tin of tartan paint? The casino equivalent is being told to go and chip up on blackjack – don’t fall for it!
TIP #7: THERE'S A HOLE AT THE TABLE, AND IT'S NOT FOR YOU
You may see a rectangular hole in the blackjack table – this is for the chip tray! This may sound obvious but Mark remembers, “one of the guys on my training school climbed into where the chip tray was meant to go and wondered how ‘heftier’ folk could deal the game!” And Aga says, “when I was training, someone asked why there was a hole in the table, so we told him it’s where the dealer goes and he assumed the position!”
TIP #8: PERFECT YOUR POSTURE!
Anna says, “working in different clubs over the years, I was praised for dealing elegantly, and I think that’s thanks to my posture. She explains: “press your hip against the table - one leg forward, one leg back. Keep your back straight - no hunching.”
TIP #9: IN LONDON, NEVER CALL THE CUTTING CARD A "POSTILION"
“Never call the cutting card a ‘postilion,’” says Mark. “Even at the poshest casino, they’ll laugh at you until their jaws ache!” Unfortunately, Mark is speaking from experience. Having trained in Glasgow, where the term ‘postilion’ was interchangeable with ‘cutting card’ he learned very quickly that no one calls it that in London!
TIP #10: USE YOUR TRAINING AS A PLATFORM TO DEVELOP YOUR OWN STYLE
Watch and Learn. Nick, who ran his own training school, says, “One thing I always told my trainees is, don’t assume I’m the best blackjack dealer just because I say so. Watch other dealers and decide for yourself. Ask experienced dealers who they think’s best, then study their technique. Work out why they’re good – then improve on it!”
TIP #11: THINK TWICE WHEN THE PLAYER ASKS YOU TO HIT HIM
Customers will sometimes say “hit me” when they want a card. Mark says, “try to resist the urge to actually hit the punter…” (Trust me, we’ve all wanted to sometimes along the way).
TIP #12: NEW CARDS CAN CAUSE NEW TROUBLES
Hold tight! Richard says, “the worst thing is when you have eight decks of brand new cards, and you have that Mission Impossible moment of getting them into the shoe without spraying them everywhere – commonly known as 416 card pick up!” To avoid this, Richard says, “grip tightly like your life depends on it! And make sure they’re perfectly level at every side. One rogue card sticking out could spell disaster!
TIP #13: EXTRA WORK WILL DO WONDERS
For a faultless shuffle, practise at home – on your ironing board! Mark says, “if you play poker then you pretty much know how to shuffle with one deck. If you practise on your ironing board, you’ll get used to the height you’ll be working at!”
TIP #14: MISTAKES WILL HAPPEN. LEARN FROM THEM
“Concentrate solely on technique,” says Nick. “Mistakes are expected, so go slowly and don’t worry about them.”