Casino Politicale

LAS VEGAS, Nov. 17—The Democratic presidential candidates have just passed through town, and Anthony, perched behind a formidable stack of chips in the Excalibur Casino, couldn’t care less. “In here, there’s no Democrats and Republicans,” he says. “Only blacks, reds, whites, Benjamins and Jeffersons.” It’s 3 o’clock in the morning, and Anthony is rocking a black scoop-neck t-shirt and baggy black pinstripes, and by “Jefferson,” he means a two-dollar bill or a nickel. I don’t ask.

As you might expect in a town that features

mock pirate battles


9-pound burgers

, and

Barry Manilow

, the debate Thursday night at UNLV hardly registered with most casino-goers. If you’re up $900 in craps, or if you’ve just pissed away the rent standing on soft 17s, the question of who will win the state caucuses Jan. 19 doesn’t seem all that pressing. In three nights of gambling, not one of the chip-slingers around me ever brought up the subject.

But that’s just the players—dealers are a different story. So, after hearing CNN’s experts discuss the debate and its aftermath, I decide to consult the best oddsmakers around, the number meisters, the

Charlie Cooks

of the gambling world: Las Vegas blackjack croupiers.

Dealers are by nature a talkative bunch. The best ones can simultaneously fan cards, add and subtract, change money, lend sage advice, and still have enough mental bandwidth to deftly analyze the Barry Bonds indictment. There’s just one problem: They can’t talk politics. Well, they can, but they’re not supposed to. Most casinos discourage discussion of two subjects: politics and religion. (Both topics apparently provoke fights and even the occasional lawsuit.) As a result, dealers are stoic when it comes to matters civic and metaphysical. For them, there is no God but luck, no presidents but the dead ones.

So I’m not surprised when Gregg, a dealer at Excalibur with a penchant for sleight of hand, declines at first to say whom he supports in 2008. The last eight years have been rough, he says, and it will take a long time to right Bush’s wrongs. But who’s the person for the job? “There’s only one choice,” he says. I ask if he means Hillary. He nods, and a five materializes in his hand.

Charlotte, a bottle redhead from Hungary working the graveyard shift at Tropicana, says she doesn’t pay much attention to politics. She wheels the cards around. The blond guy sitting to my left, Devon from California, has 14 showing. He asks Charlotte what he should do. “You can hit, or you can stay” she offers helpfully. “Hit,” he says. Nine: bust. “Fuck!” he says. “No cursing!” Charlotte says. (She isn’t joking, either. A friend of mine was thrown out for swearing the night before.) When I push her for more detail about 2008, she scowls: “Not Bush.” I ask Devon what he thinks of the Democrats. “Hillary, she’s fucking—” “No cursing!”

Things are more civil across the street at the MGM Grand. The dealer, Joyce from China, says she doesn’t care for Rudy Giuliani, but only after I remind her who the GOP candidates are. Joyce hasn’t decided whom she’ll vote for yet, but thinks “probably Hillary.” Same goes for Deanna, a Planet Hollywood dealer whom one tipsy player, Steve, keeps calling “Halle Berry.” (I’m “John Denver,” apparently.) Deanna says she’d support either Hillary or Obama, but prefers the former “because Hillary is the shit.” Pushed to elaborate, she calls the New York senator a “strong woman.” (It suddenly occurs to me that the Planet Hollywood pole dancers, who were gyrating above the tables earlier, have left for the night.) Steve disagrees, and bets me $5,000 that Mitt Romney will win. We shake on it.

I find the first Republican-supporting dealer in the Bellagio. A spiky-haired blond lady named Valerie says she’d pick the “lesser of two evils.” That means “Giuliani, I guess … although I don’t really like any of them.” So what does she like about Giuliani? “Nothing.”

Other dealers seemed disillusioned with politics—a natural response, I think, for someone who gets paid to help Americans hemorrhage money. Sean, a saggy dealer at the Luxor, says he doesn’t vote. It just wouldn’t be responsible: “I might be voting against my own interest and not know it.” It’s the most principled statement I’ve heard all night. Tom, a dealer at New York-New York (but from Chicago), waxes equally bleak. He didn’t vote in the 2004 election. “We have 300 million people in this country, and these are the two I get to choose from?” But this year, he’ll vote for either Hillary or Obama. What with Iraq and health care and the environment, he’s convinced “it will be a Democrat” who wins. So why is it, I ask him, that he’s not supposed to talk about politics? “People get in fights,” he says. “Think about what I was just saying—what if you were a Republican?” I can’t tell if that’s a dig at Republicans or humanity in general.

By the end of the night, it seems to me that Hillary has the Las Vegas dealer vote locked up. And frankly, that’s not a bad group to have. Croupiers might not endorse collectively (Would that make them card-carrying card-carriers?), but, rules against political talk notwithstanding, they’re still remarkably influential. They meet hundreds of Americans passing through the city every day. They chitchat like it’s their job—because it is. And players vest them with absurd amounts of authority, both moral and emotional. (I once saw a man propose to a dealer who had just given him blackjack.) If a campaign wanted to disseminate propaganda nationwide, they might start with the Strip.

That’s not to say Hillary is in the clear. I hear the Bookies’ Association of America, the Meth Lab Technicians United, and the Sex Workers’ Local 116 may still be undecided.