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Remembering The Card Artist

On January 1, I’ll have been out of a Nevada business euphemistically called “the gaming industry” for five years. I am not retired, mind you. Today I teach English at Desert Rose Adult High School. But this five-year mark moves me to reflect on how I was ever inspired to become a blackjack dealer in the first place. It’s simple: It was seeing The Card Artist.

It all began in the mid-’60s when I was downtown one night at a previous incarnation of the Golden Nugget, watching a single-deck dealer do his thing on a blackjack table. I had quickly gone belly-up that particular night at the tables, so I strolled around the busy casino, watching the action and the movie-set crowd.

I forget his name-tag name; it’s not important. To me he was a sudden vision, a casino apotheosis that I hadn’t ever achieved gambling. He was young as I was, mid-twenties somewhere. The Card Artist was perfectly groomed, his hair slicked down and shimmering. He wore an expensive white-on-white shirt with monogrammed cuffs. His right pinkie displayed a diamond ring. His watch was thin and gold and win-win. The dealing tie was customized and the apron was Nugget issue. His nails gleamed, manicured to a T.

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And the cards. The way he handled the cards. His shuffle was speedy and proficient as he gripped the front edges of the evenly divided deck with his thumbs and fast-fed them together in an audible ripple. The card cut was presented before the chosen player, performed, stacked and picked up, and the top card flipped to the bottom of the deck faster than an eye could spy. The Card Artist then passed his right hand, palm down, in an arcing, skimming sweep around the table, professionally commanding, “All bets down.”

The delivery blew my mind. Then The Card Artist propelled the cards from his hands like hot-rod birds coming in for a perfect landing in front of each betting base on the blackjack layout.

So it was that Golden Nugget evening where I had busted out as a player myself — but saw the person I wanted to be. It was my career epiphany. The Card Artist ran the game, rode the herd, roped the players into line who weren’t following rules or paying attention or holding up the action, which, of course, in any casino, is the main attraction. As old-timer bosses would say back in that day, The Card Artist got the hands out. He made money for the house and himself, carrying on casual conversation and trading jokes with the gamblers — but he was always in control, always moving the game along.

It would be a few more years before I actually became a dealer myself. I dealt to addicts, degenerates, convention junkies, boxers (Sugar Ray Leonard), quarterbacks (Jim Kelly of the Buffalo Bills), regular joes and schleps and pimps, hookers and lookers, priests and rabbis, bookies and rookies, hecklers and homeless pissing off their last street corner-begged bread, and to off-duty dealers from other clubs trying to catch the impossible run, the incredible streak, the astronomical score that would close the store and, suddenly flush with cash, they could scream “Never more!”

But, intermittently, magic would happen on a game when the cards rounded the bases like beautiful bullets and my schtick made the table players ignite into hilarity — and, momentarily, life’s ingrained vulgarity waned and I was an escape artist like The Card Artist, a stand-up comedian working the audience while they were correspondingly playing with me.

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The Card Artist was my distant muse, my catalyst, my mentor, the roots of my casino rodeo days. The tie he wore that seminal night at the Nugget was one of those two-cord, pull-tight doodads with a glittering golden steer head emblem. When the next dealer came to relieve The Card Artist for his break, The Card Artist meticulously spread the deck like miniature newspapers coming off some phantasmagoric press, clapped his hands and turned them palm up to show he wasn’t squirreling cash, thanked the players, and walked away from the pit with his shirt pocket jammed with tip chips and silver dollars. Watching him do his casino stage exit, I couldn’t help noticing his multicolored alligator cowboy boots, the toes embossed silver, reflecting the blaze of the Golden Nugget chandeliers above.

Mike Newman dealt blackjack for 40 years before becoming an English teacher.