On the Good Ship Jackpot

The Tropicana's Thursday-night blackjack tournament floats local gamblers' boat

Omar Hernandez watches paternally as the regular crowd shuffles into the card room behind the Copacabana Lounge. Each Thursday the players arrive here at approximately 8:30 p.m. to enter the Tropicana's weekly blackjack tournament, the first, and so far only, such tournament held aboard a cruise ship in South Florida. Begun as an experiment this past July during the dog days of summer, a time when the cruise business traditionally ebbs, the Tropicana's Thursday-night blackjack tournament has been steadily growing in popularity as word of its existence and player-friendliness spreads. From as few as a dozen players during its inaugural week, the contest has grown to its current level of 30 or more, about two-thirds of them repeat customers who know their blackjack.

Tournament director Hernandez -- who also serves as senior casino executive for Tropicana Cruises, which operates the Tropicana -- welcomes the familiar faces with a smile: the Anglo hospital administrator and her Latin husband; the travel agent who calls herself "a citizen of the world"; the brothers from India who own an electronics shop downtown; the hard-drinking loner who drives other players crazy with his brusque, confrontational style; the Cuban-American owner of Fantasy Towing; the Brazilian guy who dances in the Tropicana's floor show; the Jewish lady who kvetches all the time and never lights her cigarette; the quiet Taiwanese man who everybody feels sorry for because he always comes close but never wins. And, not insignificantly, Connie Godwin and her son and business partner John.

Hernandez and Tropicana Cruises owner Fred Collins hit upon the idea for the blackjack tournament shortly after the vessel began sailing out of the Port of Miami on Valentine's Day this year.

"Players appreciate it," reasons the 60-year-old Collins, a self-described high roller and Las Vegas regular for some 35 years. In addition to Tropicana Cruises, he owns Collins Entertainment, a South Carolina-based slot machine and gaming equipment supplier that holds the distinction of being the leading video-poker machine distributor in the U.S. (Collins enjoys pointing out that South Carolina, that bastion of Baptist rectitude, is the largest market for video poker in the nation.) When asked if his company is publicly traded, Collins smiles confidently and responds, "Not yet."

The dapper, forthright Collins, who looks a little like a short James Garner, holds gaming licenses in fourteen separate jurisdictions within the U.S. and is developing a casino deal in the Mexican resort town of Cozumel. So he's no neophyte when it comes to gambling, although the Tropicana marks his first venture into the uncharted waters of seafaring casinos. To date, the results look promising. "We're much further along than we thought we'd be," Collins reveals. "We jumped out of the box making profits when we thought we'd have to eat some start-up losses for a while."

Hernandez and Collins designed the blackjack tournament to offer participants the best possible odds of winning, and savvy players have responded enthusiastically. "No one else offers surrender [a rule variation that, used correctly, cuts into the casino's advantage]," Collins boasts. "No one else has even considered doing a tournament, much less funding it from the casino cashier's cage."

"Miami's never had a daily cruise that's been handled correctly," adds Hernandez, a 42-year-old Miami native and Miami Beach High School grad who began his gaming career 28 years ago mucking chips at a craps table in Paradise Island and dealing high-stakes poker games to "the boys" poolside at luxury hotels on the Beach. "Lots of get-rich-quick operators have come and gone. But Mr. Collins is committed to staying in Miami and making it work."

Like Collins, the stout, affable tournament director is a seasoned blackjack player. He feels his two decades as dealer, pit boss, and manager at Vegas casinos such as Binion's Horseshoe and Caesar's Palace qualify him as an expert on the game. "I know the game and what to do to protect it," Hernandez asserts. "I've published books (Mr. Blackjack). I operated the Casino Career Academy in Hollywood, the first gaming school licensed in the state of Florida [which he closed when last year's statewide gambling referendum failed]. I have a bachelor's degree in hotel and restaurant management from UNLV [University of Nevada, Las Vegas]. My family owns La Cabana casino in Aruba. One thing I learned: From the standpoint of making money, it's better to be on this side [the casino side] of the fence. But in the gaming business today, players are much more sophisticated than they were when I started out. You have to go the extra mile for them in order to be competitive.

"This is a Disneyland for grownups," Hernandez reckons. "You get to eat, gamble, drink, see the show."

That may apply to the infrequent cruiser, but not so for the regular tournament players. Every Thursday they go through the same drill. First, pay the nineteen-dollar port charge and board the ship by 7:00 p.m. (it sails at 7:30 p.m.). Then kill a half-hour or so in the dining room putting away the complimentary buffet dinner (quite good by gambling cruise standards -- a variety of salads, fish, chicken, and beef entrees, dessert -- although the menu varies little, if at all, from one Thursday to the next). Tip the waitstaff well; most of them hail from impoverished countries such as Haiti, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic, rarely leave the boat, and earn a salary of $50 per month. Wander around the ship for ten or fifteen minutes, being careful to duck through low doorways bearing signs that warn passengers to "Mind your head." Chat idly with fellow tournament veterans above deck at the Toucan Lounge, where a one-man calypso-reggae band serenades passengers who watch the lights of Miami fade into the distance as the 385-foot, Bahamian-registered Tropicana makes its way down Government Cut toward open water. Or maybe opt for the musical variety revue in the Tropicana Lounge, with its bare-midriff dancing girls in frilly costumes.

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