When folks sign up with World Series of Poker champion Linda Johnson for a cruise vacation, they're really hoping for a full boat. In fact, they're hoping for lots of them - and flushes and straights, too.
Johnson, with partner Jan Fisher, helps run Card Player Cruises, a travel company offering trips on the high seas that include poker as a key component. The regularly scheduled cruises also have the typical range of shipboard amenities and activities, including a casino.
This year, Card Player Cruises is planning six such trips, all on Royal Caribbean, that will visit the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Alaska, and Mexico. But what distinguishes Card Player Cruise trips is that passengers will have exclusive access to their own card room, where poker tournaments and cash games will be going at a steady clip.
"The focus may be poker, but we really cater to the recreational player," says Johnson, who won a World Series bracelet in 1997. "This isn't the type of thing where you're going to get pros in the group . . . and we have a strict no-abuse atmosphere - we don't allow any of the tantrums that you sometimes see on TV."
Shipboard tournaments feature fairly low buy-ins, $100 and $200, with additional fees of $25 and $30. Cash games start at $1 to $2 for no-limit hold 'em, but scale higher for players with more tolerance for risk.
Johnson started poker cruising in the early 1990s. She and Fisher stress that while poker is a competitive game, their emphasis is on camaraderie and enjoyment.
"We have a beginners' class for people who have never played before," Fisher says. That's where poker newbies learn the fundamentals, such as that a full boat - also known as a full house - is a five-card hand consisting of three-of-a-kind paired with two-of-a-kind, and that a flush beats a straight.
"And when the beginners play, they just play with each other all week," Fisher adds. "We protect that game."
Depending on the type of cruise, the poker-playing group can number less than 100 or as many as 600. Trips to Mexico often draw a larger and more youthful group, while the so-called boutique cruises, to destinations such as Europe, draw fewer, more mature players.
This year's first cruise will be to the western Caribbean, leaving Galveston, Texas, on March 7. Prices start at $688 per person for seven nights, not including airfare to Galveston.
On Sept. 25, the Oasis of the Seas - the world's largest cruise ship, with 2,700 staterooms - will depart Fort Lauderdale for the eastern Caribbean. Prices for the seven-night cruise start at $859.
In addition to a specially outfitted card room that Card Player Cruises operates with its personnel, members of the poker group have access to poker seminars and training sessions, exclusive onboard parties, and private shore excursions. For example, the group will have its own fiesta at a private Mexican villa with swimming pools, live music, food, and cocktails for $30.
One of the trips will be for more serious players. The World Poker Tour Boot Camp will feature topflight pros as instructors and four tournaments with a total prize pool of $200,000. The seven-night cruise aboard the Mariner of the Seas, leaving Los Angeles on April 25, will cost almost $4,200 per player.
For more information about Card Player Cruises, see www.cardplayercruises.com or call 1-888-999-4880.
Cheaper bracelet events. The World Series of Poker keeps fine-tuning its menu of tournaments. The biggest poker gathering of the year, scheduled for May 27 to July 17 at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, is offering six no-limit hold 'em open tournaments for the relatively bargain buy-in of $1,000. Last year, there was only one such open tourney, and it drew more than 6,000 players, with the winner taking home more than $771,000.
Two other no-limit hold 'em tournaments among the 57 events being held over the seven weeks include $1,000 buy-ins for a seniors event (50 and older) and a women's tournament.
The main event - the famous $10,000 No-limit Hold 'em World Championship - will start July 5, with the final table scheduled to play off in November, as it has the last two years. For more information, go to www.wsop.com.
Casino Cupid. Harrah's casinos in Atlantic City will offer several Valentine's Day-themed events Feb. 12-14. For the romantically inclined, there will be a chocolate tasting at Bally's, a wine tasting at Showboat, relationship seminars at Harrah's, speed dating at Caesars, and a champagne and lingerie party at Showboat. Plus, at Boardwalk Hall, couples can wed, renew vows, or participate in a civil-union ceremony for free on Feb. 14.
Here's one vote for the chocolate tasting. There will be three opportunities: one on Feb. 13 (6 p.m.-9 p.m.) and two on Feb. 14 (11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4 p.m.-8 p.m.), in Bally's Traymore Room. Admission is $40 and includes food and drink. With violin and cello music as an accompaniment, participants will be able to visit chocolate stations featuring candies, cakes, and chocolate-flavored cocktails and beverages. Plus, chocolatier Jacque Torres will demonstrate his famous chocolate carvings - he's been known to use balloons to craft birdcages and bouquets.
For more information on the Harrah's events, go to www.heartac.com; to preregister for the ceremonies at Boardwalk Hall (deadline Feb. 11), go to www.atlanticcitynj.com/group_tours/atlantic_city_group_wedding.aspx.