Breaking in and Learning to Steal

July 5, 2011 § 9 Comments

I moved to Las Vegas when I was 22.  I wanted to be a dealer and to enjoy the nightlife of Vegas, the party life.  Vegas was small back then, a population of 50,000.  The year was 1962.

I began as a break-in-dealer and part time shill.  Back in those days there were shills for the games.  Shill is an old term and the shills in Vegas of old could have just as easily been called “game starters,” as that’s what they really were.  They were mostly old men, some women, who were retired and earned a small wage and a meal.

The young shills were people like me who were willing to work as a shill in order to learn to be a dealer.

When a game was dead, no players, a shill would sit down at a blackjack game, for example, and the dealer would hand ten one-dollar chips to the shill.  The shill would bet only one dollar at a time following specific rules and never busting a hand.  If a real player came to the game, the dealer made the decision whether or not to take the shill out of the game.  If the real player asked for the shill to stay in the game, the dealer would oblige the player.  The shill could let the real player see their hand and most players like that, as they felt they could make better decisions if they could see more cards.  If another player or two sat down the dealer would then take the shill out of the game, taking back the one-dollar chips, dismissing the shill.

In those early days one did not go to a school for dealers.  I remember there was one such school at the time, but did not know one dealer who went to a dealing school. We all learned the same way, becoming shills and break-ins first.

A young person would go to work as a shill with the agreement that the casino bosses would break in the shill to be a dealer.  The journeyman dealers would teach a young shill, such as myself, how to shuffle cards, deal craps or roulette.

After sufficient practice at home shuffling cards and pitching them and if there was a dead game on a slow night at the casino, the dealer would trade places with the shill/break-in-dealer, sitting at the game playing hands.  The shill would now be the break-in-dealer, but dealing only to the dealer who was training him.  I say “him,” as back in those days there were no female dealers in Vegas.  The dealer sitting in the shill position would play several hands, splitting hands, doubling down . . . so the break-in would have some practice.

If a player came along and sat down the dealer would quickly switch places with the break-in who was dealing.  When the break-in reached a certain level of efficiency, the dealer would remain playing the shill role, allowing the break-in to deal to the “live” action of one player.  Of course the dealer watched closely.  Many players seemed to enjoy being in on the process.  Many did not, as the break-in was too slow and would want the real dealer to deal.

My first night of being an actual dealer came as a surprise.  It was a Friday night and one of the regular 21 dealers had not shown up for his shift.  I heard a floorman tell the shift boss that this dealer was drunk again and had called in.

The shift boss beckoned to me and told me I was dealing 21 that night.

“But I’m not ready yet,” I said.

“Just get in there, you’ll be okay,” he said.

“But . . . “

“Just get in there—now.  The floorman will help you, the players will help you.”

This was a weekend night and the minimum bet was two dollars.  They put me on a back game and my hands were trembling.  I was dealing to a full game.  In my mind I was not ready.

This was a casino for locals, The El Cortez, which was located downtown.  The players had a good time coaxing me along, correcting me when I made a mistake even if it benefited them.  I was a baby faced 22 year old and they were all older, probably 40 or more.

After a few hours I had gained confidence.  At the end of the shift I wanted to deal every night, but I had to wait until somebody quit or was fired.  In another month I was promoted to a dealer position, but at a much lower wage than a full-fledged dealer.  The shift boss would give break-ins a raise every couple of months as he improved.

After a few months I applied at another casino where the tokes (tips) were better because of the better clientele.

This is when I began learning about stealing.  Other dealers who had agents broke me in to working with agents.  An “agent” is a player who sits at the game and works with the dealer, the dealer “shoving” chips off to him or her.  There are various ways to do this.  This casino did not have an eye-in-the sky so the simplest thing to do was just pay the player, win or lose.  It was referred to as “paying in the blind.”

In those days, 21 dealers didn’t leave the cards on the layout–the table top–until they were through paying winning hands and taking chips from the losing hands and then picking up the cards after everybody’s bet had been attended to.  This method was referred to as “leaving them lay” and is to this day the way it is done.

Until “leaving them lay” became mandatory, the 21 dealers did what was called “Pick and pay,” which was a method of picking up the cards as soon as the dealer paid or took the chips from the individual hands that had been dealt.  As soon as each individual bet was attended to, the dealer picked up the cards.

This method was to ensure that the dealer had a better chance of keeping control of all the cards so none would go missing.

The flaw in “pick and pay” was that a dealer could pick up the hand of an agent, not letting the other players see the hand and then pay off their agents bet if they lost.  If the agent really had a winning hand then the dealer would expose the agent’s cards for all to see.

This is how I began shoving money off to agents, “paying in the blind.”

My first agent was a very attractive young woman in her mid 20s.  She used to come into the casino and to the table I was dealing on, wearing hair curlers, a scarf over the curlers, frumpy clothes, and sunglasses, no makeup.  She dressed like this to keep the floormen from hitting on her.  If they did talk to her she would behave in an unfriendly manner, but not rude.  We had hand signals worked out that told me if the floorman was watching or looking the other way.  If the floorman was watching, naturally I took care of her hand properly.

