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One Time, Dealer: What's It Like Dealing The Circuit?

by Dealer Chick |  Published: Jan 02, 2019

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Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a dealer on the circuit grind? Have a question about behavior, etiquette, or anything else related to running a poker game? Do you want to know what dealers really think about while they’re pitching cards? What it takes to become a dealer? How you should treat dealers? Are dealers people, too?

Send your questions for The Dealer Chick (TDC) to editor@cardplayer.com, and read on for more advice, adventures, and real talk about life on the road for a traveling poker dealer.


Hey Dealer Chick,

Dealing on the circuit must be fun. Meeting famous people, traveling to exotic locations and dealing the big money games, and I bet you make tons of money! Am I right? What’s it like dealing the circuit?

Signed, Stuck in a 9 to 5



Dear Stuck,


At every gig I work I meet someone who has a romanticized preconceived notion about what it’s like being a circuit poker dealer. In truth, the career has its glamorous side. Some dealers get to deal on ESPN, while others get to travel to other countries or deal on cruise ships. We do meet some famous people while dealing, too. But outside of the occasional final table hoopla, or a working cruise vacation, dealing the circuit consists of a lot of paperwork, stacking four-deep in small hotel rooms and bartering for rides to the airport.


Recently, I was sitting in the break room at the casino where I was working a World Series of Poker Circuit stop, when a career grinder was lamenting the loss of the good ole days on the circuit. “We made thirty bucks a down easy, got all expenses paid, got a $15 per diem per day that you could borrow against for up to forty bucks for cigarettes and what not, and the series never hired anyone with less than three years of experience,” he said. “It ain’t that way now, boy, let me tell ya,” he groaned. And he’s right, at least about the last part, I can’t vouch for the rest of it.


What is it like now? It’s five bucks an hour base pay (typically, some stops are higher) plus what is called a “down rate.” For every half an hour — equal to one ‘down’ in the box — the dealer makes a cut of the overall down rate. The down rate consists of the dealer percentage taken from the rake (three percent, a figure that I’m told hasn’t increased in years although all the other charges have for inflation) plus player tips. Dealers want you to play horribly and rebuy tons. Once the rebuy period is over, we want to bust you out as soon as possible so that we can minimize the number of downs making each one worth more. And we would love it if everyone who cashed tipped at least one to two percent, but that’s another article.


So, let’s use some nicely rounded numbers to do some easy math. If three percent of the rake plus tips left by those players that cashed added up to downs that are worth ten bucks each — and you worked ten downs — you made a hundred bucks that day plus your five bucks an hour.


The sticking point is that it may have taken you 16 hours to grind those 10 downs. Dealers must be “in the box” to make money. Sixteen hours at five bucks each, 10 downs at ten bucks each and the take is $180 for the day. Divide that by 16, and you made $11.25 an hour. Admittedly, downs average around $15 each, though I’ve seen them come in as low as $9 each and as high as $22 each.


That’s the income, now let’s look at the major expenses: gas money or plane tickets to get to each gig, hotel rooms, food and licensure for each state. Licensure can run as cheap as $25/year or as expensive as $500/3 years. The annoying thing about licensure is having to fill out a 30-page packet detailing every aspect of your life history for the past 10 years and not finding out until your plane lands that you didn’t get approved for that stop. The perils of licensure are also another article.


Finding decent roommates is another article, trust me. Let’s just say that when your roommate stands at the end of your bed at 5 a.m. in his tighty-whiteys lecturing you about keeping the lights on past 8 p.m. the night before, you realize that not all roommates are created equal. Like waitressing, on a bad day we scrape to get by and on a good day we make bank. In the end, it all averages out to a pay decent enough to keep us coming back. As a house dealer, we would make more guaranteed money, plus benefits. So why travel the circuit?


In a word: Freedom.


A perk on the circuit is working as much or as little as you want. When I started the circuit tour three years ago, I worked six or seven gigs. I was on the road about six months out of the year, not consecutively, and worked a house job in between to pay the bills. I had an apartment to pay for plus road expenses. As I enter my third year dealing, I have lined up work for every month except December. Most gigs are 12 days long, some are three weeks long. My gig in Vegas runs five weeks, but kudos to The Golden Nugget, for offering super cheap room rates to their dealers to entice them to stay on property which in turn makes them available on a moment’s notice when the tourney blows up and they need to open three more tables.


Because I’m still bitter over a nasty run-in with bed bugs at one stop, I have moved into my van. I’m completely mobile while sleeping in my bed. This has been a life-choice that has made traveling the circuit more feasible for me. There are several dealers who don’t have a standard residence. In the week or two between gigs, they camp out with friends, rent AirBnB properties, take advantage of extended stay hotels or just travel.


I have had my toes in the Florida sand on Tuesday and then enjoyed beignets in New Orleans by Thursday. If you play it right, you work as little or as much as you deem necessary, meet tons of great people, work in enough off-time to enjoy the places you go and make decent money. If you can keep expenses low and be disciplined with the money you do make, dealing the circuit is a fun way to make your own schedule, see the country (and maybe the world) and be part of a road family. Occasionally, you might even get to deal a final table under the lights. ♠