My Mexican Riviera Poker Cruise Experience

Or "How to Eat, Drink, Sunbathe, and Play Poker
Without Really Trying"

Andy GlazerAndrew N.S. Glazer was a respected poker tournament reporter who wrote for many gaming and mainstream publications. Called a "poker scholar" by Newsweek, Glazer was the author of Casino Gambling the Smart Way, and wrote a weekly gambling column for the Detroit Free Press. He wrote regular poker features for several websites. He was also a regular columnist at Card Player Magazine.

After this areticle was written, Andy Glazer approached us and told us that a reader's comments had caused him to rethink the attempts at humor he used in reference to the lifeboat drill. He thought it was important for everyone to have a sense of what to do, even though the ships are extremely safe, and urges all cruise participants to do the smart thing and NOT hide in their cabins.

Like any good poker player, I don't venture into a new situation without doing plenty of research first, so when Card Player's Linda Johnson encouraged me to try a poker cruise, I jumped at the chance. After all, I'd spent dozens of dateless Saturday nights in my teens watching "Love Boat" and a couple of other dateless Saturday nights more recently renting "Titanic," so I was pretty sure I'd know what to do when the ship's bartender tried to fix me up with the fabulous woman I'd been wanting to meet all cruise, or how to rescue the gorgeous heiress who was preparing to throw herself overboard.

I'd also watched plenty of "Gilligan's Island," but as we were going for a week, not a three-hour tour, I felt my many hours of debating the "Ginger vs. Mary Anne" issue would not help on this cruise (I was a Mary Anne guy, by the way).

Brimming with my preparatory confidence, I thus boarded the Carnival cruise ship Elation for its May 21-28 voyage to the Mexican Riviera (Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, and Cabo San Lucas), humming the theme music from "Love Boat" the whole while.

I had failed to take into account that Isaac would not be bartending on this voyage and that there is very little chance that I would ever be mistaken for Leonardo DiCaprio, though, so my experience turned out to be a bit different from my fantasy. But I still had a rocking good time, and hopefully I'll be able to give you some tips here on how to prepare for, and have fun on, your own future Card Player cruise.

First, two words about seasickness: forget it. These giant cruise ships are so huge, most of the time you have to be up on deck to remember you're at sea. I never met anyone who felt a trace of it the whole journey. A 300-yard long behemoth doesn't rock and sway like a 26-foot sailboat.

Actually, the lack of motion pointed out one mistake I did make: wanting to save every nickel for the poker tables, I booked an inside cabin. I wouldn't do that again, and wouldn't recommend you do. Without a window or porthole (to say nothing of the lovely balconies that the more expensive suites had), I didn't really feel like I was at sea when I was in my room. Outside cabin for me next time, for sure. Fortunately, there was so much going on that I didn't really spend any time in the room, except for when I was sleeping.

What kept me so distracted the rest of the time? A poker cruise, it turns out, is pretty much like a regular cruise (fewer than 10% of the ship's passengers were connected to the poker crowd) except that you have a professionally staffed poker room to retreat to when you get tired of gourmet meals, dancing, buffets, sunbathing, 24-hour pizza, Jacuzzis, snacks, massages, the sushi bar, margaritas, room service, casino gambling, and late night crepes.

I'm almost sure there was a lot of food, also. It's a good thing there aren't import duties on extra poundage gained during the voyage, or almost all of us would have been "heavily" fined. I myself had to dodge three harpoons hurled at me when I was on the beach at Mazatlan, and our voyage was only half-over at that point.

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself with stories of Mazatlan, though; I want to take you along for the ride chronologically.

We were supposed to depart LA at 4:00 on Sunday, but the good ship Elation proved to be the e-late-tion that day, due to some very unusual fog (this was LA, not London). It was a long while before the passengers from the previous cruise could exit and the ship could be cleaned, so I was glad I had my backgammon board with me, and a number of other cruise veterans were glad they had kept a book with them, for just such an emergency.

