With an estimated fifteen hundred poker players on board, the M.S.Westerdam departed from the Fort Lauderdale, Florida pier.
A blasting horn signified the official start of the Party Poker Million V, featuring the most prestigious annual Limit Hold’em tournament on the planet. The biggest poker room in the world moved seamlessly from cyberspace to the elegantly appointed digs of the cruise ship to host the most diverse poker festivities of the season.
The five day battle for supremacy in the big event included a three-handed ping-pong contest for the chip lead at the final table, and as players were eliminated, they still had a second chance in two consolation tournaments that were planned for later in the week, or could simply opt for the non-stop action in the cash games down the hall. There were also plenty of magical moments beyond the felt, with revelers rushing up the famous Ocho Rios waterfalls and swimming with stingrays off the beaches of Grand Cayman Island. A good time was had by all at our ports of call.
The tournament arena was surrounded with bay windows that drew a constantly ogling crowd, as the five hundred twenty-eight runners were whittled down one by one. By the time there were only three men standing, the pros were the odds on favorites to win. But after a ping-pong contest for the chip lead among Kenna James, a popular California pro with Hollywood good looks and a black cowboy hat, veteran player Scott Buller, a railway conductor from Nebraska with three prior cashes at the PPM, and Michael Schneider, a twenty two year old journalism student at the University of Minnesota, it was the amateur, Michael Schneider who turned up as the last man standing. An exuberant, well-mannered kid with scores of cheering friends in the crowd, Schneider withstood the pressure to take down the top million dollar prize. James scored as first runner-up for $700,000 and Scott, the only player to make it to the PPM annual tournament’s final table twice left with $500,000 for his third place finish. In addition to tournament competition, there were all manner of poker games in the card room, including one newly created Hold’em game that had the animated winners laughing it up all night long. The hotshot 5/10 and 10/20 No Limit punters at nearby tables were seen salivating for seats in the game next door, as pots worth thousands of dollars were built nightly from their thirty dollars worth of blinds at the beginning of the hand. When not glued to the card room’s chock-a-block cash games or making a run for the million dollar prize in the PPM V tournament, PPM voyagers were free to feast on gourmet treats from around the world, then encouraged to get rid of the calories with stints on state of the art gym equipment, or a few laps around the ship, preferably during a glorious sunrise or sunset.
The M. S. Westerdam’s gourmet dining room offered high style for guests with discerning palates who seek top-notch ambiance.
On day one, I made a beeline to the gourmet restaurant and booked a table for every night of the cruise.
My first night dinner date was with my good friends (and incredibly gracious hosts when I am in their neck of the woods), the very youthful Card Player Cruises honchos Mark and Lisa Tenner, who with partners Linda Johnson and Jan Fisher, did the hosting chores for the PPM V.
Dressed to the nines but with her mind on business, Lisa worked the gourmet room nightly, and then moved on, while hubby Mark watched over casino transactions throughout the evenings. Jan coordinated all of the tournament details and Linda devoted herself to every cruiser’s good and welfare.
Two days into our trip, Party Gaming welcomed twenty journalists for a dinner party; it was gourmet dinner number three for me. Mike Sexton, one of the best-known poker faces from televised poker shows held court at our table as the hard-working scribes jotted notes discretely as they looked for story hooks between bites.
Tournament poker/movie star Matt Savage made a trip to the gourmet dining room too, hosting a few hardworking staffers for gourmet fare. He invited me to join in the fun. In an after dinner tête à tête, Matt talked about his next poker show for the YES channel, and plans for the new International Poker Association Tour, which is scheduled to open at Hollywood Park Casino in April.
The ship’s dining rooms were filled with poker celebrities every night. Casey Kastle, one of poker’s greatest advocates for enforcement of top shelf ethics in tournament competition enlightened me on the new World Poker Association while chowing down on porterhouse. The WPA is a not-for-profit organization that seeks to unite poker players around the world and upgrade professional ethics and standards in tournament competition; Casey, Barry Greenstein and Kenna James are among the founding members of this organization created by Jesse Jones.
