This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
It all started when my cousin, who worked as a croupier, asked me if I wanted a part-time job. Her dad had been a gambler for years, and had recently decided he wanted to organise his own illegal tournaments. He was looking for hostesses. My uncle is a bit of a shady guy, and definitely looks the part – he's got a big, black moustache and wears big, aviator glasses and a big, shiny watch on his wrist.
I was 19 at the time and very interested in the job – my cousin had mentioned that I could make a lot of money with little effort. I could start right away, after getting a brief training from my uncle. On my first day, I worked as a croupier in a big, luxury beachfront hotel, where I had to open a tournament with a lot of well-known poker players. I immediately made a rookie error by nervously dealing the wrong cards with my sweaty hands. Luckily, the rest of the evening went pretty well.
My uncle also ran his own illegal gambling house for a while. There are quite a few of them here in the Netherlands, and they're all very different. You could spend a night at a gambling house that's basically a shed serving peanuts and beer, or in a penthouse where you're treated to caviar and the company of escorts. So many different characters go to illegal casinos to try their luck – from unhealthy looking, unkempt gambling addicts to classy ladies carrying pugs in their Louis Vuitton bags.
The gambling house where I usually work is a converted warehouse, and it doesn't look like much on the outside. It's mostly frequented by other illegal casino owners, people who run Dutch "coffeeshops" and professional poker players.
Most of the owners of these types of casinos have made their money in a shady way. Often, they're big shots in the criminal underworld – selling drugs or stolen goods in the day, and running their casino on the side. But the people working at these places are usually students trying to make some extra money, like me. I work long shifts, from 7:30 PM to 11.30 AM the next day – earning on average £250 to £450 plus tip, per shift. During my break, when all the guests are completely focused on the game and don't need to be tended to, I just go and study quietly in a corner of the room.
Most of the time I work for my uncle but, when I'm available, I also work for other gambling houses. As a hostess you are, so to speak, property of the house. I do the same job as a waiter – I make sure the ashtrays are empty and their glasses are full. I chat with the guests to make sure they're comfortable and enjoying themselves. I'm also a trained masseuse, so I'll sometimes give massages for €50 (£45). Once, I even arranged an escort for a guest. I never ask customers questions about their private lives, but with some I don't need to. I have a regular guest who's almost 90 years old and has a girlfriend who's younger than myself. He likes to boast about all the sex they are having and about how rich he is, while puffing away on his cigar.
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There are no maximum table-limits, so customers normally spend far more than they would at a legal casino. It's easy to spot a cheater – usually they work in pairs, using subtle signs to communicate throughout the game. If I see that they're trying to beat the house, I'll tell my boss – but only when I'm absolutely sure. It's a very serious accusation.
Illegal casinos attract a lot of severely addicted gamblers with huge debts, who are no longer welcome at regular casinos. The game-master of an illegal gambling house keeps track of who borrows what. If a guest doesn't pay, someone is sent by their place to collect the money. If he still can't pay and threats or violence don't work, the debt collector will take their car or anything of value from their homes.
I try to avoid listening to conversations about criminal activity – the less you know the better – but it's almost impossible to turn your ears off completely. I've overheard guests planning armed robberies, which normally involve stealing large amounts of cocaine.
Fights are also common. Once, while I was working at a poker tournament, a fight broke out after one player called another player's daughter "a slut". There were about a hundred people in the room but nobody did anything to stop the fight. When something like that happens, everybody looks the other way. Everybody except the owner of the house, who often has only one rule – that nobody breaks any property. Players are often most vulnerable after they've won. I was told that one night, after a someone won €20,000 (£17,000), robbers armed with AK-47s drove by and robbed him as he stepped outside the casino.
Once, I went on a date to an illegal casino in Dordrecht, a city in the west of the Netherlands, and the casino was raided by the police. There was total panic – everyone tried to run away. One player was arrested after he jumped out of a window and broke his leg. All the money was seized and everyone was interrogated. As a visitor, you can be fined up to €7,200 (£6,000) for just being there but casino owners are forced to pay as much as that evening's turnover, plus the total table winnings, which on some nights is as high as €500,000 (£430,000).
The worst part of my job is that I sometimes get harassed by customers, and, when I report it, I'm sent away. For the owners, the customer is always right. Once, I was working in the back of a pretty fancy restaurant. You couldn't tell from the front of the place, but the restaurant had an illegal casino in the back where guests would gamble incredible amounts of money. There was this guy there, a pimp, who had been very loud the whole evening and suddenly he started groping me. I told him to get his paws off of me and not only was I fired, but the owner of that place called another casino owner I worked for sometimes, to tell him he should reconsider hiring me for events, because I am not friendly enough.
Having said that, it's a fun job. My boyfriend would rather I quit, but I don't want to. I never have to worry about money. I can go on expensive holidays, get a new car and clothes whenever I feel like it and even buy my boyfriend nice gifts every now and then. And, If we ever start a family, we could really use the money.
The name of the interviewee was changed for privacy reasons.