On the Good Ship Jackpot

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

The most interesting tournament play usually occurs during the final three hands of the second round, when players who are trailing substantially have been known to make outrageous comebacks by betting all their chips and letting them ride until either taking the lead or busting out trying. It isn't unusual for a leader to make a conservative bet on the next-to-last hand, watch a distant competitor hit a blackjack or a lucky doubled bet, and suddenly be forced to make a huge wager on the last hand to regain what seconds earlier seemed like a safe lead. Skill is still important, but as the end of a round nears, money management becomes paramount.

You can see the strain on their faces as players try to compute the odds. At this point many of the first-round losers try to help their friends or relatives with the math, and Hernandez constantly has to remind onlookers not to advise or kibitz. The stakes are significant, and only a single winner from each second-round table advances to the third round for five hands of head-to-head play.

By this point the two finalists are usually content to split the pot 50-50 rather than take a chance on losing everything in a winner-take-all showdown. Tournament rules dictate that they must play the five hands anyway, thereby determining who will be photographed holding the mock check for $1000. Occasionally, however, a hardnose will insist on going for broke, and one recent pair agreed to play out the last five hands with the winner taking the casino's $1000 and the runnerup pocketing the entry fees. Both the Godwins agreed to split their pots 50-50 with their co-finalist; in one case the decision was moot because they ended up playing each other. John won that mother-son duel, and now his photograph hangs on the wall next to those of his mother and the other weekly winners.

But if John derived any special satisfaction from his victory, it didn't last long. Moments after his score, a woman onboard suffered a bout of seasickness and vomited all over the new champion A half-hour of scrubbing could not eliminate the distinctive eau de upchuck from John's clothing, which he had to endure until the boat docked two hours later. Reflecting on that embarrassing incident, John puts it in perspective. "Mom always taught us there are no bad sports in this family," he says, smiling broadly. "Cry on the inside, laugh on the outside." After all, he's laughing all the way to the bank.

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