Texas, since its very inception, has been peopled with chance-takers—trailblazers, frontiersmen, adventurers—for whom risking everything was as commonplace as the dirt upon which they ran their cattle and into which they drilled for riches. The stakes couldn’t have been higher for these unflinching forebears, but still they were willing to bet it all.
Every once in a while, perhaps feeling an innate tug bequeathed to me by these pioneering gamblers, I get a hankering for some wagering myself. In my early years, I have scratched this itch with low-stakes card games at the homes of high school friends and 25-cent bets on pool at an ancient Temple billiards hall. During college in Austin, it was more of the same—with occasional trips to the racetrack in Nuevo Laredo. It wasn’t until much later that I visited Las Vegas, where I quickly succumbed to the allure of swanky casino gaming.
A Vegas trip, though, is a big commitment and can constitute an outlay that a low-roller can afford only once in a while. But the offerings for Texas-based casinos are sparse. For years the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino has operated in Eagle Pass, but it doesn’t have blackjack, my casino game of choice. Recently I learned about the Aransas Queen Casino, a 155-foot vessel that shoves off out of Aransas Pass—and does have blackjack.
The thought of gambling out on the high seas was intriguing to a closeted swashbuckler such as myself. The images floating through my mind ranged from a sweaty card game in the steamy hold of a South Seas–bound freighter to a posh James Bond–style Texas Hold ’Em tournament aboard the likes of the MS Queen Elizabeth. My imagination went back and forth from lively sea shanties being sung by a chorus of swarthy Eastern European seamen while schooners of exotic dark ales sloshed carelessly about to genteel string quartets, tuxedo-clad gentlemen, fancy women, and cocktails served in fine crystal—“Well played, Mr. Courtney. The pot is yours. Another martini?”
Curious, I perused the online commentary, which caused my left eyebrow to rise involuntarily. All businesses have their detractors—even the Big Texan Steak Ranch, in Amarillo, gets a few one-star reviews now and then—but the variety of evaluations for the Queen were less mixed than they were diametrically opposed. One patron, for instance, had this to say: “I barfed up food I ate a month ago. . . . I wasn’t alone. People were laid out like sardines in a can. I would not recommend this trip to Obama.” But then, also, there was “I went out last Wednesday and had a wonderful time.” And “My husband and I went on the ship last night and had a blast!”
With this in mind, I decided to test the waters aboard Texas’s only seagoing casino. On a Wednesday morning late last November, I turned into a caliche lot off Texas Highway 361 on the outskirts of Aransas Pass, parked my car, strolled into a nondescript bait stand–size structure, and shelled out fifteen big ones for a five and a half hour open-water gaming adventure.
Lady Luck was smiling on me before I even boarded: it was a beautiful day, and the marine forecast called for gentle winds and seas of zero feet. Zero! As smooth as a dolphin’s bottom. The Aransas Queen will venture out into waves as high as six feet, but I was informed by a crew member that there is a very demonstrable correlation between the ocean’s roughness and the prevalence of seasickness. For this reason, non-drowsy Dramamine and seasickness-prevention wristbands are offered gratis. Sickness at sea, though, is not without its rewards, and a bout of it will earn you a $20 chip and a free follow-up trip. Fair deal? I’m not sure. I was glad for the calm waters.
On the gangway, with my two complimentary drink tickets in hand, I gazed up at the Queen, which appeared to be in the middle of a paint job, and noted that she was a bit rustier than she had appeared on the website. I also noted a lighter crowd than I had expected. The maximum capacity is 300, but I was told that there would be a mere 39 souls onboard for our trip. And as I approached the ship’s entrance, it became clear I was going to be on the younger side of that day’s seafarers by a couple of decades at least. And I’m fifty! Turns out that Wednesday is seniors’ day aboard the Queen. “With age comes wisdom,” said Oscar Wilde once, “but sometimes age comes alone.” “We’ll see,” I thought to myself as I shuffled along the dock.
To escape Texas’s pesky prohibition on gambling, we sailed out beyond the nine miles of state-controlled gulf. For the hour-long trip out to legal gambling waters and the hour back to shore, the casino part of the casino ship is not open for business, but the refreshing outside upper deck is. The ship has three levels. The first level has a bar, is home to the majority of the slot machines, and has the look and sound of a typical casino. The second level features the main bar, a dining area (I considered the Frito pie), and blackjack, roulette, craps, and sundry other table games. The third level is the outside upper deck. Ashtrays abound.
When the announcement was made that the casino would be opening, I took a deep breath of the fresh sea air and headed down to find a seat at the $5-minimum ($200-maximum) blackjack table. And there, for the next few hours, I happily sat. The rotation of dealers was agreeable and the waitstaff attentive (alcohol flows freely while gambling). I was joined at my table by an older woman named Donna, a pleasant and knowledgeable veteran of the Queen. Donna had come with a bigger bank than I had and aggressively played three hands at a time for most of the afternoon. I learned a lot from Donna.
When the casino closed and we began the trip back, I cashed in my chips for $210. I had made two buy-ins of $100, so I didn’t win big, but I did win. And winning is winning. Safely back on land, as I drove down Highway 361, I reviewed the whole briny experience in my head. It fell somewhere between the reviews I had found online and how I had imagined such an outing. There were no fancy ladies (no offense to Three-Hands Donna) or crystal cocktail glasses, but neither did I get stabbed with a rusty filet knife or even feel at all seasick. I would happily take my chances aboard the Aransas Queen again, I thought to myself. But then, I am a gambling man. Occasionally, at least.