In a high-stakes world, a low-stakes game has its pleasures. After you've been knocked around by the whims of chance, burned one too many times by a too-hot-to-handle cardslinger drawing five cards to 21 while you're standing pat on 20, it can be sheer luxury to shovel out only two or three white chips a hand while your luck is in traction.

You might not win. But you can lose a little more slowly. — Alan Prendergast

10:25 p.m.

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

She walks up to the blackjack table, tapping the current dealer on the shoulder, waiting for him to finish his existing deal. Then she takes his place.

This is the moment she often dislikes most about her job, since this is when regulars who've been playing at the table sometimes call her a "closer," "cleaner" or "house dealer," and shove off to some other dealer. It's not her fault; she can't help that the cards seem to work in her favor. "I sometimes get really streaky," she says. "Probabilities don't seem to work with me."

Then again, it doesn't hurt that she's not like the ladies who work in the "party pit" at one of the neighboring casinos, the ones who might look good in their low-cut black leather tops, but seem to struggle counting to 17. No, she's had a mind for the numbers and probabilities in the 312 cards now flowing through her hands since she was six years old and beat her older relatives at every game they played together. She used to play a lot of poker anywhere she could find a game, making a respectable living playing 4/8 poker with a half-kill. These days, she's still a player with enough of a rep that other casinos will comp her a room on weeknights — although she's always too busy at the tables to use it.

When the casinos began looking for dealers to fill their new 24-hour schedules last year, she signed up. With maximums increased, she figured there'd be a lot more chips on the tables — and some of those chips would be going to her as tips.

Between dispersing cards to the handful of players in front of her, she runs her long nails lightly over the soft felt of the table. Up above, security cameras track the movement, watching for signs that she could be up to no good. She's not allowed to transfer chips from one hand to the other, to scratch her ear without first flashing her palms, to even sneeze into her fist.

Most of the tables around her are empty — pretty standard for a weeknight graveyard shift. Still, she could get lucky; a lot of the pros come in on weeknights like this to avoid the tourists and amateurs who show up on weekends and botch the flow of the game by struggling over whether they should hit on a 14 against the dealer's five. Some of the hard-core regulars prefer a table all to themselves, and on quiet nights the house is happy to oblige, upping the minimum bet for the table to $25, $50, even $100 to keep the greenhorns away.

Word is there's a pro athlete at the casino tonight: one of the local superstars who's a regular here. She'd prefer he not come to her table, though. Like most big-time athletes, he's known for being stingy with tips. One time, after winning a couple thousand at craps, he threw the dealer a lousy nine bucks. It's far better to have a table full of casino waitresses and other dealers, since they know better than anybody that she pays her bills with what goes into the metal tip box at her side.

She hopes those boxes are full before she clocks out at dawn, that she gets to that sweet spot where her players are on such a roll she can feel the energy coming off the table. Better that than having to tell a player his account is overdrawn, being the one to deal a hand that means somebody's not going to pay his cable-TV bill that month.

In general, though, she's been surprised by how much she enjoys the job. She can see herself sticking with it, maybe eventually moving on to other casino towns in other states. It may not be as exciting as her days as a freewheeling poker player, but the secret to her success has always been being able to quit. "The biggest key to gambling is knowing when to get up from the table," she says. "If you play against me long enough, I will always win. You can't overcome the odds."

The players at her table quickly realize this stark truth. After her first few deals, they start to leave. By the time she's dealt herself five hands — and not busted on a single one — her table is empty. As usual, probabilities don't seem to be working with her.

So she stands there quietly, waiting for a new stranger to shuffle up and ask for some cards. — Joel Warner

1:15 a.m.

Mark sits at the tallest, most garish video poker game in the otherwise empty cluster of machines. To his right are a Styrofoam cup filled with coffee — he doesn't drink booze when he gambles — and a takeout container filled with burritos that he got for free and is saving for tomorrow's lunch. To his left is a pretty, middle-aged brunette in a purple button-down shirt worn by the employees of Fortune Valley.

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