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Seminole Smackjack

I'll just come out and say it: The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino horrifies me. It's a depraved place full of slot machines, waitresses in hot pants, and plenty of people betting way more than they can afford. But that grand little nation of contrived decadence also fascinates me. Before I moved to Florida, the only casino I'd ever been to was Circus-Circus in Las Vegas, where I stayed with my parents during a wholesome family vacation. Yeah, the Hard Rock is also full of clowns but seriously lacking in the way of giant kiddie amusement parks.

Every so often, a pilgrimage to the Hard Rock (1 Seminole Way, Hollywood) is required, though. It is the center of the universe, isn't it? When I heard about the new blackjack tables, I knew it was time for a trip. Chalk it up to the current legal scuffle pitting Seminoles against those other legal betting venues called racinos (if I were a gamblin' woman, I might bet that the FBI will come kick over the Seminole's blackjack tables, ohh... never) or the Jack-rocking-out billboards along I-95, but something compelled me to mosey up to the Seminole and watch my closest companion tempt fate with his own hard-earned moolah. What better way to spend a Sunday evening?

Ambiance: The Hard Rock rises like a monolithic palace from the tropical Florida landscape, appearing at first glance to be a respectable establishment of some sort. But after hiking through the never-ending parking lot, past the huge outdoor fountain, and around white, curved archways, I pulled on the guitar-shaped doorknob and found myself in a smoky den of iniquity where more money than I make in a year changes hands every minute. (Note to editors: It's really more like seconds.)

My friend — the kind of instinctive gambler who'd bet on, say, when a particular celebrity will die or the progression of two competing caterpillars up a wall — and I followed the gold-and-red carpet. We passed some ATMs (first things first), a flashy bar area, and a food court (though getting dealt a card with someone's pizza grease on it would make me immediately fold). Finally, the maze of slot machines — with names like "My Rich Uncle" and "Shake Your Booty" — gave way to the blackjack tables. Some gamblers were hunched over the tables under bright lights; others buzzed around them like bugs drawn to a zapper. Ah, the diverse appeal of the Hard Rock — people of all ages, races, and social classes coming together to lose their money to the indiscriminating force of Lady Luck. This is democracy, just like the Founding Fathers must have envisioned it.

Within a few minutes, I saw an older man stand up and shout to the room: "I'm the greatest blackjack player in the world." Then he promptly lost a couple of hundred dollars, doubling down on a hard 13, which, I'm told, isn't a great move. He also downed liquor methodically and made frequent trips to the ATM, losing at least $1,000 in the time I was standing there. I hope the rumpled gent I caught a glimpse of the next day cadging quarters in front of the Publix on Young Circle wasn't Mr. Blackjack.

The Wait: We're actually talking about two separate Hard Rock trips here, because the first time we went, the minimum blackjack bet was $25 a hand at the lowest table, and it was so crowded, I could barely make out the dealer's face. On our second trip, we found two $15 tables. We joined the group of would-be gamblers stalking the players lucky enough to have found a seat. More than once, my friend pushed me out of the way to make a mad dash when he saw what might have been a spot opening up (turns out the guy was just shifting in his seat).

I went for a walk, leaving my gamblin' buddy to salivate over blackjack all by his lonesome. I noticed three good-lookin' young gamblers standing awkwardly behind another blackjack table, not quite possessing the kind of aggression necessary to seize a chair (like, not willing to knock down their friends). Reza, who had black hair cropped close to his head and wore a polo shirt, told me they'd been waiting forever.

"Why not just play poker if you want to gamble?" I asked.

"Blackjack has the best odds," said Alfonso, who was short with a well-trimmed beard. "Earlier today, we played slots — we all lost money." Reasons one through 100 for why I don't gamble.

"And you guys are hoping to make it all back in blackjack?" I asked.

"If I lose any more, I'll just trade her in as a slave to keep playing," Alfonso said, putting his arm around Meagan, their slender female companion. "Maybe they'd put her in one of those hot little waitress outfits."

Customers: Between the whooping grandmas who'd won big and the tired eyes of chain smokers who'd been there for a few days, the sizable Ed Hardy army — packs of young men wearing tattoo-inspired, very expensive designer shirts — was a force to be reckoned with. Night Watch Dating Tip Number 1: Ed Hardy shirts are a great way to identify a guy as a tool without talking to him.

I caught up with two men who had just left a blackjack table.

"So, how's the blackjack?" I asked.

"I love it," said Ron, a big, bearded man in a black buttoned-down shirt. "You're playing against the house, so you develop camaraderie with the people at your table. I played blackjack in Vegas once for three days straight."

"You guys come to the Hard Rock a lot?"

"Yeah, I come about three times a month," Ron said.

"No — he's here about three times a week," his companion, Corey, chimed in. They exchanged a meaningful glance, full of contending varieties of reproach.

"Do you guys set aside a certain amount of money every month to play with?" I asked.

"No," said Corey, a thin and bespectacled man. "But that would be smart, wouldn't it?"

His sarcastic tone immediately suggested I'd stumbled upon a sore spot in their relationship. Poor Ron was heading for the doghouse.

Blackjack: My friend finally got his ass in a seat. He gave me a quick rundown on the rules. I learned that the aim of the game is to do what I spent my teenaged years doing — trying to get to 21. I could almost feel all that greasy, gamblin' adrenaline oozing from my companion's skin as the dealer slid the first cards out of the shoe. He got a ten and a nine — 19. Not bad, I thought. I figured we were about to get $15 richer (and in my situation, every little bit counts) when the dealer turned over a 19 of her own. A push. All this buildup for that?

An elderly Asian-looking man at the same table was betting tall stacks of green chips worth $25 each. At one point, he bet nearly $100, then doubled down. When he won, he calmly smoked a cigarette and did the same thing on the next hand. Immediately, I saw the real lure of the game — he made almost $700 in seconds.

My friend, who ended up losing, uh, moderately (no reproachful looks here), fluctuated between good hands and bad hands, often making what he told me were "smart moves." Hitting when he had 16 and the dealer had seven? Yeah, smart. He wasn't at the table for half an hour, though, when a pit boss came over and announced that they were switching the $15 tables to $25. Too steep for my gamblin' man... and everybody else at the table.

Enough is enough. Yeah, the place is full of smoke and strange characters, and blackjack is fast-paced and fun, but seediness wears me out, you know? I'll be back, though. Want to bet on a sure thing? Bet the farm: It won't be long before the Seminoles come up with something new to make me forget all the reasons I stay away.

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Tara Nieuwesteeg

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