Gambling is more fun in the tropics. Don't ask me why. It just is.
As a gadabout journalist, I have gambled in some of the world's most exotic locales. Hawaii, Florida, Arizona, the Caribbean and the Mexican Riviera.
I heard about a casino in Alaska. I think its name is Gravel Gertie's or something like that. Supposedly the gold miners' wives and daughters formed a troupe to dance the French Can-Can there. The real Can-Can, I quickly add.
My source told me that in the old days when the casino also served as a trading post, Eskimos would bring their beaver pelts and other furs there. While the freshly skinned pelts would hang from the ceiling to dry, the Eskimos would play poker and blackjack and shoot dice. The stench was nauseating, but the gambling went on 24 hours a day without a break.
I gave some serious consideration to making the journey to Alaska, but finally opted out off it. Instead I hopped aboard an American Airlines jet and winged it to San Juan, Puerto where I transferred to an American Eagle two-engine job for the 90-minute flight to St. Maarten.
A publisher had hired me to be a staff writer on a daily newspaper. The pay was decent, the package offered a furnished three-bedroom and a company car, and I had never been to St. Maarten before. That was enough of a lure to make me accept the job.
I almost forgot. There was another reason I chose St. Maarten. The Dutch side of the island has gambling casinos and poker rooms. Nothing like that on the French side, but there were half a dozen casinos where I could try my luck at poker, the horses, dice, sports betting and the slots if I so chose.
It was Friday night. I had been at my new job for a week. I had written stories about a machete gang that nicked a few of its foes in a free-for-all on the beach, a young fisherman who had discovered three pearls in the conch shells he netted out of the deep and a barracuda attack that nearly decapitated a man's leg.
My boss liked my work and presented me with the keys to a Honda. I thanked him.
'Where do you plan to spend the evening?,' he asked.
'I thought I'd try the Atlantis.'
'Nice casino. Good gambling, good food. Mario is the poker room manager. He is a friend of the newspaper. Tell him I said to take good care of you.'
I followed the winding road along the ocean until I reached the turnoff that would take me to Atlantis. Tall graceful palm trees swayed in the balmy ocean breeze. I caught a glimpse of monkeys with a green tint to their fur scampering in the fronds. One threw a small coconut toward the car.
'Same to you,' I shouted through the open window.
Mario was a muscular man in his mid-thirties. He greeted me in the poker room.
'The editor called me and said you were coming,' he said. 'We expect a good turnout tonight. All the runner-ups for Carnival Queen will be here in their bathing suits. They are going to tour the casino and the poker room on their way to the competition.'
'Sounds like fun.'
Mario shrugged, smiling. 'That's the way we do it in the Caribbean,' he said.
A steel band was setting up in the center of the dance floor. About 20 musicians aged from about 14 to 50 gathered around the large steel drums. They began playing. The poker table began filling up and I quickly took my seat.
The game was no-limit Texas Hold'em with a $50 buy-in. The dealer accepted my U.S. currency and the game started.
Seat One was the only one open. A soft voice said, 'May I sit in?'
She was stunningly attractive. Dressed in a one-piece white bathing suit, she wore fresh flowers in her long black hair that cascaded halfway down her back.
'This is Marvelette,' said Mario, introducing her to the group. 'She's one of the finalists who will be competing for Carnival Queen tonight.'
Gallantly, the poker room manager said, 'Her buy-in is complimentary. That is if none of you gentlemen object?'
None of us objected. I think if anybody had raised an objection, the rest of us would have marched him out to the parking lot.
The beauty finalist was shy, sweet, genteel -- and deadly. Five of the players were American tourists 60 or older. Two were locals who worked in the sugar cane fields. One was a police inspector who reminded me of the character in 'Casablanca.' And then there was me.
Marvelette played for nearly an hour before one of the pageant organizers came over to our table.
'I'm sorry,' she said, 'but you have to leave. We need to get to the resort at Maho Bay for the competition.'
Marvelette had a mountain of chips piled up in front off her. She offered the original $50 buy-in back to Mario. He shook his head.
'That's yours,' he said. 'Good luck. I hope you win.'
The island beauty filled a rack with her chips. She stood up and spilled $50 into the pot.
'Splash pot,' she said. 'May the best player win.'
As she walked away toward the other girls, I turned to Mario.
'I'm ashamed of myself,' I said.
'Why would you feel that way?"
'I actually gave serious consideration to going to Alaska instead of coming here,' I said.
Mario shook his head. 'Naughty, naughty. Alaska is nice, but this is paradise.'