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Best of Henry Tamburin

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A chat with Sam Vaughn

7 October 2011

Recently, the tournament blackjack community lost a great friend and player when Sammy Vaughn passed away. I first met Sam several years ago on the tournament circuit. He was quite a character and I enjoyed his company. What you are about to read is an interview I did with him in 2005 after he won a million-dollar blackjack tournament.

Note: The Las Vegas Hilton Million Dollar Blackjack Tournament III was a 13-month event consisting of 12 preliminary rounds scheduled one weekend of each month, and a final championship round held in May 2005. The final event had 200 entrants and 65-year-old Sam Vaughn emerged as the champion and won a lump sum of one million dollars in cash. Mr. Vaughn worked for the post office for 25 years and retired in 1992. In 1995 he moved from Phoenix, Arizona to Overton, Nevada, a small town located 70 miles northeast of Las Vegas, where he enjoyed playing in blackjack tournaments in his retirement.

When did you play your first blackjack tournament?

In the 1980s, craps was my primary game and I used to play the crap tournaments at the Four Queens on a regular basis. In 1989 they discontinued them but they talked me into entering their blackjack tournament. I did and finished first and won $50,000, which was a lot of money in those days. After that I was hooked on blackjack tournaments.

How did you learn to play well in blackjack tournaments in those early years?

I learned from tournament experts who were playing mini-tournaments in Las Vegas. This included John Ressman, Mike Nargy and others. I watched and paid attention to how they bet and how they played their hands in different situations. They also patiently answered questions I had on a particular playing or betting situation. They were tournament experts long before Stanford Wong published the first book on tournament strategies.

Since that first blackjack tournament in 1989, which you won, how many tournaments have you played since?

Wow, let me think. I'd say over 100 tournaments and during the 90s I averaged making it to the finals in different tournaments about three times per year.

How did you advance into the finals in the Las Vegas Hilton Million Dollar Blackjack Tournament III?

I entered the July 2004 monthly qualifying round and finished first and won $20,000. That gave me an automatic bid into the May 2005 finals and a shot at the million dollars.

You made history when you became the only player to make it into the finals in two successive million dollar tournaments and you didn't get drawn-in in either tournament. That was quite a feat, wasn't it?

Yes, I was quite fortunate. In last year's finals I won all my rounds and in the championship round, where I was playing for the million dollars, I had the lead with three hands to go. But unfortunately I lost my last three hands and wound up finishing fourth. Then a few months later I won all my rounds again in the July 2004 monthly qualifier. Most of my friends thought the odds were stacked against me winning every round again in the May 2005 finals, but I proved them wrong and did it again.

What was your game plan going into the finals?

I'm a basic strategy player who bets conservatively in the early rounds because I generally lose more hands than I win. I try to read my fellow players as the round progresses and use "cause and effect" -- namely, I say to myself, "if I bet this amount what do I expect my opponent(s) will bet?" After I go through different betting and sometimes playing options in my head, I make what hopefully is the best bet and play. For example, I went through this process on hand #24 following the countdown. I was on the button in fourth place and had to bet first. I could have either bet large or small. After thinking about my options and what other players would bet I decided to bet the minimum. It turned out this was a good play because the dealer beat me but I only lost $100 and I had plenty of bankroll left to make one last run at the leaders when I bet after them.

In the championship round you were one of seven finalists playing only 28 hands of blackjack with the winner getting one million bucks. What do you remember most about that round?

In hand 23 just before the countdown, I bet big and got 20. Then the dealer went and got a 21 and I thought I was done. I also remember hand 26 where I made a max bet of $2,500, got dealt a 12 and doubled down for another $2,500 and won $5,000 when the dealer broke.

Doubling down on 12 is not a normal play that blackjack players should make. Why did you do it?

With only three hands left I was in sixth place and behind the leader by more than a max bet. It was desperation time. I caught a lousy deuce on my double down but managed to win the hand when the dealer had 16, drew a 10 and broke. Winning that hand catapulted me from sixth to first place with only two hands left.

After that $5,000 win, you had less than a max bet lead over four opponents going into the next to the last hand. Three of them made max $2,500 bets and so did you. You were dealt a 4-5 with the dealer showing a 10 and you shoved out another $2,500 and doubled down. Why did you double?

