This is my last hand. I'm letting it all ride on one final deal of the cards. Either I walk out of here a winner, or ... well, I'll just have to hope they'll take my beat-up old Casio in lieu of the departure tax at the airport. If not, what's the worst that could happen? They don't let me depart? You could do a lot worse than getting stuck on St. Maarten.
I'm playing a poker game called Let It Ride at Casino Royale on Maho Beach. Been at the table maybe an hour. It's been up and down for me, pretty hot for the other players. They're a mixed bunch. Sitting next to me is a leggy Russian named Marina, a dancer who worked the casino show earlier in the evening. Marina's got a face and a short red dress that, if she'd been around during the cold war, could have totally defrosted US-Soviet relations. She's playing well, but fidgety, always crossing and uncrossing those legs. Next to Marina are two more gals, Betty and Sal, both from Michigan. Sal's OK, a smart gambler, knows how to ride a streak, but Betty holds her cards too close and has shifty eyes, especially for a grandmother.
At the other end is Tom from New York. He's sampled the action in each of the Dutch side's dozen or so casinos, he says, while his wife's been hitting the duty-free shops every day and their teenagers melt into the beach. Tom's been the most consistent winner all night and just chuckles every time he gets a good hand. I'm not too sure I like Tom.
It's the dealer that's kept me at the table as much as anything. Calixte Gumbs, a local. He's personable, laidback, funny. He personifies the Caribbean-style casino where everything moves a little slower, players are happier and rules are looser so games seem more entertainment and less heart-attack serious than Vegas or A.C. I never heard of Let It Ride until I sat down at the table, but Calixte patiently explained the rules while the others nodded hello.
It's pretty simple: You put up three antes, get three cards down; if your hand's cold, you can pull back one ante; dealer gets one up and gives you the chance to take back another ante; the third bet takes the ride and lives or dies on the dealer's last card. Idea is to try to put together a poker hand combining your three cards with the dealer's two. Simple game, but so far I've been taken to school. First lesson is to pull back the opening ante unless Calixte deals me a pair; second is to stop getting distracted by Marina's legs while he's dealing.
I wasn't planning for it to come down to this one bet, all or nothing. Maybe I just got caught up in the excitement of a long night. It all started at sunset. At Sunset Beach Bar, actually. It's an outdoor joint right on the water, wildly popular with a mix of visitors young to old. Sunset has the most unique location in the islands 50 feet away from the international runway. It's a tough call choosing between looking for the green flash and checking to see if the jet wash from a 747 blows anybody off the beach. Coming to this bar is just like when you were a kid and your dad took you to watch the planes land. Except coming here is better because now you get to watch with a rum and coke in your hand. Sunset is right near Bliss, not the state of mind, but St. Maarten's trendiest new open-air watering hole that's an ocean-view bar/grill by day and nightclub after dark. Bliss has a four-poster bed sitting out on the sand. I guess it's supposed to be artsy, but what do I know? The drinks are good.
After a shower back at Maho Beach Resort, I went looking for food. I coulda gone to Cheri's Café, a famous place right across the strip, but the limbo show had already started and a big crowd was in full-blown, flowered-shirt party mode. I needed a full stomach first.
Yesterday had been L'Escargot just try and keep the snails off your plate in that place. Tonight there was a cruise ship in, so Da Livio on the beach was the natural pick, with its great Italian and view across the water of the big ship all lit up like a downtown city block. There's every kind of restaurant you could want from sushi to steak, fast food to foo foo on the Dutch side, and the gourmet capital of the Caribbean, Grand Case, is just a few miles away over in the French part. Only a mook would come to this island and not spend a lot of time feeding his face.
A waiter recommended I start my night at the Greenhouse. You can find anything you want on St. Maarten if you talk to the right waiter, bartender or cabby. What I wanted was a good local-type, tourist-friendly bar with cold beer and pool tables. Greenhouse fit the bill dead on. Of course, being St. Maarten, this local joint also had a killer view of a marina full of yachts. It's definitely the place to be on Tuesdays when the whole island stops by for two-for-ones.
As the evening got going, it was time to send my half-pint rental car to the barn and continue on foot. No problem, because back at the resort there was plenty of good fun to get into within walking distance. At the far end of the Maho strip, a neon sign marks the Platinum Room, a classy gentleman's club, and its collection of international talent. Of course with so many of the beaches on this island topless, I decide my money's better spent on another round of cocktails at Sopranos, a velvety, sophisticated, mob-flavored piano bar with couples sitting close in intimate booths and the piano player under a Gandolfini poster taking requests he can't refuse.
Then it was showtime. The theater inside Casino Royale lights up like the mothership in Close Encounters. And when the lights go down, out come the aliens. OK, they're actually just Europeans. A German juggler was the crowd's favorite, tossing as many jokes as he did rubber balls. Phil Keller the magician was the bulk of the show, he and his sexy assistant who he proceeded to turn into a tiger, impale with swords and finally cut into several pieces. That's where I first spotted Marina. She and the rest of the results of Russia's secret project to make genetically perfect women high-stepped their way onto the stage as a diversion between acts so the magician could figure out how to put his assistant's head back on.
Upstairs at the casino I found Q-Club, a multilevel dance place filled on Wednesdays ladies' night Fridays and Saturdays with the island's best-dressed, best-tressed and hippest crowd. The music was pumping; the cool were strutting and dancing. I coulda stayed there the rest of the night, but there was some cash in my pocket that was screaming blackjack.
So that's how I ended up here. I did play some blackjack, Cuban rules the sign said. I guess if you win 10 straight you get a Ricky Ricardo jacket and a cigar. But then I saw the Let It Ride table and that red dress.
Now it's down to one last hand. I put all my chips in equal piles out on the ante circles, nothing left in front of me except bare felt and a glass with a few drops of rum, ice cubes and a crushed lime. Calixte raises his eyebrows at my bet. Sal nods approvingly. Betty looks at me out of the corner of her eye and Marina does another Sharon Stone move. Heck, maybe I'll win enough to buy her a mink ... or a ticket to Minsk, whatever she wants. Tom chuckles. I really don't think I like Tom.
My first three cards are a three, a five and a six. Lousy hand, except that they're all hearts. Possible straight flush, pays 200 to one. Calixte reaches for my first ante, but I wave him off, ''Let it ride,'' I say, causing another ripple of nods to flow across the table. The others pull back an ante or leave it, the focus is all on my big bet. Dealer's first card is a seven ... of spades. There's no need to play poker face because you're not bluffing anybody here, but still I try not to grimace. Calixte reads it and reaches for my second ante. ''No,'' I say, trying to calculate the winnings if I make the regular straight at five to one. ''Let it ride.''
Is it just me who's sweating here? The others take their turns, then all eyes are on that last card. ''Queen,'' says Calixte as he flips it. That sets off new heights of chuckling from Tom: It's his third lady. I try to hate him, but what the hell, he's just trying to break even with his wife's shopping. Sal and Betty lose an ante each; Marina has a pair and doubles her money. She doesn't appear to even notice when I get up from the table. I thank Calixte who seems genuinely sorry to see me lose and have to leave. I slap Tom on the shoulder and we share a chuckle. I wave bye to the gals and head out, looking back just once to see Calixte sweeping up my chips.
That's 15 bucks I'll never see again.
Posted online 05/19/02.