On the Good Ship Jackpot

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

But although she readily admits to being a grandmother four times over, she won't reveal her age. "I have a little sign on my refrigerator," she laughs. "It says, 'A woman who tells her age will tell anything.'" It is a measure of her charm that Godwin remains popular on the gambling cruise despite the fact that she has won or finished second in three of the seven tournaments she has entered (son John is two for six), while most of her recurrent competitors have never even made it to the final two-person table.

The secret of her success? In a word, patience. "Every man will do the same thing," she confides. "Because of their macho attitude, men will bet everything right at the beginning. That's why they're always the first ones out."

"Every time I play [in the tournament], I have to resist the temptation to bet it all on the first hand," John confirms.

"I just hope the men keep doubling up," adds Connie.
"Plus, you gotta have the luck," John concludes. His mother just nods in assent.

While Omar Hernandez registers contestants and collects their $25 entry fees, the dealers prepare their tables for action. Tournament dealers vary from week to week, but four seem to work the contest more regularly than others: handsome Omar (Connie's favorite) from the Dominican Republic, demure Geraldine and giggling Miriam from the Philippines, and deadpan Edwin from New York City. Prior to the start of play, they spread out the six decks that will be used at their respective tables and inspect the cards, both to confirm that they're all there and to detect any imperfections or irregularities. This process takes anywhere from fifteen minutes to half an hour.

Although tournament registration is officially supposed to begin at 8:00 p.m. and the tournament is scheduled to start at 8:30, nobody takes those deadlines seriously. Not even Hernandez. On most Thursday nights early birds arriving at the Copacabana Lounge promptly at the advertised time of 8:00 will find the doors to the card room locked.

A majority of the tournament players live in South Florida, however, and are accustomed to this casual attitude toward time. As a result they arrive at approximately 8:30, pay their 25 bucks, and loiter in the lounge or try their luck at the one-armed bandits while they wait for play to begin. (As if the Godwins' success in the tournament isn't impressive enough, both have hit jackpots on the slot machines while waiting for the tournament to start or while marking time after losing their tournament bankrolls. Connie pocketed $800 from a machine one night; John raked in $900.)

By 8:40 Hernandez has signed everybody up and collected their fees. He gathers all the contestants together to explain the rules of the tournament, which are pretty straightforward. The players are divided among four tables. Table and seat selection are chosen by drawing lots. Amazingly, even though tournament signup officially begins at 8:00 and realistically lasts until about 8:40, a straggler always seems to wander into the card room just as Hernandez is about to pronounce "Ready, set, go!" The tournament supervisor, ever placatory, turns the decision of whether or not to admit the latecomer(s) over to the already-seated players. "This is a players' tournament," he'll say. "You decide." The dawdler's likelihood of being accepted at this point depends largely on how well-known -- and well-liked -- he is. With a possible thousand-dollar-plus pot awaiting the tournament winner, no one really wants to water down their chances by flooding the pool of entrants.

The tournament consists of three rounds. The first two rounds last for 30 minutes each, with a five-minute break in between. Only the two leading money-winners from the first round at each table advance to the second round, reducing the field to eight.

Once Hernandez gives the signal to begin play, the atmosphere in the card room changes drastically. It becomes charged with quiet anxiety, a marked contrast from the boisterous camaraderie that prevails downstairs in the main casino. The tournament's no-smoking rule could be a contributing factor to the tension, but more likely it's a product of the every-man-for-himself nature of tournament play. You can see players concentrating harder and hear them congratulating each other on good hands less frequently or enthusiastically. Players will still beg for a "picture" card -- a jack, queen, or king -- when their first card is an ace, but you can feel the silent groans of everybody else at the table when they get it, a pointed departure from normal casino play when other players' "blackjacks" are cause for celebration. Tournament blackjack is not for the timid or the insecure.

After the five-minute break between the first and second rounds (nonsmokers who fail to make it into the second round can get a few seconds' fun watching the smokers who just beat them rush from the card room into the Copacabana Lounge, light up, and puff away furiously for a few precious minutes), the action moves to only two tables with four players each. The second round lasts for 30 minutes as well. Here's where the going gets really cutthroat; the difference between leaving the tournament empty-handed and going home with $1500 in your pocket can come down to less than a dollar. Knowing where you stand relative to the other players at your table becomes critical. By way of illustration, John Godwin once finished second to his table-winner by 50 cents; the man had won two quarters as part of a blackjack payout. And Connie Godwin once topped the runnerup at her table by $1.50.

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