Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Cripple Creek casinos pay 'prop' players to keep poker games going, increase revenue

By Debbie Kelley Updated: July 21, 2013 at 2:34 pm

When Dane Rhodes tells people about his job, he can almost see the green streaks of envy.

"A lot of people want to do what I do for a living," he said.

But few can hack what some call the hardest job in the gaming industry.

Rhodes gets paid by casinos to play poker.

Every day, his paycheck is on the line, though.

Rhodes and other "proposition" or "prop" players receive an hourly wage from casinos to ante up at poker tables.

They must use their money, however, for betting, tipping and the rake fee that casinos charge customers for hosting the game.

"You've got to wager what you'll make for the day into the game and try to not lose it. I wouldn't do that job in a million years - I prefer to go to a job where I'm guaranteed to make money," said Brian Pearson, who runs the poker room at the Double Eagle and Gold Creek Casinos in Cripple Creek.

Pearson said casinos couldn't operate successful poker rooms without these employees, whose job is to help start Texas Hold 'em, Omaha, Crazy Pineapple and stud poker games and keep them going.

"They're imperative - they help out a lot," Pearson said.

Although some prop players are at the table for eight hours a day, they say it's fair for them to pit their hands against the average Joe's because poker is a combination of skill and luck. Like any game of chance, it's a crapshoot as to who hauls in the pot, Rhodes said. But some gamblers question the widely used practice, found throughout the United States, including Nevada gambling halls.

Prop player vs. shill

Colorado gaming laws permit casinos to hire proposition players, who like other industry employees must be licensed by the state.

It's important to understand the difference between a prop player and a "shill," though, said Cameron Lewis, spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Gaming, which regulates the industry.

A prop player is paid a fixed sum by a casino (up to $15 an hour or so in Colorado) to do the job, uses personal money to gamble, absorbs losses and pockets winnings; a shill plays with casino money and must return winnings to the house.

Shills were legal in Colorado when limited-stakes gaming started in 1991, but the state Legislature repealed their use, and since 1996, shills have been banned.

It comes down to a question of propriety, professional poker player and former California prop player Shirley Rosario blogs on poker-babes.com.

With shills, "It is risky and unseemly for the house to have a vested interest in the outcome of a poker game," she writes. "Since props play with their own money, the house is not exposed to any downside risk from staking a player in the game."

Shills are legal in some states, such as South Dakota.

Colorado has other rules pertaining to prop players. No more than three can participate in a given card game at a time. If customers ask, casino management must identify prop players. Casinos also must post a sign stating that they will do so. Prop players also can't participate in house-funded tournaments.

Prop players and shills have been around as long as there have been card rooms and today are most commonly found in stand-alone card rooms, said David Schwartz of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

There are advantages for casinos and players, he said.

"It ensures casinos they'll always have games open," Schwartz said, "and for players, it means there's always a game."

Prop players primarily exist to maximize revenue for the casinos. Their work helps the house keep raking, or taking a cut from the pot for providing the game, said Tyler Urban, who started propping the day after he turned 21. Now, several years later, he's still in the business and uses his earnings to support his wife and baby.

"Casinos have found that their spending money in this way was an effective way to promote action," he said. "My role is to help increase the rake."

'We're not ringers'

Regular gamblers in Cripple Creek, one of three Colorado towns that offer gaming, know the prop players. Diane, who lives in the small historic town, plays often and asked that her last name not be used, said poker players can be hard to come by during slow times, such as weekday mornings.

"Without prop players, people would come in, look around and walk out the door. With them, it only takes a few players to get a game going, instead of five or six," she said last week, while taking a break from a game at the Gold Creek Poker Room.

That means players don't have to wait around to start playing, and it means more money for the casinos.

Although they likely play more often, prop players don't necessarily have a leg up, Diane said.

"They're just like any other customer," she said. "We all get beat. They're not better players."

But it seems like they would be, said Dan, who was visiting Cripple Creek from Arizona last week and who also declined to give his last name.

"If you play all the time, you should be pretty good. I play on the Indian reservations in Arizona, and I've never heard of it," he said of prop players. "I just don't know what to think about that."

Tourists often aren't familiar with the concept, Pearson said, but added that it's no secret because casinos by law must disclose their presence, if asked.

Poker is the only casino game in which players do not go up against the house, which Urban said makes it an even playing field.

"We're not ringers. Everyone has an equal chance when they sit down - and they didn't walk in to do charity work. They're there to beat me," he said.

Patience, discipline are key

The odds are against prop players that they will make a living from the job, but the die-hard ones try hard to do that.

The average prop player lasts only about three weeks, Pearson said, because of the pressure. Rhodes said he once saw two quit after their first day on the clock.

But there are the successful ones. Rhodes, who lives in Cripple Creek and Colorado Springs and also is a landlord, has been propping since 2000 at various casinos and said he wouldn't do it if he didn't make money.

"The first three weeks, I lost money, so I thought I couldn't do it. Then, I changed my style of play," Rhodes said.

He adopted two characteristics poker players usually don't have - patience and discipline.

"You force yourself to throw away cards and not play the bad ones because over eight hours, good cards will come through," he said. "If you're too aggressive, you'll lose money."

Urban's trick: "It's often the mentality that makes you a winner - not that you're really smart or great at math - but that you don't think like a loser."

With the 2008 voter-approved raising of the maximum bet from $5 to $100 on a given hand, poker pots can quickly accumulate hundreds of dollars.

Still, there is a catch: "You have to be able to win consistently," Rhodes said.

One drawback to the job is being required to relinquish control - managers ask prop players to vacate their seats when tables fill up with enough regular customers.

Rhodes said a prop player could be in the middle of winning streak when he has to leave the game, with no choice.

"We start when the game is short-handed, which is the toughest to play, and when it fills up and gets great, we leave. When the weakest players lose their money and leave, we sit back down," Rhodes said. "That's why it's the hardest job."

Prop players also are expected to be friendly and personable to customers.

"We talk, joke and laugh. We ask each other about our families. It's not just about money. It's a social experience," Urban said.

You have to really like playing poker to turn it into your job, added Urban, who also has his dealer license, which is allowed under Colorado law.

"I'm good at it - all the necessary skills were just a natural fit for me," he said.

But prop players aren't gambling addicts, said Richard Warren, who retired from the Department of Corrections' prison system and now drives from his home in Las Animas to Cripple Creek to work as a prop player.

"You reach a point where you don't want to play unless you're getting a salary," he said, "because you have nothing to buffer the losses.

"Overall, the losses outnumber the wins, but the dollar amount varies. So one week you're up $100, the next week down $100. You hope it balances out."

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