Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Calling In Stuck

Someone suggested to me the other day that I could write the equivalent of This Bad Day in Yankees History for the Mets, and I could fill the whole volume just with events from 2009, with the 1977 Tom Seaver exile thrown in (as the worst day in franchise history).

That's one way of describing how disastrous this season has been for the Mets. Their big stars and most exciting players have been on the shelf for large chunks of the season, with subpar substitutes filling the lineup most days. It's as if Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado, and the others have been off playing in a parallel universe, stuck in some space-time continuum warp in which they must keep playing, but far from the eyes of the fans on their home planet.

It reminds me of a concept from my poker-industry years, something I believe is unique to poker: calling in stuck. I have to explain a couple of things about how Las Vegas poker rooms did business back in the 1980s. Because a poker room is the only place in the casino where gamblers are not trying to win house money, it fosters procedures and habits you won't find anywhere else in the casino. In poker, you might see eight players at a table but they're playing against each other, trying to win each other's money. The dealer is there only to regulate the game and take the "rake," the percentage of the pot taken by the casino (generally a few dollars per pot).

In most poker rooms in the 1980s, you would be hard-pressed to find a game in which no dealers were playing. Usually this meant off-duty dealers, or dealers from other poker rooms. The fact was that most poker dealers only had their jobs to feed their own playing addiction. Let them make enough dealing to buy into a game where they might win more money, and they were happy. I once worked in a room with 50+ dealers in which only a handful never had trouble paying the rent at the end of the month,. The rest might occasionally have the strength of will to deal five days in a row, but that would only give them a buy-in to a higher-limit game when their weekend arrived. Most dealers played every day--somewhere.

Almost every poker room (and there were 40 or so in the 1980s) allowed their dealers to play. Let me rephrase that. Almost every poker room encouraged their dealers to play, and some even required it. That's right. As part of your five-day work-week, you might be required to play one entire shift. One room where I worked briefly required dealers to play on their Wednesday. Let them deal two days, then make them play (and usually blow off what they made the first two days), then two more dealing days to pump them up for their weekend action.

There are all kinds of insidious implications of this policy (the equivalent of telling a bartender that he has to sit there one day a week and drink for eight hours, paying full prices), but the net effect was to feed the poker room's bottom line. As in show biz, the only good seats in a poker room are those with asses in them, and the casino execs don't care whose asses they are. If it's one of our dealers on a two-day around-the-clock binge, that's fine. Just keep people at the table, because every hand dealt keeps that inexorable flow of a few dollars per pot to the house flowing.

This is what makes poker the most predatory industry in America. It was even more so in the 1980s because of all the pressure on dealers to play. Which brings me back to the notion of calling in stuck. I learned about it at a place called the Bingo Palace (now the Palace Station), which had a dealing crew renowned around town for being the best dealers and the sickest gamblers. That's why only a few could pay the rent. They didn't care. They were in action, every day in every way.

So you'd get a dealer who managed to put in a full shift of work, making $100 or so. After his shift, he might grab a few drinks or smoke some pot, regroup, and find a poker game somewhere. In this case, the game would not be in the cardroom where he worked. He'd get stuck right away, losing half of his $100 buy-in in the first hour. Then it would get worse. Eventually he would go "on tilt," a beautiful phrase describing what happens when a gambler's self-discipline abandons him. Common sense hits the door, bad emotions take over, and no matter how much he loses, his only desire is to stay there stubbornly and try to get even.

After awhile the dealer is stuck a few hundred bucks, but the game is good, with enough live action to give him a mathematical chance to get even. Then he reaches the fail-safe point, at which he needs to get hot in a hurry if he wants to get even before it's time to go back to work. However, luck is not a light switch he can turn on and off, and he stays cold. Suddenly he's due at work in 30 minutes and he's still losing $350. But why would he want to go to work? If he dealt eight hours, he could make that $100 or so--or he could win that much in one or two pots where his ass is currently glued to a chair.

What would he do if he worked at a place like the Bingo Palace? He'd call the shift boss and say, "Listen, I'm over at the Nugget and I'm buried. I can't leave--I haven't slept and I can't work. Do you have somebody who can work for me?" Like most poker rooms, the Bingo Palace had an "extra board," a small corps of reserve dealers who didn't work regular shifts but were available to replace dealers on vacation or out sick. Or calling in stuck. If an extra board dealer could cover your shift, you were free and clear.

Think about that. By being truthful about your degenerate gambling, you had a legitimate excuse for not working. Why did the Bingo Palace--and other poker rooms--foster this system? For one thing, they knew that for every Bingo Palace dealer who got buried in someone else's game, there were several dealers from elsewhere who were stuck and pumping up the games in our room. Dealers playing abroad were good advertising. Our ambassador, by providing hours and hours of lively action and overtipping dealers, would encourage them to come to our place to overplay and overtip. Poker industry money went around and around and around, the same money won and lost and tipped back and forth--except for that three or four bucks per hand going to the house. The Bingo Palace poker proprietors knew that we'd get more than our share of that money. Our main hold'em game went continuously for several years! In the middle of the night, when action in some rooms ground to a halt, people knew there'd be a game going at the Bingo Palace. So having one of our stalwarts throw a party somewhere else once in awhile was no big deal. Just call in stuck, and get someone else to work for you.

That's what the Mets have done this year. The players who were supposed to do the bulk of the heavy lifting--Reyes, Delgado, Beltran, Santana, Maine, Perez--have been elsewhere most of the time, too buried to do anything but huddle against the dark forces where they are. Only a few have even managed to put in token late-season appearances in the Flushing Meadows. Instead, the extra board crew--Angel Pagan, Alex Cora, Anderson Hernandez, Wilson Valdez, Pat Misch, Nelson Figueroa, and way too many others--have been carrying the heavy work load. The results have been ugly. The fans have been stuck, too, watching the wrong players. Many of us have cashed out, reconciling ourselves to this lost season. It's too late to get even. All we can do is call in stuck ourselves, hit the sidelines, wait out the barren winter, and hope the A-team shows up to play next season. What else can we do?

1 comment:

Freddyland said...

You forgot to mention David Wright calling in suck...