I recently had the chance to sit down for an in-depth interview with Emily DeLaine, one of the most popular dealers at the World Series of Poker both on the felt and in the Poker Twitterverse. She just completed her fifth year of dealing at the WSOP, and had the honor of dealing the Main Event Final Table for the third consecutive year.

Emily is popular in no small part because of the congeniality she brings to every table. Her energy is contagious and she takes a genuine interest in every player’s experience. Dealers can play a large role in how players interact with one another other during the natural hostility of a poker game, and it’s a role that Emily takes seriously. She has an understanding of the need for poker to be entertaining, and it comes across in how she goes about her work.

Originally from just outside the Atlanta area, Emily graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in Sociology. She spent her post-college career in a variety of corporate roles before taking on work as a part time poker dealer in Oregon. On a whim she came to work at the Rio in 2015, and she hasn’t looked back since.

Emily DeLaine

Your path from college to dealing at the final table of the World Series of Poker Main Event has taken a lot of twists and turns. What was life like after college and how did you find your way to the WSOP?

I graduated college in 2008, which was the worst time to graduate college in America. We were wondering what we were going to do and how we were going to get jobs. We spent a lot of time playing World of Warcraft and trying to figure it out. After I graduated I moved to Austin, TX, with my boyfriend at the time and I set out to get any job I could find. It was difficult. I had a Bachelor’s degree and nobody was hiring for anything.

I worked at a custom cake bakery until I found a job in the accounting department of a lobbying firm as a clerk doing filing and other basic tasks. I was really interested in public policy, and my undergrad degree was in Sociology, so it had potential. I worked there for four years, and during those four years I went to a graduate program at the University of Texas for a Master’s Degree in Public Policy. I worked my way up in that lobbying firm to be involved in additional things like fundraising and getting involved in policy.

I ended up quitting when a male intern who I had hired was promoted over me. I kept getting relegated to smaller tasks. They wanted me to be the receptionist forever while I had the same degree as all of the men they were hiring. I was even attending the same school as them!

That sudden change jarred me. I was 26 and was wondering whether or not the corporate world was something I wanted to still be involved in. I’m anti-structure and I don’t like norms that are there for other people to benefit.

I began applying for graduate programs in Sociology, got accepted to the University of Oregon, and moved there but I struggled immediately. Grad school is tough, even for the strongest person, and the archaic nature of modern academia makes it a lot tougher. Not everyone has the cultural capital to succeed in that world.

I struggled, but I needed a part time job, so I started dealing poker. There are social clubs in Oregon where poker is legal. I worked there for a year and in the summer of 2015 I thought “Why not go to the WSOP?” It was perfect. It sounded fun and exciting.

Your prominence at the WSOP has risen quickly, and you’ve had a lot of great opportunities in a short time. How did you grow in the job so quickly?

That was one of the most surprising things. During my first year at the WSOP, I worked the cash games most of the time and it was amazing. I crushed it! I loved the challenge of dealing mixed games. I think I got noticed because I would go over and deal 2-7 Triple Draw and other complicated games with no problem.

The following summer I still dealt a lot of cash games, but I started doing more tournaments because what I learned is that you can hustle cash games all you want, but it can be exhausting and there’s a cost to your health. I went over to the tournament side in order to save my back and meet cool people.

The next year I was chosen to be in the ESPN featured table rotation. There were about 30 or 40 of us and we dealt the featured tables. They narrowed it down to the dealers they wanted for the final table of the Main Event and I was fortunate enough to be in that small group.

2017 WSOP Main Event final table dealers
Emily and the other 2017 WSOP Main Event final table dealers

What qualities do you think make you stand out as a top dealer?

I have an entertainer part of me. I bring something to a featured table that I think they like in that I smile and get the players talking when maybe they normally wouldn’t. I want it to be entertaining!

How does it feel to deal at the final table of the World Series of Poker? How do you handle the nerves?

It’s fun and cool and weird and there’s a crazy effervescence going on. I get really calm up there. Some dealers can struggle with their nerves and make mistakes, but I realized quickly that you have to be calm or you’re dead.

Emily DeLaine with ESPN talent
Emily with Lon McEachern, Norman Chad, and Antonio Esfandiari

You have to love what you’re doing to show that kind of enthusiasm. What do you love about poker?

I love games. Period. Put me in a room with 20 games and I’ll play them all. I’ve always been that way since I was a kid. We’d be in a car on a long trip and we’d have all these trivia games and I’d play for hours. I was very annoying about it. The more I got into poker, the more I realized there are actually 10 different games going on at the same time. On my bucket list is learning how to play a lot better. I have some skill. I always say I’m really dangerous when I do play because I know what I should do but I don’t really know why.

