Land of a very good dealJEONGSEON, Gangwon
This is a mining town that ran out of luck. Fifty years ago people moved here to rip into the earth to dig out the coal used by the furnaces that lighted Korea’s road to an industrial economy. Residents of this area remain close to the earth, but now that intimacy mostly produces an offspring of a different sort for the fire: potatoes.
Despite the decline, many people brave the steep winding roads and the snow in the winter and the rain in the summer to get here, hoping that their own luck will be better than that of this hamlet, located in one of the most depressed parts of this province. Like Jang Ok-bun, most of those who come are city folks, a reverse migration, although usually for only a temporary stay. So far Ms. Jang’s luck has been pretty good. She gambled and won. Actually, she would not describe herself as a gambler, but she is deeply embedded in a world of chance. Ms. Jang is a dealer at Kangwon Land Resort & Casino, one of the revitalization projects for this area.
When she started her career in 1973 at the Walker Hill Hotel in Seoul, Ms. Jang thought that being a dealer meant that she simply provided customers with decks of cards. At that time in Korea, gambling was frowned upon. In rural areas, playing cards was regarded as a sure way to a bad harvest. The fact that Ms. Jang is a woman did not help allay criticism of her choice of jobs; it made things even worse.
The change in perception of the gaming industry that has taken place in Korea over the last three decades is underscored by the large number of people waiting for a chance to become a dealer. Television dramas have glamorized casinos and the gambling culture in general.
Equally as telling of the popularity of gambling are the long lines pressing toward the entrance of Kangwon Land, the largest of Korea’s 13 casinos. Customers queue at its gates eight hours before the 10 a.m. opening with an enthusiasm that the faithful might hold for the portals of heaven. Inside the cavernous hall with its incessant bombination, 740 dealers represent the house in various card games, including blackjack and baccarat.
This morning seven dealers, among them the pit boss, Kho Jae-jin, who has been a dealer for 14 years, gather around a blackjack table, pull out 1 million won ($849) worth of chips and start a game to hone their skills and have a little bit of fun. Supposedly blackjack is the game that offers the best odds of winning. The dealers say luck helps, of course, but skill tips the scales. They shuffle the deck with the skill of a chef slicing vegetables; ten games take only about 15 minutes. But the dealers say like any other occupation, meeting their job description does not mean they are the best at what they do.
“If that were the case, then all dealers should have become gamblers,” says one of the dealers who has just lost a hand. After an hour of cardplaying marked by intense concentration and relaxing frivolity, they break to go to work.
Besides the crowds of playing customers there are regulars who have found a way to derive from what goes on at the tables. People betting on another player’s hand rather than wait hours for a seat at a table. There are the “advisers” who teach new customers the rules and suggest strategy. Good advice often results in a small tip. “Many of the customers are like a family now. Most of them have been coming here since the day we opened,” says Hong Ji-yeon, who has been dealing for about a year.
Ms. Hong says the advisers might play only 1,000 won in chips, but the advice they give is considered invaluable. They create a sanguine atmosphere, settling disputes and engaging in small talk to lift spirits. Sometimes the total amount in bets for a hand goes as high as 200 million won for a single hand, a high-pressure situation for a dealer.
But despite the onus of supervising play, Hong Ji-yeon says being a blackjack dealer is a good deal. “I needed a stable job. Even without knowledge of the game I was able to apply as a trainee. For six weeks I slept for only three hours a day, but the work experience has been charming.”
On top of the stress of trying not to lose a big hand, threats from losing customers add to the overall on-the-job hazards. “Everyone can learn to deal. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. But what you have to have is a healthy service-oriented attitude,” says Jin-Mi mi. Ms. Jin says getting threats like, “I am going to cut you up with an ax and eat you,” are the soup du jour.
“People say that in the army you learn patience. They should try this,” says Hong Seong-dae, another dealer. Contrary to beliefs that keep people coming back to test their card acumen, there is no secret formula for winning. But the dealers offered some nostrums. “First you have to be physically fit. This may sound strange but if you keep playing without a break you will lose the ability to control your losses,” says Mr. Hong.
An unscientific survey suggests there is a gambling gene that has a different expression for each nationality. Ms. Jang says that in general Korean gamblers who start out with 10 million won but have not had a good day often cash in at about 1 million won. But Japanese and other foreign players in the same situation will place their bets very carefully, often staging a comeback. One piece of advice she gives to gamblers is, “Have you eaten anything?” as though reminding them blackjack is not a nepenthe. Although she represents the house, Ms. Jang says she feels very uneasy when she sees people losing money.
Kim Yoon-mi, who has been working for seven years. gives her take on how to beat the game or at least how to leave Kangwon Land with money in your pocket. “From what I have seen, the people who do not go broke are the ones who have set a daily limit for winning or losing. They will take off no matter what whenever they have reached that limit and come back another day.” She says a player should pretend she is on a trip, shopping for just a few goodies. “When you travel, you are bound to spend money. A day at a casino should be just like that. That way you don’t end up addicted.”