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"It doesn't get any better than this!" my dealer observed, gazing out at the baby blue ocean, sipping at her iced daiquiri, as we reclined on the sun deck of our cruise ship. This was just off Grand Cayman Island in the western Caribbean, last November. As I recalled the ace-king flush she had just dealt me against a top straight (bless her), I had to agree. Cruisin' 'n' playin' takes a lot of beating.

The idea of a poker cruise is to play cards among a group of fellow enthusiasts, while enjoying a vacation at sea. This cruise attracted a group of 320 players and hangers-on. We embarked at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, making several sunny stop-overs at island resorts, as a refreshing break from all-night poker, sailing back to port a week later. The tour, on a white Holland America liner, 15 decks high like a floating hotel, was arranged by a Las Vegas travel agency run by June Field, founding editor of Card Player and a sharp player herself. My trip cost me around $1,150, (pounds 750) sharing a cabin, all on-board expenses included - a bargain.

We played limit raise Hold 'em, seven-card stud and Omaha high-low, with daily tournaments to enliven the action. Stakes ranged American style from $2-$4 up to $10-$20 and $20-$40. A clutch of real gamblers got a pot limit Hold 'em game going in the corner. The games were not too tough, because a certain shipboard jollity infused all the play. But even at these low stakes, it is easy to lose (or win) several hundred dollars. How did I do? "I paid my expenses," is my story. The dealers, taking a break from their regular jobs in Las Vegas casinos, joined in the spirit of a fun trip. They relied on tips, normally a dollar a hand.

One of the pluses of this kind of cruise is that non-poker-playing spouses or companions can also have a good time, snorkelling, sight-seeing or snoozing. The next cruise is from Vancouver to Alaska, 5-12 June, followed by one to the southern Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale, 12-22 November. Details: Classic Poker Cruises, 2375 East Tropicana Ave. suite 281, Las Vegas, Nevada 89119 (fax: (702) 798 8981).

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