Thursday, October 24, 2019

Let's talk about dealers

“Be your own boss”

That’s probably the phrase I heard the most often in my first few years in the workforce. In mid eighties Ireland, the new icon was the entrepreneur, and the new sinners were those who were happy to remain in safe employment kowtowing to a corporate boss. They were written off as stick in the muds who lacked ambition, unimaginative worker bees who would never amount to anything. 

After I took the bait and went out on my own, a different phrase started to loom larger. 

“The customer is always right”

The reality of being your own boss is that you usually aren’t. You just replace one boss with whatever number of clients or customers you pick up when you go it alone. As a freelancer (which is the right word for most people who called themselves entrepreneurs), you usually lose the right to say no to your bosses, the right to point out that what’s being demanded is unreasonable or can’t be done between the hours of nine to five, and many other rights an employee takes for granted. You also lose the security which allows you to be a squeaky wheel. As a freelancer, nothing is guaranteed, and a whispering campaign that you are unreliable, difficult to work with or a troublemaker can effectively end your career. 

Poker dealers who work on the live circuit are all freelancers. That means when they’re mistreated they generally feel they can’t complain in public, for fear the phone stops ringing. Good poker dealers are central to the live poker experience. There are places I won’t play because I’m not confident the dealers will be good. 

In Malta recently I was playing a side event when a top dealer I know came to the table. He was visibly upset. He explained that a decision had been made by the organisers that all the dealers in the Ladies side event which was about to start would be male, and topless. He wasn’t lying: a few minutes later what looked like a Chippendale troupe marched through the centre of the room to take their positions as dealers in the Ladies event. I watched aghast wondering what type of idiot could possibly think this was a good idea.

A female friend of mine pointed out that in the era of social media, the humiliation of the dealers was further compounded by photos being tweeted of topless dealers in which they were clearly recognizable (which is why I have blacked out the face of the dealer in the photo above).

By the time I had bagged and walked down to the players party, it was all kicking off on Twitter, spearheaded by leading Ladies poker ambassador Daiva Byrne:

The sponsors MPN head of live events, Clodagh Hansen, agreed.

After reportedly doubling down in the face of mounting criticism (when Clodagh raised the red flag that this decision which the sponsors had not been warned about in advance was not playing well, the official response from the relevant male casino employee she spoke to was “Your opinion does not matter. I know what women want”), common sense eventually prevailed and the dealers were told to put their shirts back on. Some people seemed to struggle to understand why not just the dealers might find this stunt offensive but also the ladies playing the event, and following it all over the world. Rather than attempt to mansplain it to you, I’ll leave it to Daiva to explain:

“The fact that someone thought this was a good idea is crazy. The entire situation was awkward for all involved, not least because it was demeaning for the players and the dealers. That this even happened is frankly shocking. I’ve spent the last few years trying to grow the women’s game and this just seems a huge step backwards.”

To be fair to the organisers, they did eventually put out an expression of regret and an apology of sorts alongside a pledge to donate the rake from the event to charity. However, I spoke to a number of dealers I’m friendly with in subsequent days. It turns out that this was really only the tip of the iceberg as far as dealer mistreatment goes. Several female dealers complained to me that there were routinely propositioned, asked for lap dances or offered money to take their clothes off by players, and there seemed to be a culture of tolerance when it came to sexual harassment from those in authority. Sadly this is a common blot on the poker landscape, but according to the accounts I heard reached record levels in Malta. I should point out that I personally didn’t witness any of this behaviour at the table, and if I had I would immediately have objected, as I think any male who holds himself to any modicum of decency would. 

Every dealer I spoke to said the accommodation they were provided with was filthy and squalid. One provided disgusting pictorial evidence I’ll spare your eyes having to view. Another told me her room was overrun with cockroaches, and she found one on her toothbrush that morning. 

I had dinner with Clodagh on the last night and we talked about all these issues. She was horrified and said the nobody at MPN knew about the dealer conditions until I told her, and she would have tried to do something about them if she could.

Another dealer I spoke to outlined a list of complaints (these are direct quotes):

“The dancing idea came from them 36 hours before and we was told we have to do it even though the conditions of work didn’t include dancing. They hired a load of local dealers who earn only €6-7 back at home so offering €50 to become topless is borderline prostitution.

Food was terrible it was just simple pasta every day for 7 days.

Bed bugs have bitten me and my girlfriend all over. It was the worst event I have worked in 10 years of dealing. 

Equality in the workplace almost doesn’t exist. Very rare would you see a guy on payouts or feature table.

I became a dealer to learn the game as I was too poor to have coaching. But I never see any important action anymore. They decided they want every pretty female dealing the main day 2 and onwards.

I love poker but sadly I won’t be at many more events soon if it carries on like this and the standard for players will drop. 

I predict in 1-2 years it will be a nightmare to play live events”

Another dealer chimed in:

"9 out of 10 dealers had to share a room and sometimes bed with another dealer they didn't know"

I’m lucky enough to be friends with lots of the best dealers. I have incredible admiration for the amazing job they do in the most trying conditions, often working long antisocial hours in very sub optimal conditions. if you don’t get how crucial dealers are to the whole live poker experience, go to an event where the dealers are bad some time. Believe me when I say you won’t want to go back. 

Because they are freelancers who need the phone to keep ringing to continue their livelihood, dealers don’t feel they have the luxury of being able to come forward and publicly complain when they’re mistreated. The onus therefore falls on us, the players, to speak out when we see dealers being mistreated, not just because it’s the right thing, but because it’s very much in our own self interest. I worked in companies that mistreated their employees. The result was always the same: the brightest and the best inevitably left, leaving only the most incompetent and desperate. 

Tournament organisers may feel they can get away with mistreating their dealers, and they may be right in the short term, but in the long term everyone in live poker will suffer. If they do feel they can rely on the public silence of the freelance dealer who needs the phone to keep ringing, there’s an obvious override, and that’s for players to speak out on their behalf. Remember that in live poker, it is the player who is the customer. And the customer is always right.



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