The golden rule of gambling is "never bet more than you can afford to lose". But there is another rule, too. If you're going to gamble, do it in paradise. That way, when your chips are down, there's always an upside. It's a lesson I learned on a trip to Aruba, an idyllic former Dutch colony off Venezuela's Paraguana Peninsula, which feels as if it has almost as many casinos as it does hours of sunshine.
Given that Aruba has sunshine all day, every day, that's an awful lot of casinos. The island, a mere 19.6 miles long and six miles wide, has gambling havens at every turn. They draw a predominantly American clientele, but access from Europe is straightforward thanks to KLM flights from Amsterdam. Even better, Aruba is so beautiful an island that if gambling isn't your thing - or, indeed, if your luck is down - there is always something else to do.
My pilgrimage to Aruba was undertaken to play poker in the 2006 UltimateBet Aruba Classic. This is arguably the most popular event on the World Poker Tour. The Classic this year drew 512 competitors, all of whom had to stump up a "buy-in" of $5,200 ([pound]2,642) in the hope of "cashing" - finishing in the top 50. First place would secure a cool $775,000, enough to fund an odyssey around the many exquisite islands tucked away in this part of the Caribbean. I checked into the venue for the Aruba Classic, the Radisson Aruba Resort on the west-facing Palm Beach, with high, if delusional, hopes that victory would be mine.
Hotels on Aruba are accompanied by casinos as much as by swimming pools, and the Radisson is no exception. There were a few days before the main event, and so I checked out what it had to offer. Inevitably, given the way the game has swept the world in the past two or three years, Texas Hold 'Em tables dominated. I counted nine, at which a largely American contingent was vying for the spoils in this complex game, "the Cadillac of poker". At the Radisson, you can also try your luck at roulette, craps and blackjack, not to mention any one of 330 slot machines. The atmosphere was warm and good- natured, not remotely intimidating and never once sleazy. If only casinos closer to home could be like this.
But if the vibes were good, my luck wasn't. I played a few games of Texas Hold 'Em before the start of the Aruba Classic, and aside from one rather fortuitous second place, was rapidly finding that I was out of my depth. There were far too many sharks at the Radisson, and they were devouring me. An American professional poker player not similarly cursed was Annie Duke, a mother-of-four who has amassed tournament winnings to date in excess of $3.1m ([pound]1.6m). Duke was in her element, but still found time to offer these words of comfort: "If you're going to bust out early of a tournament, Aruba is the place to do it."
The opportunity to put Duke's theory to the test wasn't long coming. I sat down to play in the main event and lasted six hours, exiting at number 360. I walked out of the Radisson feeling the peculiar nausea that comes of one's demise at a poker table, and found myself on Palm Beach. Facing west, this stretch of beach is always calm, lapped by clear and warm water. I bobbed in the sea, looking back at the Radisson, and suddenly it struck me: I was in paradise, and should be glad to have gone out of the Aruba Classic.
There is much to intrigue on Aruba, not least the singsong language spoken by its inhabitants. "Papiamento" is a beguiling blend of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and various West African languages. It is devoid of formal grammar but is also known to the people of Saba, St Eustatius and St Maarten. It is easy to learn and, on Aruba, virtually everyone speaks either Spanish, English or Dutch.
The Dutch influence on Aruba is most pronounced in the architecture of its capital, Oranjestad, but can also be found in villages on the wilder eastern shores. …