She had a boyfriend who worked in another casino.  We made a deal.  On my day off, I would go the casino in which her boyfriend worked and be his agent.

This is how it all began.


§ 9 Responses to Breaking in and Learning to Steal

  • Dan says:

    I started dealing 21 in Vegas at about the same time as the blogger. I also started by learning from dealers and from working as a shill. However, I started in a downtown joint called the Nevada Club, where they had tables where you could bet a minimum of 25 cents. A blackjack paid 37 1/2 cents! You would pay the player 25 cents, put a 25-cent chip in front of the player, then the winner of the next hand, player or dealer, would scoop up the extra chip. The players at the
    25-cent tables were mostly retirees, many old ladies, and a lot of them cheated like crazy! One old lady (I remember her name was Ruby) would keep a chip in the palm of her hand, and if she got a 20 or a blackjack, would reach over her bet and drop the cards in front of the bet while simultaneously dropping her palmed chip on top of her original bet. She actually fooled me a few times at first, but I soon learned to identify this ploy and other ways the oldsters would attempt to cheat and it was a great way to learn.

    I also remember that the Sahara Hotel was the tallest building in town at the time (1961-62) and there was a huge sign on top that would constantly tell the time and the temperature. And the blogger was right about there only being 50,000 residents at the time. You could drive down the Strip at any time of the day or night and never get in a traffic jam. And there were vast swaths of desert between many of the Strip hotels, all built up now. Ah, those were the days. More reminiscing soon. Great blog. Keep it going, blogger.

  • Jane says:

    You are really bring me back to the old days. I remember the 21 dealers all breaking in at the El Cortez, wanting to become real dealers, and making those big tips, but before that happened they worked for basically,nothing. El Cortez, had great discounts on restaurant food, which would attract many locals. I hated the way the hotel smelled. No fresh air, and full of cigarette smoke. But you had to go there to become a Vegas dealer. And also, so true, there were no freeways at that time, for when I finally got my drivers license at 16 years old, and drove to L.A. I was amazed. After that, the first overpass starting at Sahara happened, and that was the beginning of the growth of Las Vegas. I use to drive to Decatur Blvd, and think OMG this is such a long drive. Boy,you are bringing back the old days of Las Vegas.

  • Dan says:

    Everybody smoked then, including me. Every 45 minutes, I’d take a break from dealing to a table full of smokers so I could go have a smoke! After not too long a while, I got a job dealing 21 at the Silver Slipper, a small casino on the Strip across from the Desert Inn and next door to the Stardust. The Slipper looked like an old Western saloon and had a short Western street built adjacent to it. I recall Elvis and Ann-Margaret filming a scene there for the movie “Viva Las Vegas!” And was the place mob-owned? Well, the General Manager of the joint was a guy named Tony Canino. Canino was a very cool, hawk-faced guy who had his shoes custom-made to match his custom-made suits. He owned horses, and when he would stop in for an hour on one of his days off, you could see that even his cowboy shirt, Levis, and boots were custom-made. My shift boss was a guy named Tony Pazulla. Enough said. And the pit boss was just known as “The General.” More about him in a future post.

    • Andy Weise says:

      Tony Canino is my grandpa. definitely the coolest guy ever! please contact me (Dan)

    • catmiller says:

      Dan or other, Did you know Robert Schulze who was major stockholder/owner of Silver Slipper? And/or Haydn Broughton who was involved with him with Silver Slipper records in Los Angeles? I would like to talk with someone who knew these people.

      • Catmiller,

        I did not know Robert Schultze or Hadyn Broughton. I knew Tony Canino on a very casual basis to say hello. He probably didn’t remember my name. Tony Canino’s grandson did contact me when I originally wrote the story. I’d have to go back and see what I wrote, as I don’t remember. Andy’s e-mail is/was: He might have some information.
        Good luck.


  • Great stuff! Fun to read about the classic days, how Vegas was built.

  • Dan says:

    The General. Tall enough to be dangerous, square shoulders, no neck,
    full head of gray hair stopping just short of his bushy eyebrows, a large gut hanging over his belt, a big smile for everyone, a “dese,” “dem” and “dose vocabulary, yet a hint of danger behind his eyes. Even in his 70s, a guy you would want on your side in a ruckus. He was the pit boss on the swing shift (8:00 p.m. till 4:00 a.m.) at the Silver Slipper. Well, he was in the pit, but there was someone else there to really watch the action. The General mostly just glad-handed the customers, especially the high rollers, and kept the free drinks flowing. We young guys (I was 22-23) used to hang with him at the casino bar after work some mornings, and he would tell raucous stories about the Old Days, the pre-Vegas days. We slowly came to realize that his current job was payment for many years of loyal service to the old Mob. I remember he once said that when the Mob had casinos just across the Mexican border, customers never really got lucky. Most of the time a dealer coming off the deck with seconds, or a pair of dice that didn’t quite fall the way they were supposed to, guaranteed that the money that entered Mexico stayed in Mexico. However, on occasion a patron would somehow win a considerable amount of cash and head back toward the U.S. The General said it was his job to make sure the customer didn’t get to the border with it.

  • Dan:
    That’s a great story.


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