If anyone ever tries to tell you the first legal casino in Canadian history – Dawson City’s fabled Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall – was a raging success from the moment the doors first opened in June, 1972, perhaps you should clip and save this article to correct that historical distortion of the truth.
In fact, Gertie’s started on a regrettable losing streak caused by a poor decision that almost ended Canada’s experiment with legalized gambling before it got off the ground. I know because I was her first pit boss, witnessed it all from the box seats and have never forgotten how quickly it all went wrong.
On opening night, under Las Vegas instructor Bob Busey, 20 of us went from students attending dealer school to professional casino employees. Busey then began the second half of his six-week contract which tasked him with getting the legalized gambling part of Gertie’s from a concept to a reality. My new position, pit boss-in-training, made me his assistant in that endeavor and all that entailed, which was considerable.
I still spelled off dealers going on break to keep my card shuffling polished, but my main job was watching how Busey handled the pit and players. It was an on-the-job-training crash course before his contract was finished and I was left on my own for the rest of the season.
Things began grandly. Opening night was a smashing success. The six drop boxes were full of cash – mostly American – at the end of the night and the staff and crew partied until 4 a.m. while custodian Les Butterworth good-naturedly cleaned the place up around us.
We had done it! Legalized gambling had come to Canada and the Klondike and it couldn’t have gone smoother. The gamblers were a mix of eager locals, happy tourists and partying asbestos miners from nearby Clinton Creek, who behaved like Klondike miners of ’98 in town from the creeks loaded with gold.
When Busey and I counted the night’s take, not including the front door and bar sales, and took the money down to CIBC’s night deposit, there were five figures in the pouch, but I won’t publish the exact amount. Suffice to say it exceeded the board of directors expectations by about double.
In fact, the whole first week went that way and it was looking like the experiment was going to be a smashing success as I continued my pit boss tutelage under the direction of Busey, who was surprised and pleased at the kind of money the blackjack pit was generating.
The whole thing was quite exciting and even humorous at times as this yarn depicts. Prior to opening, the Klondike Visitors Association had distributed posters up and down the full length of the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks announcing the inaugural season of Canada’s first casino and listed all the various games offered, including “Strip Darts”. We had all noticed that on the poster, but thought nothing of it until tourists starting rolling in from everywhere asking what time the Strip Darts show began. Of course, there was no such thing. It was just something somebody tacked on the posters probably as a gag, but it certainly resonated with the travelling public.
In my own mind’s eye, I couldn’t even imagine what Strip Darts would be like and we never did learn who put it on the posters. It’s still a mystery to this day.
What isn’t a mystery is what happened next as Busey’s job was ending and mine supposedly beginning as Canada’s first legal pit boss.
After the big profits of the first week, the second was only half that, but still good, and the third as Busey finished his contract was half again, below what the board determined to be the break even point. This caused them to sweat because they had taken out loans to get the place open and had a fairly hefty payroll to deal with.
As Busey was packing his bags and handing the pit over to me, there was a rumour floating around that the board, comprised of highly respected Dawsonites, was considering drastic measures to increase the gambling income. One of the ideas was to take the players’ money on a “push” (tie between player and dealer), which astonished Busey.
“If they do that it’ll destroy the casino,” Busey told me before he left. “One hand in 10 is a push. If they collect pushes, the house’s blackjack advantage will jump from two to four per cent to 12 to 14 per cent and nobody in their right mind will sit down at a table and play against those odds.”
But that’s exactly what the board did almost as soon as Busey’s plane was off the ground.
I recall walking out of the board meeting with surprise, but unknowing to how angry the decision would make our customers. The local players were furious. The tourists, all Las Vegas veterans, just laughed, boycotted the tables and enjoyed the can-can shows. The asbestos miners who hoped to get rich and quit their jobs wanted to fight as soon as they got drunk and lost a push.
It got so bad I started bringing a baseball bat into the pits, but never used it. My job changed dramatically from card shuffler to bouncer, not a good occupation for a guy who recently returned from a 13-month combat tour of duty with daily death counts.
Motivated by self-preservation I recommended my best dealer, Curt Davis, to replace me in the pits and I moved to Grand Forks, at the confluence of Eldorado and Upper Bonanza creeks, to mine gold with Art Fry and operate a 980B Caterpillar loader.
I couldn’t get out of the casino fast enough, which was then temporarily being called Rotten Tooth Gertie’s and Dirty Gertie’s and have never been anything but a customer and disinterested ex-employee since the infamous “Push Decision”.
I can’t even tell you what happened next or how the board corrected their mistake and made the place the great success it has become. Someone else will have to write that story.
This one certainly doesn’t show up on their website under the history tag, but why should it? I heard Curt Davis threatened a full scale strike by all employees if the board didn’t rescind the Push Decision, but I cannot verify that because he committed suicide a year or two later.
Diamond Tooth Gertie’s is a great Yukon success story, but it had to work hard to get there.
And that is the truth.