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Hoffman can bet on it: Galveston casino gambling boat ventures into uncharted waters

Galveston gambling boat ventures into uncharted waters with Hoffman

Houston, Galveston gambling boat, June 2017, guy passed out by air conditioning vent
On the day Ken Hoffman set sail on the gambling boat, not everyone had a great time. Photo by Ken Hoffman
Jacks or Better gambling boat casino
The Jacks or Better boat takes gamblers into federal waters from Galveston. Courtesy photo
Houston, Galveston gambling boat, June 2017, hold onto rails sign
On choppy days, here's some good advice. Photo by Ken Hoffman
Jacks or Better gambling boat interior casino
The second deck has gaming tables and a snack bar. Courtesy photo
Jacks or Better gambling boat casino third deck bar
The third deck bar. Courtesy photo
Houston, Galveston gambling boat, June 2017, guy passed out by air conditioning vent
Jacks or Better gambling boat casino
Houston, Galveston gambling boat, June 2017, hold onto rails sign
Jacks or Better gambling boat interior casino
Jacks or Better gambling boat casino third deck bar

It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for the Jacks or Better gambling boat in Galveston.

The boat’s maiden voyage was April 6. Between rough seas that canceled more than a dozen departures, damage from hitting a buoy that put the boat in dry dock several days, and seasick guests backing up toilets and sinks with vomit … the boat is looking for calmer waters this summer.

Jacks or Better has sailings scheduled every day, and twice on Fridays and Saturdays. The cruises generally take between six and seven hours. Tickets are $15, including two free drink tickets.  

It’s about a one-hour drive from Houston to Galveston. You want to arrive a half-hour early, a built-in safety against those inexplicable traffic jams on I-45. (“It’s 2 pm on Tuesday, why is traffic backed up?”) Once the boat leaves port, it takes about 1-1/2 hours to reach federal waters, 9.1 miles offshore, where it’s legal for the captain to say, “Let the games begin.” The boat has 180 slot machines and tables for shootout poker, blackjack, craps, chuck-a-luck, and other games.

It’s supposed to have sports wagering, where you can bet on any college or pro event anywhere in the world, from French Open tennis to World Cup soccer to Aussie cricket to American baseball and football games. Supposedly.  

Ready to set sail? A friend and I recently boarded the Jacks or Better boat for a Saturday afternoon cruise. We’ll have to call my friend “Oscar.” I can’t use his real name because he lied to his boss to get off work that day. This is the kind of friends I have.

Before sailing, I took to Yelp and read horror story reviews about passengers getting seasick on the boat, complete with nasty photos of clogged toilets. There were some positive, fun-filled reviews, too. It all depended on how rough the seas were that day.

Not taking chances, Oscar and I popped a couple of Dramamine motion sickness pills – the “All Day Less Drowsy” formula – an hour before departure. 

The boat is 150 feet long and can hold 360 passengers and 54 crew members. I’m guessing that most of the passengers didn’t know about the 3- to 4-foot seas predicted that day.

Passengers began climbing aboard and some immediately cashed in their two free drink tickets. They’ll pay for that later.

The Jacks or Better boat has three decks. The first deck is covered with slot machines. The second deck has gaming tables and a snack bar offering burgers, nachos, chicken sandwiches, Buffalo wings, and “Galveston cheesesteaks.” The most expensive item on the menu is $8. The upstairs, open-air observation deck has lounge chairs and live entertainment. On my cruise, there was karaoke.

As George Costanza said on Seinfeld, – “The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.”

Wobbly and woozy

Thirty minutes into the trip, the boat got wobbly and passengers got woozy. Warning: Here’s where this column gets pretty graphic. If you’re reading this while eating, stop doing one of them.

I’ve seen fewer sick people in the Ben Taub Hospital emergency room. Crew members began roaming the boat with trays piled high with sickness bags and crackers. Like waiters serving hors d’oeuvres at a wedding party. Passengers were stumbling aimlessly, bumping into furniture and slamming into walls, like babies taking their first steps, or town drunk Otis Campbell on The Andy Griffith Show.

People were puking in public, there was no time for shame. A guy at the snack bar was calmly eating spicy Buffalo wings while a man sitting next to him was retching into a vomit bag.  

Never saw that before.

I counted only 22 people actually gambling. Most were upstairs with their faces in a paper bag, or passed out on the floor, or sleeping with their heads pressed against a slot machine. That can’t possibly feel good.

Jacks or Better has a policy: If you get seasick during the cruise, upon returning to shore, the company will give you a free pass for another trip, plus a $20 chip to use at a gaming table. If you’re thinking of going on the gambling boat, you might want to click at jacksorbettercasino.com first to check on sailing conditions. The Gulf of Mexico typically is much calmer during June, July, and August. “In two weeks, the water will be like glass,” I was told.  

I asked a crew member, "Where do I place a sports bet?" I was told to “See that guy over there.” My whole reason for taking this voyage from hell (tip of the Hatlo Hat to Richard Lewis) was to place a parlay bet: Rafael Nadal to win the French Open and the Astros to win that night’s game. Betting on the Astros this season is like stealing money.

The sports manager told me, “Sorry, our sports machines haven’t arrived yet. They’ll be here in a few weeks.”

You mean I got on this seasick infirmary for nothing?

Much, much worse

And that’s when things turned for the much, much worse.

Oscar and I grabbed a table at the snack bar to wait out the cruise. Five minutes later, and I swear this happened, a man staggered toward us. His face was green. He was ready to blow like Mount St. Helens. But instead of finishing his journey to the restroom, he collapsed into a chair at MY TABLE (good name for a magazine) and let fly.    

That’s when I lost it – my temper, not my lunch. Remember I took a couple of Dramamine. I bolted up and screamed at him, “That’s disgusting. What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you go to the bathroom and do that?”

The guy could barely lift his head. “I couldn’t help it.”

A crew member, carrying a bucket and mop, apologized for this incident. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”

I asked him, “This is some job you have. What do you use to get puke out of carpet?”

Here’s your household hint of the day (Hello, Heloise.) The Jacks or Better crew uses D-VOUR Absorbent Powder, which “devours liquids such as spilled bodily fluids as it eliminated odors.” They must buy it by the case at Costco.

So many passengers were sick, and so few gambling, that the captain decided to cut the cruise short by an hour and head back to land.

I didn’t see anybody asking for their free ticket and $20 chip to come back.

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Ken can be reached at ken@culturemap.com or on Twitter: @KenCultureMap. To have all CultureMap stories, including Ken's columns, delivered to your inbox in one Daily Digest every morning, sign up here