He's found himself offering an overview of our state's MMJ industry to some unlikely people: parents concerned that their kids back home might be using drugs; farmers from Kansas who want to see what a hemp plant looks like; curious octogenarians from Canada who want a break from the slot machines. Sean enjoys giving the educational talks, he says. That role comes with the territory in a small town. A town that got its start with the state's first gold rush, then gambled on gaming two decades ago, and now could make its pot...off pot. — William Breathes

6:45 p.m.

Dealer Hank has the hands of a magician and the spiel of a carnival barker. No sullen grunts, no tip-hustling fake show of sympathy for those tough breaks, just a steady patter about Little Debbie snack cakes and crazy eights and don't spend it all in one place — unless, of course, the place happens to be the Fortune Valley Casino.

Fortune Valley is the largest casino in Central City.
Anthony Camera
Fortune Valley is the largest casino in Central City.
Black Hawk
Anthony Camera
Black Hawk

Other blackjack dealers ask if you want to place an insurance bet when their upcard is an ace. Hank offers a commercial: "Insurance brought to you by Geico. One phone call could save you 15 percent or more."

When one player collects six dollars on a double-down and whoops it up as if she's broken the bank, Hank goes along with the gag. "Your play is too strong for my table, ma'am," he says. "Perhaps you'd like to check out our deli."

Not exactly Seinfeld material, but this isn't Caesars Palace. This is Central City, bub, home of the small-timer. You can wager from three dollars to a hundred dollars at Hank's table, but almost all of the bets are solidly in the three-dollar range. An occasional plunger, heedless of tomorrow, might sink five bucks into a hand. More often, though, Hank has to remind players drifting over from a much busier two-dollar-minimum table that they have to cough up an extra chip to get in his game.

"Thank you for your compliance," he coos.

Down the hill in Black Hawk, three-dollar tables are as scarce as vegan restaurants. Yet most players seem to stick close to the five- or ten-dollar minimum the house allows. There are no high rollers in Colorado's mountain casinos — no "whales," certainly, by Vegas standards, unless you count the large mammals waddling through the buffet lines.

Adding more table games last year and raising the limit to a hundred bucks hasn't had quite the impact the gaming industry expected. It's estimated that the move generated an additional $9.4 million in annual gambling tax revenue, less than a third of what had been predicted. (Of the increase, $6.1 million is slated to go to the state's community-college system under the terms of Amendment 50, which authorized the change in gaming operations and 24-hour play.) Roulette, the classic sucker game of French farces, has been a flop everywhere. Craps attracts a few knowledgeable players but requires some grasp of basic math — and thus is a dying art. And on a weeknight, the hottest blackjack tables tend to be the cheapest ones.

The bulk of the money still comes from the zombified slot players. Still, it's not hard to find someone like Bruce, a square-jawed bruiser in a T-shirt playing the hundred-dollar limit on most hands at a blackjack table at the Mardi Gras Casino. The stacks of green $25 chips in front of him rise and recede like the tide. He barks encouragement at the cards as they fly out of the shoe, as if he can alter their denomination by sheer will. He's up, he's down; regardless of the stakes, it's still a grind.

Some casinos have attempted to market the new limit to serious players by offering single-deck tables instead of capricious, uncountable four- or six-deck shoes. At the Lodge, where it's tough to shoehorn your way to a seat in the popular card pit, there's a double-deck with a $25 minimum that's not for boobs. Being able to vary your bet (as opposed to the monotonous old five-buck minimum/maximum) and track the action of a smaller deck shaves the house's edge considerably and should, in theory, bring in more players.

Alas, the tender-hearted casino operators don't seem terribly interested in the trade-off between fairer odds and more traffic; they continue to undercut the attractions of a higher limit. Many of the Black Hawk joints now pay only 6-5 on blackjack instead of 3-2. They've also junked the rule that says dealers must stand on a soft 17, triggering gripes from players who believe the rule favored them.

"Why you do that?" a disgruntled woman holding 16 asks a dealer at the Lady Luck who went from soft to hard 17.

The dealer seems baffled: Either way, she was still beat. He points to the rules on the felt. "Because I have to," he says.

"Since when?" the woman persists.

"Since last week."

Up the hill, Fortune Valley still pays 3-2 for blackjack. The action might be low, but it comes with free entertainment, courtesy of Hank. The play can be bizarre — someone splitting tens against an up-card eight or hitting on 15 when the dealer's showing a bust card — but you can see such atrocities at a $25 table, too.

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