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Professional gambler Nick Alexander takes a Star Cruises blackjack cruise out of Hong Kong and reports on the blackjack and card counting conditions.
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Professional Gamblers at Work:
A Blackjack Cruise

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Blackjack Cruise, Auto-Shoes, Lotta Blues...

From the Journals of Nick Alexander
(From Blackjack Forum Volume XIX #1, Spring 1999)
© Blackjack Forum 1999

Iím reading the paper in Hong Kong and see that there have been three more shootings as part of the gang war going on in Macau. Last week there were two people actually shot inside the casino, and bombs are going off there every other day. When I consider this coupled with the fact that the Macau casinos are the only places worse than the Cal-Neva in Reno, I decide to forgo a trip there. So where to get my gambling fix?

I remember a few years back there had been a post on a gambling message board about blackjack cruises out of Singapore, Malaysia, and maybe Hong Kong, so I decide to check it out. I ask around and sure enough there are blackjack cruises to nowhere that go out every day. Once they are in international waters, violaócasino open.

Now my friends think this is a crazy idea. "Who controls them? Who oversees them? Whatís to prevent them from just stealing your money? They may be nothing more than pirates, villains, and thieves. Almost as bad asÖ sayÖ Internet casinos! But being the fearless blackjack reporter that I am, I slog on. If you want to travel the world looking for a gold mine, sometimes you have to get the shaft.

I continue my research and find These are not pirates at all. Itís the lovely people who brought you Genting Highlands in Malaysia and put up the money to build Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. Of course they are completely ungoverned so I wouldnít go crazy yet. I find they have cruises from Taiwan, Singapore, and yes, Hong Kong. They go out five afternoons a week and return the next morning, at a cost of about $90 US for one person. (Although you can spend much more if you want a suite.)

Next step, the junket manager. Many Asian casinos have some kind of rebate program and sure enough, they did too. The deal is, you put up 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($130,000 US) and you receive 1.1% bonus all in non-negotiable chips. I ask about the limits and the junket rep tells me that the baccarat limit is 800,000 HK (a little over $100,000 US). Wow, what about blackjack? When I ask, she now gets very confused. She doesnít know what the blackjack limit is and will have to call me back. This isnít a good sign. It seems that none of the junket players play blackjack. I decide the best plan of action is to take the cruise, bet small, and find out whether the game is even worth playing.

As I walk down a long hallway that leads to the gangway, I am handed a flyer listing all the features and attractions of the cruise. Unfortunately, itís entirely in Chinese. Normally in Hong Kong things are written in both English and Chinese so I take this as a sign that they are probably not catering to round eyes on this ship.

[A quick aside: during extensive traveling over many years in Asia I have never once been referred to as a "round eye" by an Asian person. This is entirely a fabrication of American movies. I was called "cow eyes" once by a young Korean woman, gweilo (devil person) by the Chinese, and gaijin (ghost person) in Japan, but never round eye. Mostly we are referred to as "white people."]

So I peruse this flyer and being the world traveler that I am I have picked up a Chinese character or two. Okay, Iíve learned exactly two Chinese characters; person and water. Hmmm. Well, Iím boarding a big ship so it doesnít take a genius to know that "person" and "water" will be involved.

As I board the ship there is a Filipino band, dressed for carnival in Brazil, playing Spanish music and singing in Chinese. Ah, the world gets smaller all the time. Every crew member on the boat has mastered three words of English, "Good evening, sir," and you are bombarded with this greeting everywhere you go. Iím then escorted to my cabin, which I find out in a brochure is 6.8 meters. Can you say closet? 6.8 square meters is about 73 square feet. Packed into this 7í x 10í space is a bed, desk, and bathoom with toilet and shower. The bed is fine if you are short and skinny. (Unfortunately, I am only one of the above.) But hey, Iím not here to sleep. Give me some action. But that will have to wait until we get to international water.

I head to deck 7 to find the reception desk. I am told they will have a copy of the boatís activities in English and sure enough they do. Up first: Compulsory Passenger Safety Drill. I head to my muster station and watch beautiful Chinese girls show me how to put on my life preserver. Now, I am the only person at my muster station so I think the translation of "compulsory" must have been a loose one.

I also grew up during the cold war when we had compulsory "bomb drills" in grammar school. The class would file out in the hall and sit on the floor, and then tuck your head between your knees. This was in case someone was dropping a nuclear bomb on us!?! Even in second grade I knew that we were really tucking our head down there to kiss our asses goodbye. Now my muster boss leads me outside to show me all the life rafts, rescue boats, and canisters packed with food and flares. Listen, I saw Titanic. If Iím floating around the South China Sea, I wonít be saying, "Pass the powdered eggs and the flare gun." My muster boss assured me that there were no icebergs in this part of the world, and recommended I go to dinner.

The ship has three buffets: Chinese on deck 8, Thai on deck 11, and Western food on deck 7. I decide to try the Western. On the buffet I find: chicken feet, ox tail, steamed rice, Chinese broccoli in Oyster Sauce, Szechwan scallops and a few other dishes.Over to the side I find "Lamb Nirvana." Aha! Well, India is west of China, right? I mean, after you go a few thousand miles south. The buffet was better than Circus Circus but not as good as the Mirage. Call it one step below MGM. 1 Ĺ stars, Joe Bobb says, "Next time try the Thai."

An hour and a half out to sea the casinos open. Yes, casinos. There are four. First stop, Casino Royal, the VIP high roller room. There is a guard at the font door with one of those wand metal detectors like they have in the airports.

"This is a private room. Members only."

"Well, how do I become a member?"


"Hmmm. Well see, Iím writing an article about the ship for a magazine. So maybe I could just go look around."

"What magazine?"

"Uh, you donít want to know."


Well, that was easy. The Casino Royal has one roulette wheel, one long table of Tai Sai, which is a dice game similar to Sic Bo, and about 20 baccarat tables. As advertised the posted limit on some tables is $800,000 HK. There was not one blackjack table in the place. Next stop, the Dragon Room on deck 3. The Dragon room has four Pai Gow tables and some slot machines. Also on deck 3 is the Star Club. This is the main casino and has two mini baccarat, two "no commission baccarat", two roulette wheels, two casino war games, and six blackjack tables.

The blackjack game on the cruise is this: S17, DAS, ES v. 10 (no surrender v. ace), Euro no hole (meaning they take all doubles or splits when dealer blackjacks), three decks dealt from a continuous shuffler. My quick and dirty calculations make the game approximately Ė0.2%.

The limits on the games were 100-2000, 200-4000, and 300-6000, which equals approximately $13-$260, $26-$520, and $39-$780 in US dollars. Since they have an $800,000 HK limit at baccarat, Iím sure they would raise the limit if asked, but I really wasnít interested.

The last casino is the Phoenix Room on deck 11. It is basically the same as the Star Club but this one is non-smoking. So I stumble back to my cabin (did I mention choppy seas?) and am gently rocked to sleep in my 5 by 1 Ĺ foot bed. We arrive safe and sound back in Hong Kong at 8 am. No richer, no wiser, but at least no iceberg.

Star Cruises (as a cruise): 2 stars

As a casino: 1 star

Still better than Macau. ♠

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