She Plays With a Full Deck : Martha Watson Is Now a Card Dealer

Times Staff Writer

A four-time Olympian who retired from competition in the early 1980s, Martha Watson hasn't been lost in the shuffle.

She would lose her job if she did.

Now 41 and recently inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Watson is a blackjack dealer at Caesars Palace.

"All those years trying to make the Olympic team were a gamble, too," she said, laughing. "Maybe that's why I'm here. I've been gambling all my life."

She is here for a variety of reasons--mostly dollars and sense.

A former U.S. record-holder in the long jump and co-holder of the world record for 60 meters, Watson was a little too early for today's open era when leading "amateur" athletes can achieve financial security through appearance fees and endorsement contracts.

"There was always a lot of talk about people slipping money into your shoes," she said, smiling. "Well, I left my shoes everywhere and they were always empty when I came back.

"It's a whole different world now. You're not only competing for wins, you're competing for contracts as well.

"All of that negotiating requires a lot of politics, and I always found it hard to compete and be political at the same time.

"I mean, I never made any money from it, but I do have lots of memories and friends all over the world. That's what I was about then.

"I also think there's a big drop between what people like Evelyn Ashford, Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses make and what all the others make. I think a lot of it is exaggerated."

Once in the spotlight, she is here in the land of the neon because times change and life moves on.

Watson had supported herself in the '70s by coaching at various times at Cal State Dominguez Hills, and Los Angeles Southwest and El Camino community colleges, supplementing that comparatively meager income with part-time jobs in the recreational field, such as director of women's recreation in Carson.

When Proposition 13 eliminated many of her options, she was forced to look elsewhere. As a graduate of Long Beach Poly High School and one of the first women to receive an athletic scholarship, she had gone on to gain a bachelor's degree in speech pathology at Tennessee State.

But to pursue a position in that field, she said, would have required her to return to college, which she said she didn't have time for while still in training, her last goal being the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, which would have been her fifth.

It was while attending the first National Sports Festival in Colorado Springs, Colo., in November, 1978, that Watson first learned of the United States Olympic Committee's Work Opportunity Program and Caesars participation in it.

"I had never even been to Las Vegas," she said. "I had never really played cards except for kids games at home. Math had always been a worry for me, but I figured it had to be easy counting to 21.

"It seemed to be the means to a decent living and a chance to continue to compete, and in some ways, I was more curious than anything.

"I had some preconceived ideas of what a casino should look like, but this didn't fit any of them.

"I mean, this is beautiful."

Watson, on this day, had drawn the noon-to-8 shift at a table where the betting limits were $500 to $5,000. The chairs in front of her were empty in mid-afternoon.

The heavy bettors, she said, generally don't appear until after dinner. She would prefer some steady action.

"Time goes faster when you're dealing," she said. "Otherwise you're always looking at the clock and thinking about what you'd be doing if you were home. Also, if you're dealing, you have a chance at a toke."

A toke, in betting jargon, is a tip. At the $500 to $5,000 table, tips can be sizable. After 10 years, Watson said, she is now comfortable handling the cash and chips.

She has dealt games, she said, where there was as much as $500,000 in her chip rack.

"I was nervous about the money in the beginning," she said, "but now I tell myself, 'Martha, you're never going to handle this much money in any other situation, so enjoy it.'

"I mean, it's exciting when you've got six hands at $5,000 each. You can't go to sleep when that's going on."

Caesars paid for her five weeks at dealers school. The keys, she said, are accuracy in card count and clarity in payoff. Smoothness, she said, is more important than speed. Can she pull any card at any time, as most Vegas visitors believe all dealers can?

"If I could I wouldn't," she said. "The gaming commission is so strong that I wouldn't want to risk losing my license."

Watson won the indoor national championship in the long jump five times and the outdoor championship three times.

She was a member of the U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo, Mexico City (where she recorded her best Olympic long jump finish of 10th), Munich and Montreal.

Because her longtime coach, Dave Rodd, worked with the Lakewood International Club, Watson's job at Caesars made commuting difficult, but she was determined to continue a bid for the 1980 Olympic team until the decision to boycott Moscow "killed the spark."

"Only a few people have gone to five Olympics, and that would have been my fifth," she said. "I would have been prepared to move on then. I've always been a little angry about it. I've always felt it left something of a bad taste."

Watson, however, will attend the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, receiving a two months leave of absence to serve as a manager of the women's track and field team ("I feel a little guilty getting to go without having to train," she says.) And her recent nomination and election last December to the Hall of Fame by fellow competitors, coaches and officials in The Athletics Congress assuaged some of the lingering anger.

"Being elected by my peers was better than getting a medal," she said. "It was kind of like they were saying to me, 'thank you for being a part of it.' I always felt that I was the one who should say thank you."

The camera of her mind can focus on a myriad of memories and journeys. Where hasn't she been? She could think of only Africa. Now, still single ("my mother says I'm too choosy"), she has a house in Las Vegas and a job that puts her outgoing personality in communication with a continually changing clientele.

The job also allows her time to take voice lessons and pursue a hobby of writing greeting cards, which she does on the computer she bought herself for Christmas. How long will she continue to deal?

"Probably five years at least," she said. "I enjoy it and it's been good to me. If it wasn't for the smoke in the casino, I'd probably stay forever.

"When I go home, I don't take anything with me. I only have to be concerned about having a clean shirt for tomorrow.

"I almost feel like I'm grazing, as if someone is saying, 'Hey, you worked hard and did a good job, now just enjoy life.' "

Except for occasionally playing video poker, Watson said that she hasn't found working in Las Vegas to be an occupational hazard. Any advice to the gamblers who play her table?

"The only goal here should be to come and have a good time," she said. "And leave enough for the payroll."

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