News & Politics

When Svetlana Legetic Was a Card Dealer at a Serbian Casino

The founder of Brightest Young Things on her long-ago first job.

Svetlana Legetic, who would go on to found DC’s Brightest Young Things, shown in 1999. Photograph courtesy of Svetlana Legetic

“I was an overnight card dealer in a casino in Novi Sad, Serbia, where I grew up. I never worked in an ice cream shop—I went straight for the Russian mafia. This was 1999. I was 18 and in architecture school. Former Yugoslavia was not doing great, so having any job was pointless because the inflation was destroying things. You had to transfer your money to foreign currency the second you got it so it wasn’t devalued. My mother was a doctor, and my father was an engineer. They received their salaries and by the end of the week couldn’t go grocery shopping.

“Most of the jobs that are typically an option if you’re a teenager didn’t make sense. But a casino operated in foreign currency. You could actually buy Levi’s and CDs not on the black market.

“I have always been good at math, which was one of the requirements. It was like a casting call. They selected a handful of us because we were able to think on our feet, and also they wanted to put us in a short skirt. Whoever was in that Venn diagram got it.

“The number-one thing about our training was to understand the feel of everything so that your brain is sort of secondary. It was almost like mechanical automation—so your brain is as free as possible to do the things it needs to do. If you’re collecting chips, you have to know that ten chips has this feel. You can’t calculate a payout if you are also trying to count chips.

“The setup was eight-hour shifts. We did blackjack, poker, and roulette. Blackjack was my favorite because you only have to do math to 21. I worked four days a week till midnight and two days from 10 pm to 6 am. Before 6 pm and after 2 am, a casino is the saddest place in the world.

“I wore a tiny skirt, a shrunken white shirt. I’m six-foot-one and had bleached hair and bleached eyebrows. I looked like a Bond villain.

“You work for 20 minutes at a table, then take a break. Then you go to another table. We’re all rotating to avoid brain fatigue—or emotional connections with players. I did it for a semester, and they told us they were going to start splitting our tips. I was like, ‘These dudes that do nothing but flirt with waitresses are gonna get half my money?’ I feel pretty okay not doing it anymore.”

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.