July 08, 2012

Bally's Tower of Babel

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

~Genesis 11:1-9 (NIV)

If you spend much time in poker rooms on the Vegas Strip, you quickly discover that foreign players are a common sight. On one December trip a few years back, I kept track and found that I played poker with folks from more than 30 different countries over a six day period. Although it can be fun to talk to players from around the world, language and cultural barriers can crop up in unexpected ways, as foreign players struggle to adjust to American norms for proper poker procedure and etiquette.

One of the most common problems arises when two or more foreign players are playing at the same table and begin chatting in their native language. Of course, this violates the "English only" rule that is generally enforced to prevent players from sharing information or otherwise colluding during the play of a hand. Enforcing this rule can be difficult, as a poker dealer might not want to jeopardize tips from players by asking them to stop conversing. The rule is also awkward for foreign players who are not fluent in English and find themselves shut out of the casual table chat. The WSOP with its influx of foreign poker players only exacerbates the situation. A couple of summers ago, I nearly quit playing in the Caesars Palace poker room during the WSOP because the dealers essentially ignored the English only rule, and permitted foreign language conversation even among players with live hands.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I played a few sessions of poker during a short trip to Vegas with the sig other. I was playing at Bally's one weekday afternoon when a female dealer rotated to our table. The dealer appeared to be in her 40s, and was Asian with a distinct Asian accent, but she spoke English well and could generally be understood, with occasional moments when her fast speech patterns combined with Bally's general background noise required closer attention to understand what she was saying.

The other characters in this melodrama were the gent in Seat 10 and a young gal sitting behind him, sweating his play. The gent was also Asian, mid-50s, and had a thick Asian accent on the rare occasions he spoke. His gal pal was Hispanic and appeared to be in her late-20s; she had a noticeable Hispanic accent. What could possibly go wrong?

For the first 20 minutes of the Asian dealer's down, nothing notable happened. The Asian gent and his Hispanic gal would occasionally chatter with each other, usually when the gent had folded. But they began talking during one hand while the Asian gent was debating his action when facing a big bet. The dealer turned and said something to the Hispanic gal. The Hispanic gal looked confused, then said something back to the dealer, who replied, this time more loudly, "English only, please."

Uh oh.

Hilarity ensued.

Hispanic Gal: "What do you mean, 'English only'? I was speaking English!

Dealer:  "You can only use English during a hand."

Hispanic Gal:  "I was speaking English!"

Dealer:  "It didn't sound like English!"

Hispanic Gal:  "What's wrong with how I speak? I was speaking English!"

Dealer:  "It didn't sound like English to me."

Hispanic Gal:  "Are you saying I can't speak English?"

Yes, two individuals for whom English is a second language were arguing about which of them was at fault for their failure to communicate. And they were both visibly upset by the situation.

The dealer to her credit, ended the discussion and finished out her down at the table with no further comment. The Hispanic gal, however, clearly was not interested in letting the incident go, and stalked off to corner the floor person. He accompanied her back to the table, where the dealer explained her side of the situation. The floor patiently let the Hispanic gal vent, then said, "I'm sorry, there seems to have been a misunderstanding. I'm not going to reprimand my dealer for trying to make sure our rules are followed." The Hispanic gal took offense to the floor's comments, and went off in a lengthy diatribe about how the dealer had insulted her by not understanding she was speaking in English. Finally, the floor offered another apology and moved along, while the Hispanic gal resumed her seat, clearly fuming.

Poker has truly developed into a global game, which creates inevitable cultural and linguistic complications. Balancing the need to enforce an English only rule with the common presence of foreign and foreign-born players and dealers at the poker tables is a difficult task at best. Hopefully everyone involved will recognize the need to handle the inevitable misunderstandings in a diplomatic fashion with grace and humor.

The Tower of Babel (image source).


  1. Played at the Mirage earlier this year when two guys with thick Scottish accents were conversing. It was rough but I could make out most of what they were saying but the 120 year old dealer turned to them and stated "English only" and a few people gave the dealer a WTF glance.
    This is when I piped up and said "they were speaking English, but maybe you could try to enforce the little used "No Accents at the Table" policy"

    Everyone laughed but the dealer.

  2. A story from four years ago:


  3. I've been to MGM and Caesars once and I've met amazing people whom english is a second language and could generally be understood. I never had any issues with them.

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