We left about three hours behind schedule, and because it takes a while for your luggage to be delivered to your stateroom, everyone went to dinner in the same clothes they were wearing when they boarded. Smug cruise veterans told me that even when the ship departs on time, it can sometimes take a while for luggage to reach your room, so they had dressed the way they wanted to be seen in the dining room the first night (which was also the night of the singles party).

Me, I was wearing an outfit that would barely have been tolerable beach-side, and I certainly wasn't going to the singles party wearing it, so with my built-in excuse for not meeting anyone the first night now well in hand, I went straight from dinner to the poker room.

One other word about dinner, actually, before I get to the games. You get to choose either the early or late seating for your meals before the cruise begins, and you stick with that choice for the whole week (you also eat with the same group all week, unless you skip the formal meal and go to the buffet). Card Player strongly encourages all the poker players to take the early seating, both so you can sit with your group, and for minimum disturbance to operation of the poker room, but you can opt for the late seating if you really want to insist.

On a full ship you can have trouble switching, so it's a good idea to think carefully before trying to opt out of the suggested early seating. I came away thinking the late seating was better only for people who didn't want to play much poker or hang out with the poker crowd, which didn't sound like a description that would fit most people going on a poker cruise.

We had a pretty wide range of poker games available. Usually you could find 1-5 stud, 4-8 hold'em, 4-8 Omaha, 10-20 hold'em, and 30-60 HOE (hold'em, Omaha, and stud eight or better in half-hour rotation). Sometimes there were smaller hold'em games (nice little 1-2 games for beginners), once I found a 10-20 Omaha game, and occasionally the stakes got a little higher in some games. There was also a pretty pricey looking Chinese poker game going once, but I'd had my fill of sharks in the ocean that day and stayed away. Mostly I played the 10-20 hold'em with an occasional dip into the HOE game.

This poker cruise was one of Card Player's smaller outings. On most cruises, I'm told there are also 2-4 hold'em and Omaha games, as well as regularly spread 50-100 games, and that basically the cardroom will spread any game the players want at any limit, so if you and your 200-400 Razz buddies want to sail the Caribbean, you'll be able to play.

The games were pretty relaxed and friendly, with a way-below average number of calls for a floorman or nasty remarks. Everyone wanted to win, but everyone also understood they were on vacation, and it made for nicer games in both senses of the word. People were "nicer" to each other, and the relaxed attitude made it easier to win, I think, than it would have been playing with the same group on land.

Another thing I realized early on, compulsive competitor that I am, is that since I was going to be playing with the same people pretty much every day, I wanted to put a little extra effort into looking for tells and habits. I came up with some good ones, too. My favorite was "call the guy who keeps ordering margaritas."

I made a relatively early night out of it, as it had been a long day, and I wanted to be fresh for the limit hold'em tournament the next morning. Yep, fresh out of covering poker tournaments daily for three and a half weeks at the World Series, I was going to spend the first morning of my vacation playing in a poker tournament. Da Vinci himself couldn't have been more of a Renaissance man.

We were supposed to start the tournament at 10 a.m., but play was delayed by the all-important life preserver drill. Technically this Coast Guard-mandated affair is called the lifeboat drill, but since we only stood near the lifeboats, while we all struggled mightily with our life preservers, I decided to rename it.

In the life preserver drill, everyone on the ship is told well in advance that they will have to go to their cabins, put on their orange life jackets, and calmly go to their designated station, to prepare them for the chance that the ship would strike an iceberg floating around 300 miles south of Los Angeles.

I learned several things during the life-preserver drill. First, the darned things are difficult to put on, unless you are eight years old, in which case you can give instructions to the nearby adults, just like they were trying to figure out how to play a video game.

Second, it is more or less impossible to look dignified wearing one of these things, so if you're going cruising with someone you want to blackmail later, make sure to bring your camera during the life-preserver drill (actually, there are many opportunities to blackmail people with photos taken during these cruises, so much so that I think the financially motivated should skip the juicy poker games and just wander around packing lots of film).

