Herald on Sunday
What I learnt from watching gamblers
The brilliant will find their career path indicated by flashing signs and enthusiastic supporters pointing the way.
For the mediocre majority, careers are more likely to be characterised by a foggy series of dead ends interspersed with closed doors.
To get around this, sometimes you need to jump.
Maybe this sounds obvious but there are many, many people who go on for years doing a job that they hate because they are too scared to change.
I was one of them.
I’m not suggesting you should quit as soon as things get a little tricky. Like relationships, no job is constantly wonderful. But if either of them are making you consistently miserable then it’s time to go.
At the age of 23 I had a university degree but absolutely no idea of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life other than ride motorcycles and chase girls. Not ambitions any decent employer was looking for.
Which is how I found myself working in a casino.
Gambling for a living
Casinos are handy employers as you need no qualifications other than not being a criminal. They also provide startling insights into human nature: I have seen what it’s like to lose $600,000 in one night. I have seen a player collapse with a heart attack while his fellow gamblers stepped over his body to continue playing. I have had a middle-aged man next to me reach into his suit pocket, take out an envelope and drop it on the table telling me it was the last money he possessed, which he needed for his mortgage. I told him to pick up the envelope and walk out.
Of course, he didn’t.
Of course, he lost. Everyone loses in the end.
I started as a roulette dealer. The casino trained a bunch of us for a few weeks then sent us down to the gaming floor. It’s intimidating at first, but after a while you can do it drunk. I speak from experience. But once I’d got bored of dealing roulette while drunk I needed a new challenge. I wanted to be a dice dealer.
Dice dealers are the shock troops of the casino world, unflappable and arrogant. The dice table was such a bear pit of noise and testosterone that women were thought too delicate to work the table. For some reason, I desperately wanted to be part of this world and convinced management to train me up.
Dice is hard to learn. The odds are complex, the chip handling is exacting and the game is so fast that a lot of it relies on deciphering bets called with the dice already in the air.
Punter (with a mouth full of sandwich): “Mmmm. Mmmm. Mmmmm!”
Dealer (instantly): “Bet: Twenty seven across, all the hard ways two each, two each crap eleven, ten come, ten odds. 59 dollars.”
As I’m mediocre at mental equations, have two left hands, am introverted and deaf in one ear it would be hard to find anyone less suitable to be a dice dealer. Consequently, I found it trickier to learn than anything in my life. Harder, for example, than analysing political systems, fly fishing in the dark or managing a department full of introverted creatives with superiority complexes.
However, I eventually got the hang of it and after a year or so reached the level of competent mediocrity required to be promoted to inspector: more money, more status, and I got to wear a dinner suit.
But I was still unhappy.
So I jumped.
I saw an ad in the paper one September evening which 35 years later I can still quote: “Dice dealers be in the Bahamas by Christmas”. It didn’t lie.
Two months later I arrived at The Princess Casino in Freeport, Grand Bahama Island, wondering what the hell I’d done.
It may sound strange, but I didn’t particularly want to go to the Bahamas. In London, I had a house, a girlfriend and a great bunch of mates. But I realised that I couldn’t spend eight hours every day doing something that bored me senseless. I reasoned that going to the Bahamas would force me to reboot my life. If I didn’t spend all my money on gold chains and gambling like my colleagues, I would be able to put aside enough to start again.
We worked long hours: six days a week, eight shifts a week with a day off spent mainly sleeping. I particularly loathed working the day shifts in a tropical paradise where anyone sane would be at the beach.
After 18 months, I’d put together a drawer stuffed with enough dollar bills that I could spend the next year doing whatever I wanted.
Which is how I ended up paying my own way through advertising college at the age of 28 and trying to enter an industry which wasn’t remotely interested in whether I got in or not. But I didn’t care. It turns out that being paid nothing to do something that you actually want to do is much more fulfilling than being well paid to do something that you don’t.
I’d jumped sideways, to go backwards.
But now I was inching forwards. A career is a journey not a destination.
Be ready to jump.
● Paul Catmur was a mediocre croupier. He also worked in advertising at a quite good level across NZ, the UK and Australia, including co-founding an agency in Auckland. This is a series of articles about how to make the best out of not being the best.