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Blackjack Tournaments: The Winning Edge

This article is written with the typical Casino Player reader in mind. Most likely you already play blackjack well and have a solid understanding of basic strategy. In essence, you are far smarter than the average gambler. However, despite your experience, you haven’t yet ventured into blackjack tournaments. You may have asked yourself: Are blackjack tournaments worth my time and money?

In the past, my advice would have been to skip these events. I viewed blackjack tournaments as similar to the lottery; the main appeal was the chance to turn a small initial investment into an astronomical sum. I never saw gambling as way to get rich quick. I made my first million in blackjack the hard way—one chip at a time. I avoided shortcuts and methodically built up my bankroll to higher levels, month after month, year after year.

Well, it turns out I was wrong in my assessment. Blackjack tournaments offer some of the best odds of any casino game and often put you in the rare position of being a favorite over the house. This advantage comes primarily from three factors: overlay, guaranteed prize money and competitive edge.

Overlay

Poker tournaments are currently the craze, but blackjack tournaments are a better deal because they typically pay back all entry fees as prize money. (Most poker tournaments take a cut, as a “service charge.”) When was the last time you heard of a casino game returning 100 percent to the players? This fact alone makes blackjack tournaments a tremendous value. But some tournaments go much further, offering lucrative overlays that give players a return of over 100 percent.

Overlay is a common gambling term used to denote any situation where there is a positive expectancy. This happens frequently in blackjack tournaments because many casinos add extra dough to sweeten the pot. A great example is Global Player Casino, an Internet casino that has pioneered real-time blackjack tournaments online. The site usually kicks additional cash into the prize pool, which creates a strong overlay for savvy gamblers. One of its recent tournaments charged an entry fee of $40 and 56 people signed up. Global Player then added another $1,000 to the prize pool. This gave an EV (expected value) of $18 in profit for each of the 56 players. So over the long run, for every $100 you put in, you’d get roughly $145 back.

This type of generosity isn’t limited to online casinos eager for new customers. Many land-based casinos also add extra cash to their blackjack tournaments, making overlays fairly common (especially at mini tournaments). The rationale for this liberal policy is similar to the loss-leader ads used by Home Depot—they sell garden rakes at slightly below cost and hope that you buy a new lawnmower while you’re in the store. Casinos know it’s good business to pack their floors with additional blackjack players, since these gamblers will have a lot of free time between rounds.

Guaranteed Prize Money

Another advantage is that some tournaments guarantee their prize money. For example, the Horizon Casino and Resort in Lake Tahoe offers a guaranteed $100,000 for first place in their tournament. If fewer people than expected show up, this guaranteed prize money can yield a very positive equity for the players. Furthermore there are often other benefits, including free rooms, meals, hats, souvenirs and shirts.

Invitationals are another tremendous way to gain a sizeable edge over the house. Some casinos invite their regular customers to special blackjack tournaments that are not open to the public. Most of these events are free, so you can’t lose. But even if they do charge an entry fee, there is usually a strong overlay. A terrific example of this is a posh annual tournament held at Barona casino. Every year it invites 50 premium gamblers for one of the biggest blackjack tournaments on the planet. Each player must put up $10,000, but the winner is paid a cool million. Since the prize money is guaranteed, this creates a huge overlay. Last year, for example, only 38 people showed up—meaning that $380,000 was put in and $1,000,000 was paid out!

Competitive Edge

If you haven’t played in a blackjack tournament yet, you might feel like you don’t stand a chance of snagging the big prize. While luck does play a significant role in tournaments, there are strategy tips that will greatly improve your odds of victory.

Part of tournament blackjack’s attraction is that you don’t have to be a pro or a math whiz to win. The knockout format is a great equalizer, and average players have won plenty of big tournaments. This is far different from poker, where the final tables are dominated by pros. On TV, it may look like any two cards can win in Texas hold’em, but an amateur player in the World Series of Poker has virtually no chance of winning. In fact, at most major poker tournaments, over half the field are mathematically dead before they even play their first hand.

Blackjack is much easier to master, and learning a few simple tips can give you an advantage over most of your opponents. Surprisingly this competitive edge has little to do with card counting. The most effective tournament strategies are primarily about risk management. To win your table, at some point you need to risk a large chunk of your playing stake.

Stanford Wong was one of the first experts to devise strategies for gaining an edge over your opponents in blackjack tournaments. His calculations showed that the mathematical odds of advancing in a tournament dramatically improved by implementing some general guidelines. He put together a tournament team to test his theories and later wrote about his findings in Casino Tournament Strategy. Here are some of the more important principles taken from this groundbreaking book.

Succeed or Bust. The best tournament strategy is to either advance to the next round or bust out trying. Develop a killer instinct and always go for the win.

When Behind, Play for the Swing. When losing, look for hands where you can create a big swing, either with the betting amounts or by play decisions, to seize the lead.

When Ahead, Go with the Flow. If you have the lead, try to mimic your competition by matching their bets and reduce the chances of big swings.

When in Doubt, Push It Out. In the late rounds, medium-sized bets won’t usually do any good. If you win, you don’t grab the lead; if you lose, you have too few chips left to stage a comeback. It’s best to bet the max and hope to get back in contention with one hand rather than with a bunch of small bets. It’s not always best to bet as much as you can, but it’s almost never the worst move.