You won an online satellite into the Casino Employees tournament at this year’s WSOP. Are you sure you don’t know what you’re doing?

I’d rather get lucky than play well! That was cool. I was on the fence about playing in the event but I thought I may never get this chance again. I’m very risk averse. I’m definitely more of a dealer than a player, and I think that’s odd for this industry. I always want to play, but I can never justify the $500, so this year when I won a seat for $30 I was really excited.

Your twitter (@WSOPSweetheart) is very popular throughout the poker community, and you’re not afraid to express your opinion. How do you view your role in addressing the game’s important issues?

I speak for those who can’t and I take that very seriously and I try to be strategic and elevate the conversation between players, management, and dealers. A lot of times it gets garbled. I try to be a conduit of information.

The dealers often get left out of the conversation. More and more, dealers today are required to do things that shouldn’t necessarily be left on the dealer. Many people don’t think about the mechanics of the game and how the game is happening in the dealer’s head.

I talk a lot about the physical aspect of dealing, and I get so many eye rolls. I have to remind people that smaller mechanical motions are far worse for your body than lifting heavy things. We can’t get workers comp from back pain issues or carpel tunnel. Sitting for so long is terrible for your health.

I try to explain that and sometimes people have a caveman mentality and want to say “you don’t have it so bad.” I don’t like to live my life by “it could be worse” because it can always be worse, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight for things to get better.

What is the lifestyle like for a poker dealer? What challenges do you face outside of the physical requirements of the job?

I think it’s important to focus on the difference between a house dealer and a travel dealer. They are two totally different things. Traveling dealers, or event dealers, go from gig to gig all over the country. They’re either temporary, on call, or seasonal. Usually you have to know someone to get on a crew. Some people work gig after gig, which is exhausting and expensive. Players can empathize with this, too. We travel all the same circuit stops and we have to pay for everything. So many players ask “do they put you up?” and I’m like “are you kidding?!”

There’s a lifestyle of living in your car. I haven’t had a home since I left Oregon two years ago. I decided to go on the road full time after my third year. I thought it would be fun for a while, and it is, but it has its pros and cons. I think I’m at the worst age for it. I wish I were doing this at 23, but maybe I would’ve been terrible with my money because working in a casino and being surrounded by that kind of cash can change the way you think about spending and saving.

How have the financial challenges of being a traveling dealer evolved?

It can be really swingy. You might go to a busy stop where there is a lot of work, but they over-hired. That will make your share of the pie less at the end of the event. As temporary employees, we don’t have access to healthcare and retirement benefits, and there are also differences in your legal status as an employee depending on where you are working. Sometimes you’re an independent contractor and sometimes you’re an employee of the event. In the past you could claim all of your business expenses as an independent contractor because you were your own business. If you were an employee, you could claim unreimbursed employee expenses.

The recent tax cuts did away with that, so now when I go stay at the Hard Rock in Florida, which is usually one of the best stops, I can’t claim my lodging and travel and food against my income. So it can really hurt you financially, especially if you itemize your taxes, which a lot of dealers do because they go to so many gigs and it starts to add up. That’s probably one of the main reasons that I’m looking to transition out of being a traveling dealer.

Were there issues balancing life in academia with life as a top poker dealer?

Two years ago I decided to take a year off of school because I was behind and I was struggling. I sold my home in Oregon and brought all my stuff to Vegas. It’s still in storage. I think I invested too much energy into poker and I did that in a very self-protective way. It was easier than a PhD program and it had more rewards; and if you think about it, I had been greatly rewarded. I was getting a lot of positive vibes from poker.

After that year off I had a lot of tragedy. My mom was struggling with heavy losses after Hurricane Michael. My step-mom had an aggressive form of cancer that she has been fighting, and my dad got cancer, so I abandoned my program because it got too complicated and difficult. I don’t think I can go back. I haven’t talked to anyone there since I left.

You’ve had a lot of transition in life. Do you see a long-term future for yourself as a dealer? What’s next?

I would like to go to Law school, but I don’t want to lose ties to the poker community because I love it. I have to figure out how to make my life meaningful and still be in poker.

I will always enjoy dealing to a group of really great people, having a good conversation, running a great game, and enjoying that social aspect of it. That’s what I love and that’s what I want to do.

Emily DeLaine with Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu
Emily with Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu

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