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Drugs, Crime, and Superstition: Welcome to Lunar New Year at an Australian Casino

It's the period in which many casinos make the bulk of their year's earnings.

by Rhi Holmes
05 February 2019, 5:54am

Image via Shutterstock

I used to work at a casino. I can’t say which one because they made me sign a hardcore non-disclosure agreement, but I will say it was one of Australia’s largest. I was a croupier there, which is a fancy way of saying “card dealer,” and I did the job for about three years. While it was generally a tough job, its toughness spiked every year in February for one particular reason: Lunar New Year.

The first eight days of Lunar New Year are usually dead as people clean their homes and welcome family in from around the world. But the next 11 days that form “Spring Festival” see casinos get busy. At that point punters arrive in their thousands; fully cashed up, liquored, and ready to wager their prosperity and good fortune on the tables.

For croupiers, the job doesn’t change, but there’s suddenly a lot more overtime on offer; especially if you’re considered a “lucky” dealer on games that are popular in Chinese culture such as Baccarat, Texas Hold Em Poker, or Roulette. If that’s the case there’s just no way you’re going home on time.

As a general observation, croupiers pay out more during the Spring Festival part of Lunar New Year. More, but not significantly so, because the house always wins. In fact, we used to often get told that the casino made the bulk of their year's profit in just 11 days of the New Year.

Most of that big money isn’t received on the public gaming floor, but gets funnelled in via the private salons which are empty most of the year, only to become packed out 24-hours a day for the duration of Lunar New Year. And at a minimum bet of a $100K a hand, salon players come loaded with expectations, and do everything they can do swing the universe in their favour.

Here's how that usually breaks down:

Superstitions

It really can’t be overstated the role superstition plays during Lunar New Year. Punters will often mumble prayers at the tables and attempt to rub dealers’ hands for luck. Piles of candy and tobacco get thrown under the tables as offerings and there’s an absolute moratorium on people betting on (or even mentioning) the numbers 4, 13, or 14. In the hotels those floors and rooms don’t even exist.

Players on higher limit tables can request specific dealers—the criteria usually being they speak Chinese and come from the same region as the players. It’s also not uncommon for punters to quietly request a pregnant dealer, who are again perceived to be lucky.

On the topic of luck, an ex-croupier named John once told me about a guy he called “the pineapple man” who was known for his beefy sidekick who’d rush ahead into rooms, just to place a pineapple—as in the tropical fruit—on the left-hand corner of the table for luck. Yes, there’s a guy who has that job.

Stacey, a current dealer, told me that a colleague of hers was once requested to a salon simply because a woman asked for a croupier who’d been born in 1988. Another year a pregnant dealer was expected to stay on the Baccarat table for 12 hours without a break. Apparently her unborn baby had manifested a winning streak.

Stacey told me that as a white female she often gets overlooked to deal games during Lunar New Year. In fact, if the players don’t like her after a few hands, they usually request a new dealer who speaks Chinese. She says she once coughed during a game and a player questioned why she’d coughed, then preceded to blame her for their losses.

Perks

As you can imagine, Lunar New Year is peak season for the casino’s extravagant and morally dubious system of perks. Players who spend big get free accommodation in the casino’s mansions, a chef on standby, a pickup service in the casino yacht, all you can drink alcohol, and tobacco from places you’ve never heard of, as well as “female entertainment” provided on the sly.

One former employee and good friend of mine, Ashley, remembers a Lunar New Year in which a punter decided they wanted a pool party. Ashley’s boss then asked her and a few other female croupiers to put on bikinis and hang by the pool for double-time pay and reassurance that security wouldn’t let them get touched.

John says “pineapple man” used to have his favourite pizza flown in via helicopter because the pizza place was too far away for it to be driven, and he hated receiving cold pizza.

For punters, another perk of spending millions is they get to behave pretty much however they want. Some scream insults and spit at croupiers, with zero consideration for the fact that casino workers are just human—and in many cases are humans who’ve been specially requested by other players for their supposed “good luck.”

Really, working as a croupier over Lunar New Year can be nothing short of traumatic.

Drugs and Crime

Players who run out of money don’t stop being players—they just seek out loan shark money to keep going. Every Lunar New Year begins with the appearance of the casino’s loan master. He’s well known to the people and identifiable by a large side bag inside which he keeps a few hundred thousand in cash, ready to dish out. All you need for a loan is a name and an address.

The guy’s trade is unquestionably dodgy, but probably not as outright illegal as the flow of cocaine. It doesn’t necessarily get used for fun either, but just so people can stay awake. As punters in the high stakes rooms often gamble for 24-48 hours straight before security will suggest a break, the little zip lock baggies are the only thing keeping them upright.

Ashley told me about one New Year in which she’d been dealing Baccarat to a punter for six hours when he offered her a bump from his untrimmed fingernail. Long fingernails on pinkies are good luck symbols apparently, but they also come in handy.

But the Times Seem to Be Changing...

The consensus from the croupiers I’ve spoken to is that in recent years Lunar New Year has slowed right down. Some of them suggest punters are increasingly choosing to spend Lunar New Year at casinos with looser regulations in places like Macau. Whatever the reason, there is still a team of croupiers who are right now preparing to face the onslaught that is Lunar New Year at Australia’s various casinos.