Ice House

If You Want to Gamble in Texas, This Casino Boat is Your Best Bet

The Jacks or Better takes daily trips out of Galveston and into federal waters, where gambling is legal.

By Jeanne Lyons Davis June 22, 2017 Published in the July 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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It wasn’t the most auspicious start for the Jacks or Better Casino boat. On April 15, only a week after its very first jaunt, the 155-foot yacht—which, conditions permitting, takes daily trips out of Galveston and into federal waters, where gambling is legal—scraped against a marker, causing an estimated $40,000 in cosmetic damage and knocking the ship out of commission for weeks.

We took a ride on the Jacks on May 5, the day it resumed operations. Captain Dave Kendrick, who’s been a licensed captain since 1997, gave us a tour of the bridge, the room from which he steers the ship.

“I was the captain during the accident,” he said, addressing the incident in his matter-of-fact manner. “It’s the first time that has ever happened in my career. We were coming in at 11:20 p.m., and I lost sight and confused the markers. When I figured out what was happening, it was too late…. There’s no good excuse for it, but things happen, and I’m thankful nobody got hurt.”

The incident certainly didn’t deter 60 passengers from paying $15 a pop to board the sleek vessel the day we went out. They resembled your typical casino crowd, which is to say most were Baby Boomers or older, many were wearing Crocs, and more smoked cigarettes than didn’t.

We wandered up to the top deck of the boat from the bridge. It was a beautiful, sunny day. The ship glided past shrimp boats casting their nets and container ships heading to port. Seagulls and pelicans followed in our wake, hoping to catch an early lunch.

Although it was a beautiful scene, few were taking it in. Instead, they were inside, having already claimed their seats on the mostly windowless gambling floors, ready to play.

Each trip the Jacks takes out into the Gulf of Mexico lasts seven hours—an hour and a half each nine-mile trip into federal waters, plus four hours of gambling—and the best days to go out, particularly for the seasickness-prone, are when the water’s nice and calm. The ship offers two floors of colorful Vegas-style slot machines and card tables where up to 150 passengers can play games like blackjack, craps, roulette and baccarat (pending Coast Guard approval, the capacity could jump to 300).

“I’m excited to try this,” one woman also enjoying the view, Kim Walden, told us. Walden owns a beach home in Galveston and, she confessed, loves gambling. She and her husband not only frequent commercial cruise lines (which all have casinos), but regularly travel to Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas’s Native American reservations. She was excited, she said, to try something closer to home. “It’s nice that finally we have something practically in our backyard.”

Largely due to antiquated Bible Belt politics, gambling in Texas is illegal, with the exceptions of the lottery, horse and greyhound racing, reservation casinos, and casino boats like the Jacks or Better, which offer single-day gambling trips without having to meet the old requirement of first calling on a foreign port. These boats have served towns along the state’s coast, including Galveston, ever since being legalized in 1989, but before the Jacks’ arrival, the Oleander City had done without for a couple of years.

We wandered inside, and, finally, the moment arrived. The captain announced we were in federal waters and that tables were open. Immediately, a symphony of dings, pings and slot-machine tunes filled the air.

As we watched the action, we thought of a point Henry had made while we chatted inside the bridge. “Many people are traveling to Louisiana to gamble,” he’d said. “Why not keep that money in Texas?”

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