Gertie’s First Season

Once upon a time, long ago, a young truck driver in Whitehorse found himself with five days off work to celebrate the May long weekend and decided to finally visit Dawson City for the first time. It was either 1971 or ’72, and he had been listening to his coworkers talk about it all winter. That young man was me, and my knowledge of the Klondike was scant, but he had read Pierre Berton’s version of it and was curious to see the real thing. It was love at first sight.

There was a handwritten sign taped in the front window of the DCW Grocery Store that said: “Urgently Needed: Dealers for the first season of Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall. See April Moi inside.”

The job paid $50 a night (plus tips) to work from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., which meant you could also find a full time day job and do both.

So I shook hands with April, who told me dealer school started on Tuesday morning when a guy from Las Vegas was arriving to teach us all how to deal cards and behave in a casino. His name was Bob Busey and he looked like central casting had picked him out. Tall, thin and dapper, he wore aviator glasses, spoke softly and acted like he’d been born in a house of ill-gotten fame. He first taught us how to shuffle like a pro and we spent hours upon hours doing nothing else.

The other dealers were mostly university students on summer jobs, but some were Dawson locals looking to bump their incomes over the summer. There were about 20 in Busey’s school and it was gender-balanced ahead of the times, because the six can-can dancers were being asked to also deal when they weren’t dancing or serving drinks.

Busey had a six-week contract with the KVA (Klondike Visitors Association), three weeks to teach the dealers then three weeks to get the casino up and running before he selected one dealer to become the first pitboss of Canada’s first legal gambling casino.

When I later asked him why he bestowed that dubious and unwanted honour on me, he replied, “No brainer: Vietnam. Anybody who can survive Marine Corps boot camp and a year in a crazy jungle war isn’t going to have any problems with a tiny casino on the Arctic Ocean.” I was about to turn it down when he said he’d already raised my pay to $100 a night, which was pretty much what I made for a long, full day of driving trucks at $12 per hour. So the die was cast.

Bob taught us all the mechanics and rituals of dealing cards and made the schooling fun and interesting with his true stories from Vegas, Reno and Carson City, since he’d worked at all three. But the RCMP were also involved in our training because this was a big deal in those days, legalizing gambling in Canada. A fellow named Ron Shepherd came out from Ottawa, maybe Regina, and spent a week teaching us how to spot cheaters, card sharks, counters and splashers. Splashers were cheats who tried to briefly mark cards by splashing water spots on them.

Shepherd was the head of the RCMP anti-gambling division and there was nothing a gambler might have up his sleeve that he hadn’t already seen or heard about. He also briefed me on security protocols and undercover backup nobody else knew about and coached me on how to handle the cash out of the dropboxes, since that was my most important job. Later on I was taking anywhere between $5 to $10,000 down to the night deposit at CIBC and – swear to God – he even taught me to walk a certain way to not draw attention when I was wearing a loaded money belt full of cash.

At the very beginning, there was a lot of worry from both Busey and Shepherd about somebody trying to knock off the take, but, being young and dumb, I wasn’t worried. After all, this was the Klondike where the YCGC (Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation) used to have millions in gold moving casually around town. The Casino numbers were peanuts in comparison.

But that all came later. During the lead up to opening night, there was a slight tension in the air, possibly fear of the unknown, because this had never been done before. But, for the most part, it grew tedious and boring. How many times can you shuffle a deck of cards and count to 21 before you’ve got the hang of it?

A day or two before the official opening, Danny Moi (April’s husband) and I climbed up a couple ladders above the door and hung the big “Diamond Tooth Gertie’s” banner over the building’s old name, which was Dawson Amateur Athletic Association.

The last thing I did by way of preparation was cut my beard and long hair the last night of training before dress rehearsal.

I morphed into my Days of ’98 look, which included a handlebar mustache, a part down the middle of my hair and wire-rim glasses to complete the 1898 gambler/dweeb look. Busey had also taught me the “Pitboss Glare,” which was a look in your eyes of disinterested interest.

It was role playing with a purpose during practice, but that changed when the doors opened and hundreds of starry-eyed gamblers – many of them rowdy asbestos miners from Clinton Creek – rushed in hoping to get rich quick so they could quit their jobs and save their lungs.

Next time: Gertie starts with a losing streak.

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