Poker pro Dan Alspach and fiance JoAnn Liu- both poker champs- were regular dinner companions during my trip as were Mike Carson and Steve Metzger, friends of mine for more than fifteen years. To my surprise they both suited up for formal dinners. Mike recently arrived at the final table of a WPT event as the chip leader, and Steve came in second last year at the Party Poker Million IV No Limit Hold’em consolation tournament.
The Party Poker Million offered unending choices for rendezvous. I sipped sparkling water with longtime friend and highly accomplished poker pro Marsha Waggoner at a hideaway at one end of the ship, and met up with WSOP bracelet holder Steven Zolotow, one of my earliest friends from the “big game” at the Mayfair in New York during the 80’s, in a lively cocktail lounge a quarter of a mile away.
By week’s end I had dined, drank and danced with, or at least chatted up, most every “seasoned” poker player on board, including the residents of the Presidents’ suites, which were occupied by energetic WPA founder Jesse Jones and the Shulmans. I speak of Barry and Allyn Shulman who hardly need an introduction to anyone in the poker world! Rumor had it that poker prince Phil Ivey had his eye on a presidential suite for this trip, but not before Jesse and the Shulmans had snapped up the fanciest digs on the ship. According to one well-placed source, Ivey had offered to “buy out ” a presidential suite from the CardPlayer Magazine honcho, but my mole said, “Ivey was told he might have a chance of getting Barry to consider playing ball, but that he was never going to get his brainy, gorgeous, poker-wise bride, Allyn out of that fabulous room!”
There were many high points on the Party Poker Million V- especially for poker’s newest millionaire, Michael Schneider, who plans to finish his university studies and invest his windfall winnings with care. And there was another magical moment at the awards ceremony. Players were given a glimpse into the character of another poker winner, Brian Saltus, who, as every seasoned poker tournament pro will recall, is the lawyer from Boise, Idaho who won the innovative grand finale event of the 2001 Tournament of Champions. The “TOC” was founded by Mike Sexton and Chuck Humphrey. Brian’s victory speech at that event left everyone spellbound, especially TOC co-founder Mike Sexton, as well as Linda Johnson and Yours Truly, who were handling the commentary chores. Brian Saltus took over the microphone from us to extend his humble thanks for the opportunity to compete against poker greats TJ Cloutier, Scott Nguyen and “Miami” John Cernuto at the final table, and for the chance to share his win with an adoring family as well as an appreciative audience. He added that winning the event had cast an everlasting glow over the sunset of his life, noting his ongoing cancer battle. A few months later, in the spring of 2002, Linda Johnson of Card Player Cruises and Mike Sexton of Party Poker joined together to honor Saltus aboard the annual PPM Cruise. They lauded his heart and courage at the table and his strength beyond the baize. And so was born the Brian Saltus Award. Recipients have since included Maureen Feduniak, Robert Williamson III and Barry Greenstein. This year, the powers that be turned the tables on Linda, leaving her out of the loop in the selection process. Linda Johnson was this year’s recipient of the Brian Saltus award-“for her long and tireless contributions to the industry and her unwavering commitment to do all she can for the good of poker.” The surprise presentation was made by her eloquent business partner and good friend, Mark Tenner. With the awards ceremonies complete, it was time to party again! A talented group of poker players mounted the stage, one after another, to strut their stuff. My buddy Kenna James sang lovingly to his wife, Marsha, and my longtime friend Michael Carson made those piano keys sing before we took off for a last supper and a joyous end to the Party Poker Million festivities.
Ms Eolis was elected to the inaugural Professional Poker Tour, and has received a corporate sponsorship at the 2006 World Series of Poker. She also has recently been filmed for a planned poker-related movie. By day, Ms. Eolis is the CEO of EOLIS, a legal management consultancy. She devotes significant time to public service as Task Force Commander of Hope’s Champion and has served as first assistant senior advisor to Governor Pataki and previously as an advisor to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.