One of my closest opponents, who acted before me, bet $2,500 and was dealt a blackjack. In order to maintain my lead going into the last hand I had to double down. I drew a 10 for 19 and fortunately the dealer broke again. So even though my opponent got a blackjack and 3-to-2 payoff, I maintained the lead because I won my double down bet.

On the final hand, you and three other players had a shot at winning the million dollars depending on how everyone bet and played their hand. Can you describe what happened?

I was fourth to bet and my opponents who bet ahead of me all made a max bet of $2,500, so with my slim lead I had no choice but to match their bets. The player who acted first had an Ace-5 and the dealer showed a 7 face card. He doubled down for another $2500 and caught a 10 for 16. The next player bet $2,500 and doubled down on his 12. He caught a 5 for 17. I was dealt a 10-8 and I stood. Fortunately for me the dealer flipped up a 10 in the hole for a 17 and my 18 beat her and I won the million dollars.

What went through your mind the moment you realized you had won the million dollars?

It was an indescribable moment. After all those years playing in blackjack tournaments it was a wonderful feeling to be the champion of the Las Vegas Hilton Million Dollar Tournament.

What do you plan to do with the million bucks?

Go back to school and get my GED and if they open a Kmart close by I can be a greeter (only kidding). Actually, I've already given $500,000 of my winnings to my close pal Fred Heimann and I plan on taking some trips abroad with some of the rest of my winnings.

Can you tell us about your friend Fred?

Fred and I met in the early 1990s while playing blackjack tournaments. Our backgrounds are so similar we clicked and we've been traveling together and playing as partners in blackjack tournaments ever since. He would play in a tournament one month and I would play another month and we split any prizes that we won. That's why I wrote him a check for half a million dollars.

Do you still plan on playing tournaments?

Yes, I am. I not only enjoy the competition but also the social life. I've met many wonderful people playing in these tournaments.

Are there any people you'd like to thank who helped you along the way?

I want to thank the Trinity -- the mysterious Miss Vicky -- who my friends seldom see but know about, for getting me through the last 20 years. My endocrinologist, Dr. Freedie Toffel, who kept this old diabetic upright for the past 10 years, and of course my best friend Fred, who inspired me with his unflagging spirit. I also have to thank long-time tournament players Clarice and Forrest Price from Texas. A long time ago I didn't have enough money to go into the finals of a blackjack tournament and out of the blue Clarice and Forrest lent me $120 so I could play. They recognized me from my crap tournament playing days but they didn't even know my name when they loaned me the money. We eventually became friends as we played the tournament circuit. They've both been ill of late and haven't been able to play in tournaments for over a year. Well, Clarice and Forrest, I'm here to tell you that I parlayed that loan you gave me into a million bucks. Take care of yourselves and I hope to see you real soon in another tournament.

Recent Articles
Best of Henry Tamburin
Henry Tamburin

Henry Tamburin is the author of the best-selling book, Blackjack: Take The Money and Run, editor of the Blackjack Insider e-Newsletter, and Lead Instructor for the Golden Touch Blackjack course. For a free 3-month subscription to his blackjack newsletter with full membership privileges, visit www.bjinsider.com/free. For details on the Golden Touch Blackjack course visit www.goldentouchblackjack.com or call 866/WIN-BJ21. For a free copy of his casino gambling catalog featuring over 50 products call 888/353-3234 or visit the Internet store at www.smartgaming.com.

Henry Tamburin Websites:

www.smartgaming.com

Books by Henry Tamburin:

> More Books By Henry Tamburin

Henry Tamburin
Henry Tamburin is the author of the best-selling book, Blackjack: Take The Money and Run, editor of the Blackjack Insider e-Newsletter, and Lead Instructor for the Golden Touch Blackjack course. For a free 3-month subscription to his blackjack newsletter with full membership privileges, visit www.bjinsider.com/free. For details on the Golden Touch Blackjack course visit www.goldentouchblackjack.com or call 866/WIN-BJ21. For a free copy of his casino gambling catalog featuring over 50 products call 888/353-3234 or visit the Internet store at www.smartgaming.com.

Henry Tamburin Websites:

www.smartgaming.com

Books by Henry Tamburin:

> More Books By Henry Tamburin