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For newcomers an hourlong instructional video plays continuously over several TV monitors located throughout the ship, offering gambling tips on every casino game from craps to baccarat. (Tip #1, not included in the video: If you need to watch the portion of this tape that deals with blackjack, you are probably not ready for tournament play just yet.) The tape runs for the duration of the cruise and seems to be everywhere, resulting in a very Big Brother-like effect.
Around 8:15 p.m. the tournament participants straggle into the Copacabana Lounge. Players drink free. Some take full advantage of this amenity, while others abstain completely; rarely do the heaviest drinkers make it to the final table. The lounge leads to the slot-machine-rimmed card room, where tournament honcho Hernandez, sitting behind a podium set amid an array of four blackjack tables (more if the number of entrants warrants), logs in participants' names. It costs $25 to enter the tournament (these entry fees go into the tournament pot), and players must buy in for an additional $100. But this is where the Tropicana's blackjack tournament distinguishes itself from other similar competitions in places such as Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or the Bahamas. For your $100 buy-in, the Tropicana gives you $130 in live casino chips. In most, if not all, other tournaments, the chips you receive have no value outside the tournament. Live casino chips means that even if you don't win any prize money in the tournament, you still get to keep any dough you make at the tables.
The tournament prize money is nothing to sneeze at, usually in the vicinity of $1500 -- $1000 from the casino, plus the combined entry fees. In fact the Tropicana's unique combination of using live chips and seeding the jackpot with $1000 makes its blackjack tournament quite lucrative for serious players. In a normal six-deck game, the house enjoys only a slim 1.5 percent margin over the skilled blackjack player (compared to, say, a six percent advantage -- four times as unfavorable for the player -- in roulette). Yes, you can still lose -- that's why they call it gambling, after all -- but your chances of making a killing are greatly enhanced by the possibility of winning the jackpot. It's like you are playing two games with the same chips: one against the casino and one against your fellow players.
"We do everything possible to give the players a chance," notes Hernandez. "In blackjack the house [gambler slang for casino] enjoys the strategic advantage that the player always has to go first and will often bust. In tournament blackjack, the house edge doesn't matter. You're playing against other players. A good player can turn that to his advantage. How many tournaments do you know of that the house contributes $1000 of its own?" Hernandez asks rhetorically before supplying the answer: "None."
Of course, Tropicana Cruises did not go into the casino business to give away money. Each Thursday night, after the first round of the tournament narrows the field from two dozen players to eight, and the second round pares it down further to two, nearly all of that night's tournament losers head downstairs to wager at the regular blackjack tables in the larger, fully equipped gaming room (which also offers roulette, craps, Caribbean no-draw poker, video poker, and mini-baccarat). Here the house enjoys its 1.5 percent advantage.
Nearly everybody who plays blackjack with any sort of frequency thinks of himself or herself as a pretty good player, but the casino knows better. An optimal system of play (called "basic strategy" or "playing by the book") has been developed over the years using computer modeling and simulation. A simple chart showing what a player should do in any situation can be found in almost any blackjack primer.
While just about all blackjack players pay lip service to this system, few actually adhere to it. Some people bet hunches, some get sloppy when their second or third complimentary drink kicks in, and some just plain aren't very good to begin with. Certainly the overall level of blackjack play during the Tropicana's tournament is higher than that at the ship's regular tables, but the casino also understands that very few players have the discipline to play perfect basic strategy.
"That tournament has really helped them," opines Thursday-night regular John Godwin, a tall, open-faced, soft-spoken fellow. "We [he and his mother] went on the same cruise before they had the tournament, and it wasn't nearly as full."
Adds mom Connie Godwin: "You've got to figure it brings at least two dozen people, and they usually bring at least one other person. So that's nearly 50 people. And those people are gamblers. If they had these on all the cruise ships on different nights, I'd not only go on the Tropicana -- I'd go on a tournament cruise every night."
Everybody who plays knows Connie Godwin. If the Tropicana picked a homecoming queen, it would be her. The slim, gregarious blonde with the Texas accent and an abundance of tasteful gold jewelry once owned a popular Miracle Mile women's clothing boutique that bore her name, and currently she co-owns and co-manages -- Blooming Miracle flower shop in Coral Gables with John. She's not what you'd call a shrinking violet. For example she'll tell you right up front how many times she's been married (four, but to only three men -- one she hitched twice), how all four of her kids like to gamble (41-year-old John being a case in point), and how John has covered for her at work a lot over the past nine months because she was glued to her TV set at home watching "the trial" (you know, the big one that just ended). She'll also tell you about her burgeoning piggy bank collection, the ceramic dice she picked up in Las Vegas, and her fondness for sad movies with downer endings.