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HIGH STAKES on the high seas

When it comes to cruises, there aren’t many trips where admission starts from just $13, or where the main aim is to make money rather than spend it. Then again, Jacks or Better isn’t your everyday cruise, as Gareth Bracken has been finding out

For most people, going on a cruise carries certain connotations. Formal dress, fancy food and prosperous pensioners are just some of the stereotypes, as is a sky-high price tag. Casino cruise ship Jacks or Better is challenging that perception however, with some success. As its name suggests, the focus is very much on gambling, and the brand new business has been generating quite a stir in the Mayport area of Florida and beyond.

Paul Denton used to manage the popular Sun Cruz casino cruise that operated from the same port, a venture he describes as having been “successful but also in debt”. A company named Nevada Gold stepped in to assist with the running of the business for a year or so when it hit choppy waters, before it was eventually shut down. It was a year later that antiques dealer Mark Slotkin decided to revive the idea of having a casino cruise in the Mayport area. He had noted the rise in stock prices of Las Vegas casinos and the potential of the location and decided to get involved, moving to re-hire Denton as general manager.

Denton, a man with 25 years experience in the industry, is keen to underline precisely what Jacks or Better offers. “People shouldn’t expect special entertainment or fine dining,” he says. “We focus on the gambler. We’re here for people who want the real action.” There are plenty of opportunities to sample such action as well. Blackjack, craps, roulette, baccarat and three-card poker are all on offer, as are 181 ticket-in, ticket-out slot machines, all spread over two floors. There is also a sportsbook machine on board, meaning that all betting bases are very much covered. Two multi-screen sports bars are on hand to broadcast live sporting action, meaning punters will be able to see first hand whether their selections sink or swim.

The idea of a casino cruise may seem rather novel in Britain, at least in terms of having a whole boat trip dedicated to gambling, but in America such things are much more common. Denton recalls that at one time there were as many as 32 operating in Florida alone. With this in mind, he realised he needed to make his version unique and therefore moved to fill a gap in the market, both in terms of location and the nuances of the experience on offer. “We’re the only casino cruise currently sailing off the east coast of Florida,” he explains. “And we’re also the first one in Florida to have a non-smoking section.”

The ship’s maiden voyages took place on November 26, with 300 passengers aboard for a day cruise and the same number taking their turn in the night. Despite the ship already being very much open for business, the official grand opening has yet to take place, with mid-January looking like the most likely time. Around $1 million worth of work has been done on the boat, which can carry up to 500 passengers per trip. “It’s been totally revamped,” Denton explains, adding that the new boat, which he describes as being reminiscent of a yacht, is actually less expensive to run than the old Sun Cruz vessel. This, he says, “can only help the bottom line”.

Indeed, Denton is very much encouraged with the start Jacks or Better has made. “We’re doing very well. As well as before, if not even better,” he enthuses. On the subject of why the casino has proved so popular thus far, and indeed why he feels it will continue to do so, Denton points to both novelty and necessity. “The experience of gambling on a cruise ship is unique,” he says, “plus there’s nothing else really for gamblers in the Jacksonville area. To go to a land casino people would need to travel to the Hard Rock in South Florida, about three hours away.”

Rather than face the lengthy trek that Denton describes, Jacks or Better customers only have to wait 45 minutes to get their gambling game on. That’s how long it takes the ship to sail the three miles required to reach international waters, the point at which the casino is officially declared as open for business. Cruises last five hours each, with eight running every week, while the ship can also be chartered for private parties and functions. Denton doesn’t feel that his cruises necessarily attract a particular type of person, revealing that a wide range of people have enjoyed the Jacks or Better experience. “The local demographic is mainly 25-50 year olds,” he says. “So our customers reflect that, but we get all sorts of people really. Older customers tend to go for the day cruises and the younger ones the night.”

Certainly, the new cruise does appear to have brought a bit of spark back to the area, with many locals voicing their approval at the return of a floating casino to the area. The expected boost to the local economy as a result of increased tourism and the 100 jobs the casino has created are also being welcomed. As for the venture itself, Denton reveals that he and Slotkin are already planning for the future. “The owner is hoping to expand,” he confirms. “We’re looking into launching cruises in other areas”. It seems to have been relatively plain sailing thus far for Jacks or Better, so the smart money would surely be on further success as they head towards new waters.

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