Third, practically everyone not smart enough to hide in their stateroom actually does take part in the life-preserver drill, and everyone walks in a calm and orderly fashion, just as I'm sure they would do if we actually did find an iceberg near the equator. Uh-huh. I can just see it. No wonder the ship's personnel in Titanic carried guns; I had old women elbowing me aside to get at the day's fifth meal, I can only imagine what would happen if we actually sprung a leak. But there were plenty of sturdy boats, and I'm sure that by the time a ship in the Carnival fleet actually has to use one, Leonardo DiCaprio will be so old, even he won't be able to get a date on ship.

Now, I have already made several allusions to the Good Ship Elation not turning out to be the Love Boat for our Good Author Andy, and while I did collect a great many excuses (not being properly dressed for the Singles party, the poker games being too good, not wanting to disturb my roommate, and being terrified of having anyone say "no" to me), I'm almost positive that my experience wasn't a universal phenomenon. Jeff Shulman, fresh off his marvelous performance in The Big One at the Series, was a BMOS (Big Man on Ship), or at least so I intuited from his frequent mysterious disappearances and the disturbing amount of attention he received from women who looked a lot more like Ginger and Mary Anne than Mrs. Howell.

Had I been willing to spend less time in the poker room and more time in the disco or lounges, I might have had a different result to report, but to drop out of "attempted funny" mode for a moment and get back into actual reporting for people who might be thinking about taking a poker cruise, I think that most of the people who were involved with a member of the opposite sex on this cruise boarded the ship with that person. Singles were heavily outnumbered by couples on this trip (gosh, I forgot to add that to my list of excuses).

I think there's a lot to be said for bringing a spouse or significant other onto a cruise like this… in fact, there's a lot to be said for bringing a whole group of friends along with you. A cruise ship is a terrific place to party with people you know. Nobody has to drive home, there are a million things to do together, and a million places to go if you want to get away from your friends for a little while. I think it would be a great place to bring a non-poker-playing friend, for the same reasons: good opportunities to spend time both together and apart.

If you don't bring a friend along, the poker part of the cruise is a real saving grace for people who don't easily make new friends, because you very quickly become buddies with the other poker players, and because Linda Johnson puts an unbelievable amount of effort into making sure everyone is having fun, knows other people, has things to do. If I ever fool someone into thinking I'm a great guy, er, I mean, find the right person for me, I want Linda to be my wedding planner.

Speaking of those of you who have already strode down the aisle, these cruises are a terrific way to take a family vacation without having the kids in your hair every minute. Carnival has a pretty amazing kids program where they are all off having lots of fun until pretty late in the evening, a well-supervised deal whereby parents can sort of have their cake and eat it too: a vacation with the kids that isn't dominated by the kids.

Anyway, by now I think I have wandered away from the subject of Monday's limit hold'em tournament long enough for people to forget to ask how I did, so we'll just skip over that and congratulate "the gold-dust twins," Barry and Jeff Shulman, for finishing first and third. Second went to my roommate, who did not want to be identified in this article. I'm not sure quite what reasons lurked behind this secrecy request, but I had a grand old time with my newfound pal and if he wants his privacy he can have it. He's Racer X for the rest of this story.

Limit Hold'em $120 buy-in $3700 prize pool

1) Barry Shulman TOC qualification and $1,665
2) Racer X $925
3) Jeff Shulman $555
4) Carol Arnold $370
5) Lowell Davis $185
6) Rene Bowman Card Player Digest

I was glad we had a poker tournament Monday, because we were at sea all day and it was too cold to really enjoy being on deck, so poker provided a nice alternative. I got out of the 10-20 game in time to dress for dinner, though, because Monday night was the first of two "formal dress" evenings.

I'd actually brought a good suit along with me, because the one bit of cruise research I actually had done (aside from Love Boat and Titanic) had disclosed these two formal nights, and because Melissa Hayden had told me at the World Series (after snapping a picture of me where I actually looked presentable) that "all men look good in suits, that's why they make them." So I donned the soup and fish, as Bertie Wooster used to say, and joined a group of very well-dressed poker players, so well-dressed in fact that I wouldn't have recognized most of them, even the ones I'd known for years (in fact, especially the ones I'd known for years).

