Bet your life on a blackjack priest

Written in late Seventies, by Patti Hicks

Tom Higgins gives spiritual advice for a nickel, conducts fashion shows and sings whenever he can get an audience. He has posed as a black-caped villain, Ruldolph Valentino and a Southern Communist.

Tom Higgins, 42, is a professional. The silver-haired Jesuit, a chaplain and teacher at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, has made a profession out of his devotion to God. This summer he went to school to be a blackjack dealer in the city of sin.

I went to Las Vegas to find out what it was all about. When I arrived at the casino, the graveyard shift was changing the guard. Chatting dealers, huddled in a carpeted room upstairs, hushed. They put out their cigarettes and moved together like a pack, into the blackjack pits. At 2 AM they began a liturgy that was to last through to the dawn. Behind the tables they began rhythmically flipping cards and placing chips.

Cocktail waitresses stepped in and out of body spaces, taking orders, taking payment, serving drinks. Money and booze were flowing freely, and a Jesuit priest was taking bets from the drunks.

I noticed Father Higgins immediately, but only because I knew him. He was proudly wearing his dealers’ apron and We’re glad you’re here button, just like every other dealer.

He played blackjack just like a dealer, too. And although somewhat stern at times, he smiled a lot, despite the drunk players who swore at him indiscriminately. The ubiquitous pit bosses hawked him and only reprimanded him with a chuckle, Tom don’t sing along with the band when you’re dealing and Tom, don’t make jokes with the players.

I asked Eddie Jeffers, one of the pit bosses, what he thought about Father Higgins, a catholic priest – dealing in Vegas.

“It’s kinda funny knowing he’s a priest,” Jeffers said, “Nobody even suspects it. But he’s got a lot of good people on his side.”

Michael Gaughan, owner of the casino explained, “As part of the agreement, Tom doesn’t mention his priesthood while he’s dealing. People might feel funny about drinking and gambling with a priest dealing to them.” Gaughan, himself raised in Jesuit schools, believes that Father Higgins’ stint as a dealer is “very unique. But nothing that the Jesuits do every surprises me,’ he added.

Tom Higgins has been criticized for wasting time and talent, and scorned for giving scandal to the church. His fellow dealers, after one week with him, have praised him for coming down to earth where the people really need Christ. Yet only Higgins can explain his motivation. So I asked him why he went to the Las Vegas School of Dealing to earn a job paying $2 an hour plus tips, a job which puts his priestly profession into an awkward light. He answered, very conscious of possible scandal, yet challenging those who only look to the surface.

“Because it will help my dancing! Anyway the Church has had Bingo long enough and it’s time to move to something else. They need something for the high rollers.”

“Lots of people calling on God here,” he said. Oh, God, give me a six, give me at ten on this double down and I’ll reform my life. He looked at me sideways behind his black frames and sobered his explanation.

“They don’t, though. There are sad things here. Heard a loser say, I hate myself. I talked to him later. Some people drink so much that they move through the casino like wounded animals. And they’re lonely. The drunks always say, Don’t I know you? or Gimmie a ten, sweetheart. And their breath is foul — about five yards long.”

“Vegas is a study on loneliness,” he continued. “And being a dealer certainly makes you compassionate towards people. There’s a lot of stuff here you’d never get in the supermarket.” His conversation took up the whole room and he hardly stopped for a breath. His enthusiasm was magnetic. The not-so-glamorous Las Vegas came to life sentence by sentence, during a break between cigarette puffs over a 99 cent breakast.

“People express their feelings when they gamble, and that’s what I like. They walk up to a dealer and tell them their life story. It’s being a priest, listening to them.”

I began to understand that for gamblers, Vegas is a place to be who you might just be underneath it all. The cards are dealt and you get what you get. No one cares if you’re having fun, being free, obnoxious, ugly, old or smelly. You can be sexy or you can be a loser, as long as your money keeps pace with your hope of winning.

“Sometimes I wonder if what I am doing is worthwhile,” Higgins replied when I asked him why he had to go to Vegas to find people when he could find them as a teacher at university. ” As a priest you marry people and you bury them. They leave you, though, you know. In a way, priests are outsiders. It’s hard on graduation, because they go away.

“But you try to enable people to love themselves in the time that you know them. You try to enable them to believe that God loves them, that they are lovable. Gamblers and drunks are real people, too, you know. And I can only help them to the extent that I can experience and enter their lives.’

Higgins didn’t look like a priest right then, making jokes to the waitress as she poured coffee, but now I think it was my issue, not his. Because Tom Higgins makes you feel like a person before you become aware that he is a priest.

“People expect a priest to act in a certain way,” he said somewhat gruffly. “A priest isn’t supposed to express his own feelings. I know I express mine.

“And the way they present nuns and priests is ridiculous. A large magazine did a thing on priests. They had pictures of us in our cassocks picking grapes. Well, who picks grapes in their cassocks?”

I had to agree. And I could see more clearly that his interim stint as a blackjack dealer gave him confidence as a person and as a priest.

“Sometimes I think there’s an awful lot I have to offer as a priest,” he said, as he chucked a deck of cards, one card after another, onto the table. “I want to do a lot of different things so that I can be in a position to offer what I have to offer. That makes sense, doesn’t it?”

“Ten years ago, I’d have researched five books and made a very scholarly sermon. Now I have a feel for what should be done because I have a more realistic understanding of people. Now I just do it.”

In the Jesuit community, response to a blackjack-dealing priest is mixed. “But some of them are very good about this. A lot of them come up and shake my hand, By God, they say, Good to see someone with some imagination. They don’t try to change me.”

In another minute, he was gone. It was time to get back to the cards, the money and the people. Higgins played the graveyard shift into the morning.

An old man was losing at his table. The man kept reaching into his wallet, and he kept losing. He looked at Higgins a moment and asked,  Are you moonlighting? Vic, one of the pit bosses was nearing the table. Higgins answered quickly:

“You’re drunk and you’re going to drop you whole load, why don’t you go home?”  Vic looked at Higgins menacingly. Instead of a reprimand he said, “You get along with everybody, don’t you, Tom? Who knows, maybe you’ll reform the graveyard.”