Always Be Alert for Openings. Just because it looks like your opponent has a lock, don’t assume he or she will make the right play. Give the person a chance to make a mistake and allow you back in the game.

Two Bets to Win. When you need more than your original bet to win the final hand, you must double or split any hand you get. Just don’t double for more than is needed, and if you do split, you should usually stand on any stiffs because your best chance of winning both bets is if the dealer busts.

Hope for the Worst. If it looks unlikely that you will win on the last round, even with a max bet, try to retain the largest stack of unbet chips. That will make you the winner if the dealer beats everyone at the table. The dealer will win more hands than he or she loses, which is why this strategy is often a good percentage play.

Understanding these principles can make a huge difference. You need to develop a different mindset for tournaments than for regular blackjack. Basic strategy sometimes gets tossed out the window in tournaments, since there are times where the best play is to hit your hard 18 or double down on a blackjack—plays that would always be wrong in normal situations.

Tournament Format

The main difference between blackjack tournaments and regular play is that participants compete against one another, rather than against the house. This creates a dynamic more similar to poker than to regular blackjack. The format usually consists of a series of elimination or “knockout” rounds. Typically the tournament starts with a random draw and places five or six players in designated seats at each table. Whoever finishes with the highest total of chips advances from each table, although some tournaments promote the top two to the next round.

In some cases, you play with real money, but most times the chips used in tournaments are non-negotiable (or “funny money”). The chips have no real value, so you can never lose more than your original entry fee. Either way, every player always starts with the same number of chips and can’t buy in for more during the round, or carry over winnings from the previous table.

To walk away with any serious money from a tournament, you typically have to fight your way to the final table. The prizes are top-heavy, and only a few players will take home cash. Even if you have a great run, all your “profit” will be worthless unless you win your table and advance. This creates some wild and highly dramatic finishes.

Strategy Shortcut

One of the most difficult aspects of tournament play is when you’re trying to catch the leader near the end of a round, especially when you have to bet first. If the chip leader is sharp, he or she will either match your bet or wager an amount sufficient to lock in both the high and low. Therefore it can be extremely confusing to try to determine the correct bet near the end of a tournament. To make things even more difficult, most tournaments have time constraints that rush your decision. The pressure of making a colossal blunder in front of other people can be intimidating and may play havoc with your math skills.

Kenneth Smith devised a great shortcut to deal with these nerve-wracking and mentally taxing situations at crunch time. His “Rule of 2-4-5” is a powerful way to simplify the calculation process necessary to overtake the leader near the end of tournaments. The following list shows several extra ways to win if you wager certain multiples of your deficit. (For simplicity’s sake, each example assumes you are $100 behind the chip leader.)

Bet two times your deficit ($200): You win with a double down over a single bet win by the leader.

Bet four times your deficit ($400): You win with a blackjack over a single bet win by the leader.

Bet five times your deficit ($500): You win with a double down even over a blackjack by the leader.

If you’re unsure which of these is correct, it’s generally best to go with the largest bet (times five). This 2-4-5 rule is a great tool for handling certain tough decisions and will greatly improve your chances of coming from behind to win the big money.

The Bottom Line

Since luck is always such a big factor in tournaments, you may question whether these tips will make much of a difference. The answer is a resounding yes. A great case in point is Kenneth Smith, who’s now generally considered the best tournament blackjack player on the planet. He had an amazing streak over a three-year period when he won five out of nine tournaments held at the Isle of Capri Casino—a feat practically unparalleled in tournament circles. His astounding win ratio demonstrates how proper strategy can dramatically increase your chances of success at blackjack tournaments.

I can vouch for this personally. I recently entered three blackjack tournaments to test the tips I learned from Stanford Wong’s book and Kenneth Smith’s website (www.BlackjackInfo.com). In the first tournament, I surprised myself by making it to the final table and wound up finishing third. The other was a tournament sponsored by LasVegasAdvisor.com and GlobalPlayerCasino.com. There I won four straight rounds to beat a field of 125 contestants. That put me into the grand finale, where I led virtually the entire way, only to lose on the last hand.

The highlight of my tournament career was the most recent World Series of Blackjack (WSOB). Despite an extremely tough draw at my first table, I advanced and came within a whisker of making the final table and getting a shot at the $250,000 first-place prize. So I can tell you from personal experience that the tips in this article, though simplified, can definitely translate into better performances in your next tournament. At the very least, learning them will help level the playing field when you find yourself facing off against the experts.

Fun and Profit

There’s a benefit to tournaments that goes well beyond the monetary gain: They’re a tremendous thrill to play in. Tournaments combine the glamour of high-stakes gambling with the excitement of a sporting event. Though I’ve played the game for big money over the past two decades, nothing compared to the exhilaration I felt during the WSOB.

While poker tournaments are more popular to watch on TV, blackjack tournaments are more fun to play in person. Most go right down to the last card. Touring the tournament circuit can also be a great way to explore new places and casinos. Many players travel all over the country for blackjack tournaments, and the idea of combining a tournament with a vacation could be a hit with your spouse. Imagine the look on her face when you suggest a trip to Tahoe for the Horizon tournament, rather than visiting one of your usual vacation spots.

To any blackjack enthusiast who hasn’t competed yet in a tournament setting, I say it’s time to jump in and get your feet wet. I firmly believe these events offer the best entertainment and value of any casino game.

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