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Sitting in DNA Soup

Traveling with the Nomadic Poker Dealers

By Kelley SteadPublished 2 years ago Updated 16 days ago 6 min read
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Nomadic poker dealers hanging out in the Bahamas for an event.

I am sitting in “DNA soup”- actually, a Jacuzzi at the Melia Hotel in Nassau, Bahamas. It might as well be a soup though, from the amount of people sitting in it. I’d wager, that if you were to take a ladle from that hot tub and send it to a DNA testing facility, you’d have genetics from every corner of the planet.

Everyone is speaking English (all with accents- many of which I can’t pinpoint exactly) and everyone can read a poker hand. This is a community of men and women of all ages who have made a life traveling the world dealing the game of poker. In their off-time they live, party, and commute together and they rarely go “home.”

Poker itself is a game of the world. Experts haven’t pinpointed its exact origins but many claim it began as a domino-type card game in 10th-century China, spread to Persia where it was known as "As Nas", was transformed by the French into “poque” which traveled to the New World where it grew into the Texas Hold-Em game we know today. There are table versions and spin-offs, tournaments and cash games and poker rooms anywhere there are people. Even in countries where gambling is illegal, games pop up in businesses, homes and public centers.

What does it take to be a poker dealer?

You don’t need an expensive degree or even a certification to be a poker dealer. As long as you can follow the game, pitch the cards and calculate the pot, you can land a job.

Coby Zherzhi is an Israeli dealer who has worked jobs in Miami, Norway, Ireland, Thailand, England, Dominican Republic, the Philippines and the Bahamas. Sometimes the companies he works for cover his travel expenses, sometimes he has to pay out of pocket- but for him, it’s all worth it. Many of these dealers only travel to their native countries a few times a year for holidays or important events. Mainly, they enjoy the nomadic life- working and partying with their fellow dealers, meeting up in new cities for the same old grind with a different flavor.

“Everyone told me to go to college, get a job, buy a house. But to me, traveling is such a better way of life. I have friends from all over the world- I can go anywhere and make money. It gives you a chance to see the world, not just from a tourist’s perspective but to interact with people from that area, see how they live and do things. It gives you a better view of your own life and how you can improve or just be thankful for where you come from.”- Coby Zherzhi

How much money do dealers earn? Each country, event, company, private game and casino pays differently. In the U.S. dealers average around $40,000 a year while a job in Monaco will average about $21,000. And that’s just the above-ground casino dealer. In places where poker is illegal, salaries can vary wildly. From €2 an hour in some eastern- European countries to thousands of dollars a week in underground Scandinavian games. The greater the cash flow, the more money there is to make.

For these freelance nomads, tournaments are their travel ticket. Through networking and a bit of luck, they’ve partnered with companies like Party Poker LIVE who host tournaments all over the globe. They pay $11-$16 per hour to the dealers plus tips, bring their own staff, and pay almost all travel expenses including food and lodging.

What’s life like for a freelance traveling poker dealer?

Sharing food, drinks, and stories is a nightly ritual for the dealers. I sit on a massaging jet in the hot tub and listen to them go round and round. They tell stories of the tiny countries they visit and the different ways the players interact. They talk about the rickety airplanes they sometimes have to travel in and laugh at how cheap they can eat and drink in Georgia or Prague. They make fun of each other’s accents and customs all while passing cigarettes and laughing at jokes and stories.

Many of the dealers at this event in Bahamas come from small villages and towns in eastern Europe. They learned the game through playing it or practicing with friends. Without poker, their lives would be built around the culture and economic situation they were born into. Many would never have the chance to travel far- much less travel and work.

Lenka (Czech Republic) and Joke (Croatia) hanging out on inflatable chickens in the warm Bahamian pool

“I can go back to my country any day and go to the pubs and see my same friends there from ten years ago. Doing the same things, working the same jobs. They’re happy that way, but I can’t imagine it,” says Lenka Simcikova, a dealer from the Czech Republic. “Traveling gives you a better view of the world and how other people live. It shows you how many options are out there. To me, life is too short to spend in one place.”

Constant traveling can make it difficult to maintain a family and stable home and each of the dealers must handle it in their own way. For some of them, like Lenka, having a significant other just isn’t in the cards at this time,

"I like living my life this way, not feeling tied down. One day I want a partner and a family, but I’m young and for me right now it’s better to be single and just have friendships.”

Others have families back home that they support. They must make regular trips to their home countries, staying abroad only for tournament days, and then flying back to take care of family duties before heading to the next event. For these freelancers, life is a little more hectic but often worth the work when they come from places where they wouldn’t have the same economic opportunities.

I also spoke with many couples who met while working these tournament circuits. It’s easy to wonder how many of them would have spent their whole lives thousands of miles from their mate if it hadn’t been for this incredible community.

Slavka (Slovakia) and her husband Sergio (Spain) who met and fell in love traveling and dealing poker.

Between tournament events, the dealers have to find ways to keep busy. With connections in so many countries, most of them have no problem finding a place to go. They stay on couches and in extra rooms of their fellow dealers, work their private games or sign up with smaller poker tours. Many of them have jobs they can return to in their home country when they get tired of life on the road.

“I have to go home at some point,” laughs Joke Milakovic, a dealer from Croatia, as someone else invites him to their country to visit, “After this I’m in Amsterdam, then Prague, then… I have no idea.”

Where do traveling poker dealers like to vacation?

Every night I found myself back in the same hotel hot tub, eager to hear all of their stories. Far from just co-workers, they navigate foreign airports and cities together- exploring new foods, cultures and having adventures all year long.

So I had to ask the question: what’s your favorite place in the world?

One of the most common answers, surprisingly, was the small country of Georgia. It lays in the intersection between Europe and Asia and has a small population of 3.7 million. The dealers praised its natural beauty and how the people were so friendly, they’d invite you home five minutes after meeting you. For €10 you can eat and drink all night in the classiest restaurants and the beer is just as tasty as it is cheap.

Amsterdam was another common answer- with its lax drug laws and Red Light District, many of the dealers have had their share of fun in the streets of Amsterdam. They commented on the open-minded, friendly nature of the people and of course, the quality marijuana cafes.

However, after this trip, I had to add Croatia as the next country to visit on my list. The Croatian dealers I met in Nassau were some of the most lively, warm, and hilarious people I’ve ever met. The dealers that have visited Split say it’s amazing- beautiful hiking with waterfalls and cheap to explore. It has a long, winding coast-line of sapphire blue water and ancient walled towns that apparently, you need at least a week to truly experience and enjoy.

In the past, life was about stability. Get a job, buy a home, establish yourself in the society you were born into.

Me and Patrik (Czech Republic) hanging out in Copenhagen.

But for this community, life is about sharing experiences, seeing new places and making connections. It’s about new perspectives and seeing how others live. It’s long hours pitching cards and counting chips for the opportunity to see the world. It’s buffet breakfasts and late night cigarettes, rickety airlines, and long country bus rides.

It’s sitting at the end of a long day in “DNA soup” with your closest mates and talking shit. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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About the Creator

Kelley Stead

Grew up on a steady diet of Tom Robbins and Stephen King.

Spinning tales in the quiet moments between motherhood and building a business.

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  • Lorelle R.2 years ago

    Haha, gotta say your opening line definitely caught my attention! This is fascinating -- and it has definitely intensified my wanderlust. Georgia is my bucket-list country... some day, Tbilisi, some day! Lovely piece!

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