After our gourmet meal, I changed back out of the suit and into more appropriate hideous poker attire, and played so late into the night that I missed Tuesday morning's tournament:

$120 buy-in Omaha 8/Better $2,000 prize pool

1) Gary Gentile TOC Qualification and $900
2) Josh Winston $500
3) Kay Olsen $300
4) Troy Iverson $100
5) Mark Tenner Card Player Digest

After a reasonably cold day at sea on Monday, everyone celebrated the sun's appearance on Tuesday by getting their sunburns out of the way immediately. By acquiring the sunburn at the trip's start, no one had to waste time out in the sun for the rest of the week and could sensibly spend it playing poker. The men seemed to understand this principle better than the women did, or perhaps the men just had lower IQ's (or more margaritas).

I spent some time in the hot tub up on deck, ostensibly gazing out at the beautiful Los Cabos scenery we were passing, but in actuality trying to decide how many of the bathing suits on deck (and their occupants) belonged in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. However since most of the occupants seemed to have young, powerful boyfriends or husbands, I was unable to complete my research.

On Wednesday we arrived at Puerto Vallarta, which the "X-rated" comedian at the Elation's midnight show told us meant "Door to Vallarta." Actually I would have given the comedian about a PG-13 rating, but he made me laugh even though I'd had a losing session that night, no mean feat.

Puerto Vallarta was where Linda Johnson's hostess skills really started shining. She encouraged as many poker players as possible to join her on a tri-maran trip to a nice beach about 20 miles away. A tri-maran is like a catamaran, only with three hulls and an open bar. Racer X and I lay in the netting at the front of the ship for the voyage, and each put five beers away before we reached the beach, which probably explains why I was willing to dive headfirst off the tri-maran's rather lofty bow into the ocean when we arrived.

As the journey had taken about 90 minutes, we only had about 45 minutes to spend at the actual beach, so I decided to just stay in the water and watch braver souls rent jet-skis, which were a bargain at only $40 for half an hour. Unfortunately for the bravest of these souls, in an effort to show why driver's licenses are usually required for motor vehicles and why the police tend to frown on people driving them with blood alcohol levels approaching 100%, he smacked his jet-ski into another jet-ski in a failed effort to cut across the other jet-ski's wake. Everyone was alright except for the jet-ski, which suffered $400 worth of damage which our hero had to pay immediately in a novel form of bad beat.

No, you're not getting his name. I'm going on another of these cruises sometime and I can't have the more daring souls worried that I will rat them out in an article later.

Eventually we reboarded the tri-maran and set sail back for the Elation. Actually we did not set the sail; it stayed nicely furled the whole time and we used the motor, which is a good thing, because no one in this crowd was sober enough to duck if a boom came swinging around, with the possible exception of Tom McEvoy. How intoxicated was this group? Need I say more than when the call came to dance the "Macarena," almost everyone on the ship joined in, except for Racer X and myself, who were busy taking notes on whom to blackmail and for how much.

When we returned, Linda led most of our sozzled warriors to special restaurants she'd pre-selected for lunch and dinner, while I foolishly decided to wander around Door to Vallarta and see what local charm I could observe. While this resulted in considerable exercise and many offers to buy things that even the X-rated comedian could not tell jokes about, I decided that striking out on my own had been foolish and henceforth I would stick to Linda's experienced and planned itinerary.

Silly boy.

Following this itinerary on Thursday meant joining the group at the fine El Cid resort in Mazatlan. No problems here; actually, the resort was beautiful, the pool was large and mostly empty, the beach was great, and we had a wonderful time, possibly excepting the effort we had to expend saying "no I do not want to buy silver, blankets, wood carvings, have my hair braided or get a temporary tattoo" to 94% of the local population.

No, El Cid was wonderful, and I would return there in a heartbeat. The foolishness came in following Linda from El Cid to…

(Drum roll, please)

Señor Frogs.

I'm not sure what tipped me off that this was an unusual bar. Perhaps the first clue was that it was 3:00 p.m. on a Thursday and that the bar was full, the music was loud, everyone was singing along, and 75% of the people were wearing balloon hats on their heads. You know, those long thin balloons that clowns twist and turn and make into dachshunds, except there here, almost everyone was wearing his or her dachshund, or pyramid, or suggestively-arranged balloon art in a fashion that would have made Carmen Miranda blush and ask everyone where their dignity had gone.

