Poker on a Cruise Ship

Most big cruise ships tend have their own casino on board these days, where passengers can have some fun and pass the time while they’re cruising between ports. The great news is that, more recently, many of the ships have added poker tables so those of us that love poker can get some hands in on the open seas.

I’m just back from a Mediterranean cruise aboard the Norwegian Jade, a ship in the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet and so I decided to write a little bit about what you can expect if you’re going on a cruise and want to play poker, and so that you can see how it might differ from poker games that you play online.


On my cruise, tournaments took place on all of the ‘at-sea’ days, so basically if we weren’t pulling into a port for the day, a no limit Holdem tournament would start at 12 pm. There were 2,500 aboard the ship but the tournament only got 12-15 runners on the days when I went down to the casino to check it out.

I had a chat with the friendly staff and they told me that on a good day the tournaments might get up to 25 people – pretty popular, really.

The main thing that I noticed about the tournaments was the structure, which was unbelievably awful and represented terrible value. I took a photo of the structure sheet as you can see below.

For your initial $60 you get 2,000 chips which would be poor enough if the blinds started at 25/50, but they start at 100/200! So basically the tournament is an all-in or fold from the start.

You can rebuy right at the beginning to give yourself a 4000 chip stack but in my experience, nobody did this so the tournament played 10bb deep from the start.

cruise poker tournament structure

You’d expect that there’d be a lot of all-ins and a lot of rebuys but most of the players had very poor fundamentals and no idea about when they were pot-committed. This led to lots of big mistakes like raising pre-flop and folding to an all-in when the effective stacks were 8bb!

The rebuy period lasted an hour, which was the first two levels. You might think that 30 min levels are somewhat generous but as you can see the blinds double after the first level, and then after the break, they reduce to 15 minutes. Whoever invented this structure must have never played a poker tournament in their lives! Unbelievable.

So let’s take an example to demonstrate what I mean.  Say that you took a rebuy at the start of the tournament and then took the add-on and maintained your stack for the first hour; you’d have 8000 chips going into the 400/800 level, still only 10 big blinds. Even if you managed to win a couple of all-ins before the break you’d still be in trouble!

Typically a couple of people just buy-in for one bullet and bust when they leave, while a few others rebuy and most people who are still in at the break add-on. This leads to about 100,000 chips being in play most of the time.

If you’re used to playing tournaments you’ll realise that heads-up play usually ends pretty quickly when stacks get to about 10bb which would be at the 2000/4000 level or after 2 hours of play. A tournament that lasts for two hours is pretty pathetic – I’m sure you’ll agree with me!

It gets worse, however. $20 from every buy-in, rebuy, and add-on goes to the house, so they’re taking 1/3 of the prize pool. The crazy structure and massive reg fee basically make this tournament next to unbeatable, even though it is packed with players who have no idea what they’re doing.

Cash Games

The cruise ship that I was on offered $1/$2 No Limit Holdem every night, but for whatever reason, the cruise I was on wasn’t packed with poker players and the game didn’t run at all. From talking to the casino staff the game normally starts after the main show finishes which is about 9:30 pm and runs until about 2-3 am.

Again, though, the rake is crippling. Typically in most poker rooms might be 5% up to a max of $10, but on the ship it was 10% up to $25 which is absolutely massive.

If you take an average pot size of 20bb or $40, the average rake is $4. Assuming 30 hands per hour that means that there’s $120 being taken off the table per hour by the house. This level of rake is going to be almost impossible to beat in the long run.

That’s my experience, perhaps these are different in your experiences on cruises but I thought that you may like to know about it all the same.  Away from the poker, the cruise itself was fantastic and very relaxing indeed.  I highly recommend it if you are looking into doing this yourself!