The Labor of Luck

The Labor of Luck: Casino Capitalism in the United States and South Africa

JEFFREY J. SALLAZ
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 344
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pp7px
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Labor of Luck
    Book Description:

    In this gripping ethnography, Jeffrey J. Sallaz goes behind the scenes of the global casino industry to investigate the radically different worlds of work and leisure he found in identically designed casinos in the United States and South Africa. Seamlessly weaving political and economic history with his own personal experience, Sallaz provides a riveting account of two years spent working among both countries' casino dealers, pit bosses, and politicians. While the popular imagination sees the Nevada casino as a hedonistic world of consumption,The Labor of Luckshows that the "Vegas experience" is made possible only through a variety of systems regulating labor, capital, and consumers, and that because of these complex dynamics, the Vegas casino cannot be seamlessly picked up and replicated elsewhere. Sallaz's fresh and path-breaking approach reveals how neo-liberal versus post-colonial forms of governance produce divergent worlds at the tables, and how politics, profits, and pleasure have come together to shape everyday life in the new economy.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94465-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  6. Introduction: DEALING WITH GLOBALIZATION
    (pp. 1-26)

    I was not the first sociologist to moonlight as a croupier. In fact, Erving Goffman, “the most famous of American sociologists,” once worked behind the tables.¹ Goffman is remembered today mainly as an innovative social theorist, one who used metaphors drawn from the theater to depict everyday life as a series of dramatic performances.² But Goffman was also a devoted researcher who grounded his conceptual schemes in firsthand empirical observations of social life. Trained as an ethnographer at the University of Chicago during the early 1950s, at various points during his career he scrubbed dishes in a Scottish hotel, observed...

  7. PART I BEHIND THE TABLES

    • ONE Nevada: LEARNING TO DEAL
      (pp. 29-40)

      The contemporary casino represents a potential panopticon. Like those “observatories of human multiplicity” pioneered by the English Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham and documented by the French historian Michel Foucault, the casino offers those who operate it total control. The video cameras dotting its ceiling relay images to a central control room from which managers can see everything without being seen themselves. This is a power of surveillance both “visible and unverifiable.”¹ Supplementing the electronic monitoring is a pyramid of supervisory personnel. Corporate managers monitor shift managers, who monitor pit bosses, who monitor inspectors, who monitor dealers; they are “supervisors, perpetually supervised."²...

    • TWO Silver State Casino: ENTREPRENEURS AT WORK
      (pp. 41-70)

      Before my first shift at Silver State Casino began, I wrote a research memo detailing my expectations for fieldwork. On one hand, the invasive background tests suggested the lengths to which Nevada firms will go to maximize security—why not take the final step of structuring the pits themselves as a panopticon? On the other hand, Rick’s emphasis on “personality” during my audition suggested a more gentle, servicecentered workplace. But I would discover neither a panopticon nor a Disneyland. Rather, casino management grants dealers considerable freedom to act as independent entrepreneurs on the tables. This autonomy is not absolute; indeed,...

    • THREE South Africa: GAMBLING WITH EMPOWERMENT
      (pp. 71-88)

      It was after mastering Silver State Casino’s entrepreneurial game of making tips that I took my place behind the tables at the “Gold City Casino” in the fall of 2002. During an earlier stay in South Africa, I had interviewed several executives at “Empowerment Inc.,” one of a handful of firms licensed to operate casinos in the country following the fall of apartheid (the appendix provides a detailed account of how I gained access to casinos in both the United States and South Africa). These executives agreed to let me deal cards in their new Johannesburg casino. The “game of...

    • FOUR Gold City Casino: EFFACING LABOR
      (pp. 89-110)

      Employees of the Gold City Casino in Johannesburg experience despotic control over their service labor. Management maximizes surveillance, deskills dealing, and prohibits tipping, all in an effort to maximize security. Such policies in turn eliminate all incentives for workers to maximize their speed or provide service—or indeed, to appear agentive in any way. Why provide “emotional capital” or give strategy advice when such offerings can only invoke suspicion from management and anger from gamblers? As a consequence, the experience of dealing in South Africa is not an entrepreneurial game of making tips, but an effacement game of erasing the...

  8. PART II BEYOND THE SCENES

    • FIVE The Politics of Producing Service
      (pp. 113-125)

      Imagine that you are a casino manager charged with monitoring the action in a large and busy casino pit. There are twelve games going on simultaneously—twelve tables chock-full of gamblers laughing, howling, and smoking. Hundreds of transactions take place every minute, far more than you can personally verify—more transactions, in fact, than can be captured by the surveillance cameras perched above the pit. A “sharp dealer” may be pinching chips, but you also worry that a savvy gambler may bilk one of your greenhorn staff. Those “bean-counters” at corporate have been breathing down your neck all month, while...

    • SIX Cut from the Same Cloth: CONVERGENT HISTORICAL ORIGINS
      (pp. 126-161)

      In both the United States and South Africa, early political leaders sought to forge a “modern,” “civilized” national identity by banning various vices, including gambling. Yet in both countries, there were important exceptions to this larger trend: jurisdictions of dubious political status—the homelands of apartheid South Africa, the U.S. state of Nevada—that opted to legalize gambling. The leaders of these states, politically secure but economically vulnerable, sought to use casinos to attract outside capital and generate tax revenues. They did not, however, invest significant resources in the regulation of their new gambling houses. As a consequence, early casino...

    • SEVEN The Birth of Regulation: STATES, STIGMATA, AND SYMBOLIC CAPITAL
      (pp. 162-196)

      Part I compared the experience of service work in the United States and South Africa at the turn of the twenty-first century. Dealing labor at Nevada’s Silver State Casino is organized hegemonically, with croupiers granted autonomy to “make tips,” while Johannesburg’s Gold City Casino is organized despotically, as managers monitor dealers closely and deskill their labor. But these disparate service regimes of today stand in sharp contrast to the common historical origins of the two casino industries as described in the previous chapter. In both early Nevada and the homelands of South Africa, the labor of luck had been organized...

    • EIGHT Of Dice and Men: DIVERGENT MODES OF MANAGEMENT
      (pp. 197-234)

      What happens when “modern” industry rules encounter a “traditional” managerial habitus? This is the question posed in chapter 8. In chapter 6, we saw that early casino financiers in both the United States and South Africa sought to conceal their true identities by physically basing themselves far from their gambling palaces in Nevada and the homelands, respectively. This entailed leaving control over day-to-day operations to property-level managers, who used networks and racial stereotypes to recruit trusted workers. On the casino floor itself, decentralized control combined with an effective labor market fix to produce hegemonic service regimes—that is, skilled dealers...

  9. Conclusion: CASINO CAPITALISM AND POLITICO – PERFORMATIVITY
    (pp. 235-250)

    The twentieth century witnessed not simply a liberalization of gambling policies across nations and states but also the emergence of a novel model of structuring casino industries, what we may call the Nevada model. The essential characteristics of this model, as it originated in the Mojave Desert, consist of a radical affirmation of the consumer’s “right” to gamble, property rights defined to favor dynamic industry growth, and complete control by the “house” over the labor market. And while these gambling regulatory principles were historically new, they were not at all inconsistent with Nevada’s long-standing “One Sound State” policy philosophy. Since...

  10. Methodological Appendix: COMPARATIVE ETHNOGRAPHY AND REFLEXIVE SCIENCE
    (pp. 251-260)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 261-292)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 293-310)
  13. Index
    (pp. 311-326)