Punters take a gamble on boat to nowhere

IT is a shabby $100 dinner buffet, but the shopping bags on the diners' tables are stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars. Wads of cash fall to the floor among spent tissues and toothpicks.

One man with rotten teeth is taking rubber bands off a shoe box, loose greenbacks waiting to burst out under the lid.

We are on the casino ship Delfin Star on a ''cruise to nowhere'', and it is 10.30 pm. We have just entered international waters - somewhere between Shek O and China's Lema Islands - and the gambling is about to start.

The international zone means no fretting about the Hong Kong Government, the police, and licensing or obscenity laws.

But no one's contemplating the wider freedoms: the sumptuous night lounge and karaoke is dark and deserted, all six decks are clear and the room service massage girls listlessly file their nails. The casino is packed within minutes.

I meet a friend, Sammy, a professional blackjack card-counter turned ''researcher'', checking out the Hong Kong scene in the wake of the New Orient Princess fire.

He takes me to an empty bar. ''Never go in to the casino at the start, always wait,'' he says. ''Never, ever. It's something you just don't do.'' Like most of his statements, he does not elaborate.

''Those people with the bags - that's why they come on the ships - they like to show off what they've got. They know there is no one on board who could take it from them and escape. No one does that in Macau.'' To Sammy, Macau is just another stop in five years touring the world's casinos, alone, using his highly-trained memory to count eight-pack blackjack decks and win money for ''friends'' - all legal.

He is cool and reflective - the result of nights of 12-hour stretches at the table, combined with a disciplined monastic lifestyle to keep on edge.

Card-counters like to keep their formulae secret, but it basically boils down to making your big bets when you know only the high cards remain - the ones that will push the dealer over 21.

Some private casinos ban counters, but in Macau and on the ships they make life hard and ''cut'' the decks to allow a more frequent shuffle.

Sammy reveals that, once they know a person is a counter, some casinos will do whatever they can to put him off.

''In Macau, the dealers shout 'this bastard's a counter, this bastard's a counter', but they really can't do much.

''You have to leave a place like Macau when the dangerous people around the fringes know that you are a professional. That does not happen on a ship in one night, so conditions can be okay.'' Once inside the Delfin Star's hot and cramped casino room it is another matter. Incense fills the room from a large gamblers' temple.

Sammy is jumpy, exchanging glances with about 12 other people. The punters and staff all look at each other doing the same thing.

Sammy is clearly not ready for any blackjack. ''Too cramped for me, lots of people on my shoulder, too many nervous people,'' he says, gesturing to a high-roller at a baccarat table.

The high-roller, complete with a diamond-encrusted watch, diamond ring and a bull-necked bouncer in tow, has enough $5,000 chips in front of him to pay back the Philippines national debt. He looks as cool as a cucumber, but, on second glance, he is smoking three cigarettes - one in his hand, one in his mouth and one in an ashtray.

''And too many Australians, I've never seen them before,'' Sammy says.

He is right. Jammed among the crowds of Taiwanese junket players and Hong Kong hustlers are several big men in big suits.

We discover the Australians have been hired by the casino's owners - a loose collection of big Hong Kong gamblers - to run the establishment to international standards.

There is another reason. With Hong Kong's volatile casino ship industry showing no signs of slowing down, the operators are keen to avoid anyone who could be corrupted by rival triads or jealous Macau operators.

After last week's fire, the Bahamas-registered Delfin Star is the only ship currently operating out of Hong Kong. However, two other older, less well-appointed ships are tipped to start next month.

As well as glad-handing the customers, the Aussie staff keep an eagle eye on their Indonesian, Malaysian and Filipino dealers, constantly moving them between tables.

Five baccarat tables are getting all the action, with more than 200 people in the room. It is all high stakes in US dollar chips, with some punters going over the $30,000-per-bet limit.

Sammy avoids the gaggle of elderly Hong Kong women at the blackjack table and decides, at about 3 am, to do his ''research'' at one of the baccarat tables, gambling for fun.

He finds himself near a loud-mouthed young hot-head, with the tail of a dragon tattooed down his arm, who insists on constantly flicking through his mountain of chips and berating other players and his girlfriend.

Word goes round some tables that the man is a Sun Yee On soldier, who, because he is no longer welcome in Macau for his antics, is drawn to the ships.

''People like that go quite crazy on these ships. They don't behave like they do elsewhere, so they can make it difficult,'' Sammy says, with another excuse for not strutting his stuff among the old women at the blackjack tables.

It is now getting on to nearly five and Sammy's calling it a night, having turned a $4,000 loss into a tidy $1,000 profit at baccarat - a pure game of chance.

Most other punters stay on until 9 am, by which time the ship is heading slowly back to Kowloon Bay.

The players and staff seem tired and edgy, the glamour and the anticipation of the dinner 12 hours ago now replaced by sweaty clothes and caffeine nerves.

The hot-head is down to his last $15,000 and faces a table so angry they look to see what he wagers on, then bet the other way.

His girlfriend is nowhere to be seen and he has clearly decided he can make money through other means.

Chips are being ''lent'' to three or four men, all of whom seem to know him, but could know him even better soon.

Someone is looking at my paltry $20 chips, and nodding in his direction.

I can hear Sammy. ''Too many fools, so you do what you want, on only your terms. And never get greedy.''