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Our reporter tries to roll with roulette


Click on the photos to enlarge them...

Photos by Ralph Fountain.






In 2004, Ashley Revell, a 32-year-old tourist from London, sold everything he owned, even his clothes, and let his entire future ride on one spin of a roulette wheel at the Plaza.

He placed $135,300 on red and, it can be assumed, crossed his fingers harder than fingers have ever been crossed.

The ball landed on red 7, instantly doubling Revell's net worth to $270,600.

With a last name like his, you would think that Paul Bettingers from Belgium might be lucky, too. But not only is this tourist handing most of his roulette chips back to the El Cortez, he's doing it at the table that makes me his croupier.

"This is (expletive)," Bettingers mutters.

At least 75 of my approximately 100 spins this afternoon did not pose any risk of international incident. But on the last one, I accidentally spun before Bettingers finished betting on all his integers -- particularly the 1 he started stretching across the table for when the dropping ball forced me to call, "No more bets please!"

The winning number was 1, and Bettingers was not a fan of my joke about "rushin' roulette."

"We'll give you more time from now on," Chris Nichols tells Bettingers. The casino manager, who recalls Paulie Walnuts from "The Sopranos" both in appearance and fearsomeness, is one of four El Cortez executives watching me carefully from the sidelines.

Bettingers would have known something was askew at Table 2 had he watched any of my previous spins, seven of which I was forced to do over and none of which made the ball circle the wheel more than twice before falling in. And I guess he didn't notice when I flipped the glass marker in my hand to try and be cool. (It flew from my fingers, got deflected by the moving wheel and narrrowly missed the head of Tracey Scott, who is visiting from London with her friend, Angela O'Rourke.)

"Tell him when to spin the ball from now on," Nichols tells Bettingers, nodding at me.

Roulette is the fourth most popular table game in Clark County (behind blackjack, baccarat and craps), generating 3.2 percent ($350 million) of all casino revenue last year. Developed in late 18th century Paris, the game gives a cherry-sized pingpong ball 36 red and black numbers to choose randomly from, as well as one or two green zeros. (These give the house the edge, since they're neither black nor red.)

"It's an easy game to learn," said El Cortez croupier James Syhatanha, 46.

He is wrong. Winning roulette bets pay in chip multiples of 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 11, 17 and 35, which croupiers must instantly calculate and reward. Just as difficult for me to ascertain is which bets win or lose. Chips can be placed seemingly anywhere on the board.

A new player has joined my table. Hailing from San Bernardino, Calif., he resembles the Mongo character from "Blazing Saddles." He identifies himself only as "Dirty Harry."

"That's what they used to call me in my motorcycle club," he says.

Neither the Metropolitan Police Department nor the Nevada Gaming Commission keeps statistics on how many roulette dealers are killed on the job by disgruntled players, by the way.

Speaking of killing, the El Cortez -- built in 1941 -- is most famous for its 1945 purchase by Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway. This delightful consortium ran the casino so efficiently, they sold it a year later, for a killing with which they built the Flamingo and begat modern Las Vegas.

Today, the El Cortez -- remodeled in 2007 -- is the most prominent "break-in house" for virgin table dealers seeking experience. Two years ago, Syhatanha -- who emigrated to the United States from Laos in 1981 -- worked as a machine operator at a hog slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls, S.D.

"It's a good job," Syhatanha said of roulette-dealing, although he described it as "the same thing" as working at a pig slaughterhouse. (It's possible that he didn't understand my question. Then again, maybe he did.)

Syhatanha earns $8 an hour, plus about $40 a day in pooled tips.

"Excuse me," says Nichols, who reaches over to stop my hand. It has just toppled a chip stack placed by Dirty Harry on the outside of the column marked by 25, 26 and the winning number, 27. (I didn't notice before collecting the chips.)

It is about three hours into my stint. Bettingers has since departed to tables unknown. In fact, Dirty Harry is the only player left -- even though the casino's other three tables are so full, players are queueing for spots. (Word about Table 2 has apparently spread.)

Nichols rebuilds the stack and receives a nod from Dirty Harry, indicating agreement regarding how many of his pre-toppled chips were in play.

Dirty Harry is still with me, I suspect, for the same reason I don't have a blade-shaped hole in my back: the Excalibur-shaped array of deep purple chips in front of him.

"I like this kid," he tells Nichols.

My new friend doesn't mind my incompetence. He even laughed when I marked 7 red after 9 red had won. (In my defense, chips covered every number.)

"He's my good luck charm," Dirty Harry tells Nichols, winking at me.

This development might not be as relieving as it seems. Charms are things that players like to take with them to use during every gambling session. And being transported against my will on the handlebars of a Harley headed south on Interstate 15 is not normally how I like to begin my weekend.

"It's time," says Eric Bi, the croupier waiting to replace me. Dealers get a 20-minute break after every hour worked.

"Make it a long one this time," says dice pit manager Jae Kim, in a way that communicates that he is only half-kidding.

"A long one."

Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at

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