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One Time, Dealer: Let’s Get Physical

by Dealer Chick |  Published: Dec 04, 2019


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, and read on for more advice, adventures, and real talk about life on the road for a traveling poker dealer.

Hi Dealer Chick,

What are the physical risks of dealing? How does your back feel after a long shift? Do you have any trouble with your hands or other joints? What about second hand smoke or damage to your ears from the constant ring of slot machines?

— Signed,

I’m Not A Doctor, But I Play One On TV

Dear Doogie Howser,

Poker dealers are a whiny bunch. They complain when they get little work, they complain when they get overworked, they complain when they get free food, they complain when dinner comes with minimal costs, they complain when their chairs don’t elevate, or when they elevate too much, they complain when it’s too hot, too cold, too long of a walk to the poker room from the break room, etc. You name it, they’ll complain about it.

In short, they’re like poker players, but in uniform.

But when it comes to the physical tolls that dealing poker takes on your body, they’re not entirely wrong. I have a friend who runs a poker room who likes to say this go-to phrase when his dealers start their complain campaigns: “Hey, it’s not digging ditches!”

I’ve never dug a ditch, or even a hole deep enough to bury anything larger than a hamster (you were a great pet, Scampi), but I imagine that digging ditches sucks. However, I’ve always thought that his comparison was a bit unfair. So, in answer to your questions, allow me to whine a bit on behalf of all dealers.

Physically, poker dealers have it easy on the surface. Yes, we get to sit on our butts while we work in a climate-controlled environment. Yes, we get a lot of down time in the form of breaks, dead spreads (the term used to indicate a table set-up for a game, but not yet in play) and even the long moments we can let our minds wander while a player tanks before making a bad call. All of these things give us some mental or physical breaks in our routine. But that’s not to say that just because we’re not digging ditches under a hot sun, that we’re not putting stress on our bodies.

The climate-controlled environment we “enjoy” is usually a room so damn cold it’s a wonder we can’t see our breath when we exhale ever-so-slightly in annoyance at players. Sure, it’s nice to not be dealing in the blistering heat with the sun scorching our backs (seriously, digging ditches sounds awful), but it’s a form of suffering all the same. I wish I could say it was the worst we had to endure.

The stress on our backs is, at times, almost unbearable after a long shift. And please note, when I refer to a shift being long, I’m talking ten hours or more often without more than a potty break along the way. My longest run dealing was what we in the industry would call a “24 ball.”

Let me explain. A poker dealer deals by downs. A “down” is the half-hour stretch of time that they’re dealing at a specific table. If they deal two downs before going on break, that is called a “two ball.” If they deal four downs between breaks, that would be a “four ball,” etc.

I dealt a 24 ball, with the first 12 of those downs occurring on the same table because we were locked-in (meaning there was no relief dealer at the ready to “push” us to the next table). Players went to dinner, came back, and politely inquired as to what I had eaten for dinner. “A cough drop,” I replied. A 12-hour stint dealing, during the first six hours of which I wasn’t even allowed an opportunity to stand, stretch and walk to the next table, and all I had consumed was a Halls cherry-flavored candy masquerading as a cough drop.

Growling tummy aside, my neck, shoulders and back were almost locked-up from the constant stretching across the table to retrieve chips and cards. And before you think it, no, dealing 12 hours straight is not that uncommon, especially on the circuit.

If the pain radiating down your spine isn’t enough to make you wince, the red-hot sensation that shoots from your elbow to your wrist might be enough to do it. Or perhaps the never-ending throbbing in your finger joints from constant shuffling? My hands, or fingers specifically, ache all the time. They hurt when I go to bed, they hurt when I wake up, they hurt as I type this, they just plain hurt. I’m no doctor either, but I’m guessing the swelling in my hands is partly to blame.

After a long shift of dealing, my back is stuck in a permanent half-slouch, the muscles running from my shoulders to my neck are as hard as granite, my knees, ankles, wrists, hands and feet? All swollen. Either from constant use, or the dangling of my lower limbs because I’ve had to elevate my chair so high to be able to reach the chips in front of players that I cannot touch the ground. I don’t have Go-Go Gadget arms, or Kawhi Leonard’s wing span.

Thankfully, on the circuit we don’t experience much in the way of second hand smoke or the constant ring of slot machines. We are usually tucked away in a quiet area of the casino normally reserved for special events. Although, I remember many nights as a house dealer when the ding-ding-ding of a slot machine followed by a woman’s 1-900 voice echoing the phrase, “Lucky Hearts!” rang out in my head long after my shift was over.

Still, dealing poker is not digging ditches. But digging ditches is not working as a nurse in a busy emergency room, either. And nursing is not trying to teach 120 fourth graders how to read. And teaching is not wielding a tray laden down with plates full of food through a crowded restaurant at lunch time.

I’m not getting ready to go ditch digging, but I doubt there are too many ditch diggers who would look forward to being berated by a player who just lost his whole bankroll on a one-outer. Point being, every job has its pros and cons, its stressors both mentally and physically. Regardless of which job you’re doing, when you’ve been doing it all day, eventually the grind gets to you. ♠