Someone handed me a beverage, and I drank it. I'm not sure what it was, but I'm sure (as my friend Harry Harrison's "Stainless Steel Rat" character would say) that from the hideous aftereffects its sale is probably prohibited on most civilized worlds. I donned a balloon hat (this is the same guy who had been one of the lone Macarena holdouts and who had worn a suit for formal night, mind you), and was watching an extremely comely young woman wearing shorts and a cowboy hat dance something that was most definitely not the Macarena on one of the tables, just minding my own business, you understand, when an attractive woman dressed in a bikini and balloon hat grabbed me and pulled me onto the dance floor.

"Fun," said a little voice in the back of my head, "fun, you remember fun, Andy, it was something you used to have before you started playing poker and talking about nothing except bad beats and outs. Move your hips more, and let her keep grabbing you there."

I'm not sure how I made it back to the ship, but I'm almost certain that I listened to the voice and had a good time, and judging from the number of other people heading up the gangway wearing balloon hats, so had more or less the entire Elation's passenger manifest. At this point I discovered an entirely new use for the balloon hats as they proved to be excellent shock absorbing skull protection for anyone whose balance had been left behind at Se ñor Frogs.

Six or seven meals aboard ship that night helped cut the alcoholic daze, and so I was once again ready to boldly go ashore on Friday, when we had only a few hours to take in the delights of Cabo San Lucas. I'd visited Cabo before, and knew about the great snorkeling, so with the sort of sage judgment one would expect after a day in the life of Señor Frogs, I skipped the snorkeling, and joined the poker crowd at another nice restaurant of Linda's selection. Realizing we were in no shape for another Frog-like experience, Linda took us to a nice sedate place with a beautiful ocean view.

"What would you like, señor?" the waiter asked.

"Do you have to use that word?" I replied. "Coffee, lots of coffee, as much as they produce in Columbia in a year, you don't even have to grind the beans."


That word again. At least it didn't have a Frogs after it. "Never mind. Just… lots of coffee."

"Si, Señor."

Amazingly, after drinking more alcohol in the previous four days than I had consumed in the previous year, I had a losing session that afternoon and evening at the poker tables. I resolved to abstain the rest of the way; after all, there was one more tournament to go, Saturday morning's no-limit hold'em.

After getting bounced out via a couple of bad beats from players who had almost no outs (ah, it was good to get away from fun and back to old-fashioned poker pain), I noted the following results:

NLH $60 entry, $40 rebuys. 26 entrants, 65 rebuys,
$3,640 prize pool

1) Ed Galvin TOC Qualification and $1,638
2) Bonnie Damiano $910
3) Racer X $546
4) Brian Nadell $364
5) Gary Chigbrow $182
6) Danny Fell Card Player Digest

Fortunately, 24 hours of a clear head and hitting a few flops in the $20-40 hold'em game that evening got me winners for the trip, and I decided to quit while I was ahead. The members of our dinner table, who had grown quite fond of one another during the week, had group photos taken by the ever-present Elation photo staff.

As Saturday night started turning into Sunday morning, the friendly Card Player staff started breaking down the tables and turning our temporary poker room back into the library it had been before our arrival, and I felt a little sad. I had just started to catch my rhythm on our little voyage, had started to remember fun, started to remember how to win, and most of all, had gotten my balloon hat and all its memories safely into my luggage. The Elation would be docking soon, and our little voyage would be over. I didn't know if my business schedule would let me take the Alaska, Greek Islands, or Western Caribbean cruises the rest of the year.

I probably wasn't going to miss my inside cabin, but I was going to miss some of the new friends I'd made on the trip, and miss the quality time I'd gotten in with a few people I'd already considered friends before the trip began. I guess that's a benefit of a poker cruise that will outlast the cash I won or my Señor Frogs hat: because my friends are part of the poker community, I know I'll be seeing them again.

And guys, if you really are friends… destroy the negatives, will ya?

©2000 by Andrew N. S. Glazer. This article originally appeared in Card Player Magazine.

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