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.

Few of those on-board know of (or care about) the ship's colorful history. According to Collins, the Tropicana was built in 1966 at the Cockrell Boatyards in Hoboken, Belgium, and christened the Princess Paola in honor of the woman who would become that country's queen in 1993. The Belgian government built the ship exceedingly heavy, with lots of steel reinforcement to withstand the turbulent North Seas where the Princess Paola would see extensive duty as a ferry. A decade and a half later, a Greek shipping concern headed by international wheeler-dealer Takis Kiriakidis purchased the Paola for $28 million, plunked it into the port of Piraeus, renamed it the Sea Palace, and literally cut the ship in half to lengthen it 60 feet. Collins will not speculate as to how the Guinness Mahon Bank of England, which financed the Kiriakidis deal, wound up with the boat, but they did. Guinness Mahon sold it to British investor Graham Kornish, who renamed it the Tropicana after the renowned casino in Havana. Eventually Kornish, too, would lose the boat back to Guinness Mahon. The bank then leased the vessel to day-cruise armada SeaEscape, who operated it out of ports in Texas and on both coasts of Florida. SeaEscape experienced some financial problems of its own, and in 1991 the boat went into dry dock.

Collins tendered an offer to purchase the ship in early 1994, but Guinness Mahon, holding out for a higher price, turned him down. But the Bank of Tokyo, which acquired Guinness Mahon at about the same time Collins made his offer, ordered the nonperforming asset liquidated. And suddenly Fred Collins found himself in the gambling cruise business.

"They were tired of losing money on the boat," Collins remembers. "And I paid cash. They weren't about to finance another sale." His memory, so clear on the other details of the boat's past, mysteriously fogs up when the question arises of exactly how much Collins paid. The proud new owner does allow, however, that he spent nearly eight million dollars on renovations, including the installation of state-of-the-art surveillance equipment and high-tech slot machines that enable the Tropicana to offer daily slot machine tournaments, as well as player tracking, multiple jackpots, and frequent-player discounts.

The Thursday-night blackjack tournament is only one factor among many drawing people aboard the ship. It sails seven days a week, with evening gambling cruises every night, a full-day excursion to Bimini on Saturday, and five-hour gambling jaunts every afternoon except Monday and Saturday. While the number of passengers varies widely owing to seasonal tourism and weather conditions, the ship usually carries between 150 to 300 people (maximum capacity is 850) who have paid anywhere from a minimum of $19 for port charges alone on one of the five-hour cruises to as much as $49 (plus $35 port charges) for the Saturday trip to Bimini.

A Tropicana cruise can even make a nice, cheap date for nongamblers; for the price of a dinner at a moderate restaurant, you get a Vegas-style floor show (without the partial nudity), palatable buffet-style dining, duty-free shopping, and that romantic magic conjured up by the wind blowing through your hair as you slice through the water into a night full of stars (or, during the daytime, as you bask/frolic by the pool). Just be aware that most of your fellow cruisers are there to gamble, not gambol.

To a serious blackjack player, taking a gambling cruise is a little like being trapped inside a mediocre hotel in Reno for five and a half hours. The ship's casino is closed when you arrive, and anxious gamblers -- assuming that's not a redundancy -- can go a little crazy from the waiting. A good 90 minutes elapse from the time you board the boat to that glorious moment when the sudden ringing and clanging of the slot machines herald the vessel's arrival in international waters (where U.S. and Florida laws have no jurisdiction over gambling) and the official opening of the casino.

The most important distinction between cruise ship gambling and any other type of casino play is that, win or lose, you can't leave the boat. Start your night with a lucky run at the tables and the odds are you'll give it all back before the ship returns to port. Few have the discipline to just walk away winners and spend the rest of the evening sampling the "activities" -- checking out the shows, playing Name That Tune in the Copacabana Lounge, dancing to the tunes the DJ spins in the disco. Conversely, if you start out with a losing streak, you can't simply call a cab to go home or move on to another casino. So by the time the blackjack tournament finally commences approximately one hour into the cruise, the players are itching for action.

The three and a half hours that the casino is open fly by. But winner and loser alike must quit playing an hour or so before returning to port when the ship re-enters Florida waters. The cruise line tries to ease these periods of downtime with the dinner buffet upon arrival and a coffee-and-sweet-rolls snack after the casino closes, but to borrow a line from Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part.

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.

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.

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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