Written by Tomasz Goetel

It’s 1994. I’m sitting at a large table, surrounded by six other men. They’re tall, olive-skinned, looking very handsome and each in a luxurious suit. They like to wear suits next to the body: no shirt, no socks, no shoes, just the suit and an expensive watch. The table is set up in a penthouse of one of Moscow’s top hotels. Most of the men are the Chechen mafia kingpins and two of them are killers for hire. Their usual business is an active life of crime, but not tonight. This evening they’re enjoying a high-stakes card game and I’m their chosen, trusted poker dealer. I’m not new to the job. I’ve already excelled at dealing games professionally, working on contract in casinos, and occasionally getting hired for private games.

As a casino dealer, to excel at your job, you need to think quickly on your feet, work well under pressure, smoothly handle complicated calculations as well as the manual game-operation, all the while providing a superior service, therefore generating praise from the management and a wealth of tips from the customers… I absolutely loved this. From the root of my passion, I quickly achieved a rare excellence in handling fast roulette, intense blackjack and superfast crap (dice) games without apparent effort.

I was an “expat” in Russia—a top dealer and game supervisor in one of the busiest casinos in Moscow. I spoke Russian (it was compulsory at school in Poland, where I grew up) and was quite fearless at the young age of 22, so I did some home poker games for the Chechens. They were the precious, albeit grossly misbehaving, customers at the same hotel’s casino.

The casino was an interesting place. Owned by a gangster from Cyprus, and secured by hired ex-Spetsnaz (Russian special military force) armed gentlemen. Almost all players at the time were top Russian and Chechen gangsters, surrounded by their assistants (assassins, muscle-men, drivers and errand men). They gathered around different table games. Their usual line of work in extortion and murder gave them a reputation for violence and short tempers; however, for some unknown reason, they seemed to like me. I quickly made a name for myself as a good problem-solver. That got me promoted to game supervisor, because… there were problems!

There was a constant tension between the “gambling facilitator” (the casino management and security) and the “client” (a murderous bastard). The tension needed to be resolved, often by careful negotiation, in order for the gambling to happen, which both parties desired. The most common interruptions were caused by passionate gambler-to-gambler and gambler-to-staff disputes, colorful attempts at stealing and cheating, and all kinds of highly inappropriate social behaviour.

Luckily, the customers had to check-in their guns with their coats at the casino entrance, before they passed through the metal detector to enter the gaming floor. Whether it was due to intuition, my high-school “play hooky and negotiate to get away with it” education, or the skills I was born with—I negotiated and solved people’s problems. To handle people-problems, we need breathing skills to avoid over-reaction and taking things too personally. We need emotionally intelligent empathy plus some good verbal and non-verbal communication skills, too. And when all else fails, we just serve a lot of complimentary cognac to soften the ego, making everyone sink into their seats a little heavier.

After my time in Russia, I worked in Gypsy mafia casinos in Romania, where the customers brought bricks of cash in plastic shopping bags, sweet and easygoing casinos on luxury cruise liners around the world, where American tourists had a go at “beating the dealer” and more hardcore gambling boats off the coast of Florida, which were most likely used by their owners for laundering drug money.

I was a losing gambler myself for a few years, until I switched from casino gambling to playing serious poker, which proved to be a more profitable undertaking. In 2003, there was an Aussie girl I worked with on a gambling boat, and I liked her a lot. Had she been going to cooking or flower arranging classes, I’d have followed her there. She was into Hot Yoga, however, so I followed her into that.

Hot Yoga is the practice of athletic yoga, where the yoga exercises (called “postures”) are performed in a warm room. The practice has a reputation for being very successful in terms of healing and body building, as well as being appropriate for a modern person, the beginner.

Myself and the Aussie girl never married, but I had already signed up for yoga teacher training the following year, not knowing at the time that it’s one of the best of its kind in the world. The wonderful trainer, Mr. Jimmy Barkan of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, trains yoga teachers to successfully teach yoga to people through a combination of empathy and communication skills. Empathy? Communication skills? People? Oh, but I had 15 years of experience!

So, as you are probably able to guess, I naturally switched to teaching yoga, and there was no going back to the natural negativity of the casino environment. I arrived in Thailand on a 12-month yoga teacher contract in 2006 and enjoyed living here so much that I haven’t left. In 2007, I opened my own yoga studio in Phuket, and since then have been dedicated to helping people improve their health and well-being through the practice of yoga postures in a warm room and in the meantime developed my own teaching skills for training yoga teachers, too.

Do you think I’m still using the same self-management and people-skills that appeased the casino gangsters—to make my stiff yoga students feel more at ease in yoga situations? Absolutely. Only please don’t tell them, unless you’re sure they’ll understand…

I like to say that in life we can only connect the dots looking backward. So, looking back, it’s interesting for me to ponder how both industries; gambling and yoga practice, are very much service-oriented industries. The same skills may be required, but the difference is huge.

Involved in gambling, I’ve been helping others to literally hurt themselves and others, whereas through teaching yoga, I’m able to help others in the most beneficial, healthy way.