Is Gambling At Sea A Gamble?

When you hear about "high rollers" at sea, you might think about the size of the waves, not the size of the bets. But as the popularity of cruising grows, it is becoming more common to see Las Vegas-style high rollers in the casinos on ships.

Those Las Vegas high rollers -- who have enjoyed perks offered by Las Vegas hotels such as complimentary rooms, free food and beverages, etc. -- are somewhat surprised when none of this special treatment is afforded them on the cruise ship. Casinos on cruise ships often feel they are being most generous just buying a drink for players.

Until recently, most cruise lines viewed their casino operations as an entertainment center for their guests; they were perfectly happy to make profits from passengers who tend to be inexperienced impulse gamblers rather than the high rollers who take gambling seriously and bet larger sums.

What's more, cruise ship casinos -- unlike those in Vegas -- don't have to compete with the casino next door that may try to entice guests with bigger and better perks. On each ship, there's one casino with a limited amount of space, so it is literally the only game in town.

Over the past decade, some lines have attempted to start Player Programs to attract passengers who gamble for larger stakes, offering some limited perks. Over this time, several such programs started, sputtered, and eventually ended, while others morphed from meager beginnings to make a more serious run at high stakes players.

Carnival's program Carnival Corporation's Ocean Players Club (OPC) is currently making the most concerted effort to market its program. When you walk into Carnival's shipboard casinos, the signs and announcements make it hard not to be aware of the Ocean Players Club.

When we asked if the program was aimed at "high rollers," Carnival replied:

" We offer something for every level of player, from awards for playing slots to establishing credit lines and betting limits for high rollers. Players can earn points toward complimentary beverages, free gifts, future cruise benefits and instant cash back rewards. The Club has various levels of membership based on frequency of cruising and your point levels. "

We also asked: Is the OPC geared more to slot machine players or table games?

Carnival said "OPC caters to all players; however, the majority of our members and players are slot players. It's about a 70/30 ratio of slots to tables."

Carnival ships have slot machines equipped with hardware where you insert "players cards;" your winnings (if any) accrue on your card, and you simply move with your card from machine to machine. It also monitors the "points" you earn by your play, and the last day of the cruise you can redeem your points for rewards.

At table games, OPC players make their presence known to the supervisors, and their play is monitored and rated to earn points.

These points are earned more easily on slot machines than at table games. Due to the odds of the games, players can lose more quickly playing slots than table games. Therefore less playing time on slot machines is necessary than at tables in the OPC program.

For information about the true high limit players, we asked Carnival if different perks are available to high limit players than to the more typical casino players who join the OPC, such as complimentary drinks, fare discounts or even complimentary cabins.

Carnival's reply: "Yes. High limit players should contact the OPC prior to their cruise to establish any additional perks."

Carnival Corporation casinos charge a 3 percent service fee for charging cash or casino tokens on your Sail & Sign card. Assuming this charge would not sit well with high rollers, we asked Carnival if it is possible for high limit players to establish credit with the casino department, or to use their shipboard charge cards without the 3 percent service fee so they don't have to travel with a lot of cash?

Carnival's response: "For high rollers, lines of credit may be established prior to cruising by going to the Contact Us page or by completing and faxing our credit application form [PDF] to 305-406-5737 or 305-406-6461. Credit lines are available up to $100,000. Please note that credit lines can only be established during normal banking hours and may take a day or two to process. We regret that we are unable to establish credit during a weekend. The 3 percent fee may be waived for high rollers, if arranged in advance; however the cruise line establishes a limit on the amount that can be charged.

Worth noting: On our last Carnival cruise in January, we noticed that all blackjack tables are now using automatic and continuous shuffle machines to mix the cards, which significantly increases the odds for the house.

Other efforts We requested information on programs from several other cruise lines regarding their casino players programs, but hadn't received any details by our deadline except from Carnival and Crystal.

Crystal did tell us it currently does not have a "player's program," but recently ended its relationship with Caesar's Palace (which operated Crystal's casinos for many years), and is now looking at creating such a program. However, Crystal did say drinks are complimentary for all players in their casinos.

There are some other programs I have some personal knowledge of:

Norwegian Cruise Line has a casino player's club program called Casinos At Sea, where players earn points on slot machine and table games play, and can also earn cash back at the end of a cruise; or the points earned can be carried over on their account for a 12-month period.

Celebrity has introduced its own version, called the Blue Chip Club. I received a membership card prior to my last Celebrity cruise in January. I presented the card at the tables when I played, but have no idea of the reward program they established. I did receive a bottle of wine delivered to my dining room table, but aside from that I was unaware of any other perks or cash-back attached to the program.

Personal observations It's well known that I enjoy spending time in the casinos when I'm cruising. I'm a blackjack player -- no slot machines, craps or other table games.

From what I've experienced and seen, while any perk or reward for your play is better than nothing if you're going to be gambling anyway. Other than the slot machine play, which is electronically measured, all these programs are not well monitored -- nor are staff, supervisors, or even casino hosts fully aware of how they should be rating players, or what perks they should be offering. Either that, or they are simply not doing their job that well.

If the cruise lines are interested in attracting and rewarding higher limit players, they have to put more effort into training and follow-up with the onboard staff responsible.

For true high rollers, several companies now offer gambling cruises where high limit players are invited by the company to cruise free in exchange for onboard play. So if you happen to be a $50 or higher minimum bet player, it's likely you can be invited to cruise for free, or for the cost of the taxes and port charges alone.

These companies will prearrange credit and increased table minimums and maximums.

Poker Cruises As on land, Texas Hold 'Em is leading a charge for gamblers on cruise ships. Most ships now have at least one poker table in their casinos, and host tournaments during the cruise.

Poker Theme Cruises are also becoming more common. Players are not invited to cruise free to participate. In fact, they may pay a premium to participate in poker games and tournaments. But the organizers do have a separate game room and tables set up for the exclusive use of those in the group. They also have experts onboard, bringing on their own dealers and overseeing smooth, fair and legal operations of the tournaments and games.

For those interested in such a theme cruise, a simple Internet search will result in a multitude of choices.

Lose If You Choose No matter which casino game you play, odds are you will lose your money. Casinos on cruise ships are a huge revenue producer for the cruise lines, just as they are for land-based operations.

We all play with dreams of winning big. But we should understand that the odds of that happening are slim at best, and reduced even further because the rules in cruise ship casinos are often set to further reduce the percentage of money paid out vs. the amount wagered.

By all means, head to the casino to try to win, but view the experience as part of your entertainment costs. If you happen to win, it's a bonus! If you lose, expect it -- because that's the norm. If your play results in some free logo wear or a bottle of wine, or they give you back a few dollars of what you've wagered - celebrate that bonus as well. Just don't be tempted to gamble more than you're prepared to lose -- because the resulting perks truly don't truly have any significant value.

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