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Best of Henry Tamburin

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Blackjack tournament tips

21 January 2011

I recently played in a $100,000 blackjack tournament and, to be frank, I was somewhat appalled at some of the mistakes tournament players were making. The point of this article is not to chastise these players but to comment on the mistakes so that you can learn from them.

First off, let me address the "luck issue." I can't tell you how many players during the breaks told me "tournaments are all about luck." I agree that in a 30-hand tournament, luck will play a big role in the outcome. However, I disagree with folks who say that there is no skill involved in playing tournaments. The players who understand basic tournament playing strategy are far more likely over time to do better than a player who depends solely on luck to bring him to the winners circle. Enough said on this subject.

Let me set the stage for this tournament. Each player started with $5,000 in chips and the betting limits were $25 to $5,000. Thirty hands were dealt in each round.

What follows are some faux pas that I observed.

Overbetting.

Here's the scenario. Players were going into the last hand in the round and the chip leader had roughly $15,000 whereas everyone else had, at best, $5,000 in chips (this is a round I watched). This means the leader's bankroll was greater than 2.5 times her closest competitor's. The leader bet last and everyone who bet ahead of her went all in. In the excitement of everyone's betting his or her entire bankroll, the leader also made a maximum bet of $5,000.

Do you see the mistake she made? Whenever your bankroll is greater than 2.5 times your closest competitor's going into the last hand, and you bet last, you have a lock, meaning all you have to do is to bet the minimum and you can't lose the round. By betting $5,000, you instead leave the door open for someone to beat you if you lose the hand and the trailer gets lucky and is dealt a blackjack.

Correlate when you have the lead.

The leader had a slim $1,000 lead over the closest competitor going into the last hand (no other player was close). The chaser bet all his chips ($4,500) and the leader, who bet last, made the right play by betting the same amount ($4,500). Now, as long as the leader has the same outcome as the chaser, the leader can't lose. However, this is what happened. The chaser was a dealt a 15 against a dealer 7 and he stood. The leader had a 12 and he followed basic strategy and hit his hand. Wrong. The leader should have stayed on his 12 (remember you want the same result as the chaser, meaning if he stands with a stiff, you stand on your stiff). This is a case where you should not play your hand based on what the dealer shows, but rather you play your hand based on what your opponent has.

Get a half-max-bet lead.

What is so special about a half-max-bet lead in tournaments? In this tournament, if you had a lead of slightly more than $2,500 (that's slightly more than half of $5,000), all you have to do is bet exactly $2,500 and you have a lock (as long as you have the same outcome as the chaser). The point is that if you are on the next to the last hand and you have a big lead, do a quick mental calculation to see if you could bet just enough so that if you win and your opponents win, you'll have slightly more than a $2,500 lead. On two different tables, I estimated that the table leaders had the opportunity to get that all-important half-max-bet lead, but they didn't bet enough to try to get that lead on their opponents.

Take what the players to you right give you.

In this tournament, the vast majority of players went all in on the last hand. In most cases, that's usually the best bet to make. But not always.

Usually, if all players to your right (who bet ahead of you) go for the high (meaning that they bet big hoping to win their hands) then you should take the low. Taking the low means you hold back one more chip than the highest unbet pile of chips that your opponents have in front of them and then you pray that the dealer beats the table. If that happens and all players lose, you will end up the table winner. Going for the low is not a bad strategy, especially since the dealer wins more hands on average than loses. So if everyone goes high, think about going for the low.

Play for the swing.

In tournament play, playing for the swing means you hope the leader loses his hand and you win your hand. Here's the scenario that unfolded in one of the rounds. The leader had a 17 and stood. The chaser (who needed a swing to win) had an 18 and he stood.

Wrong. If you stand on 18 when the leader has 17, there is no way you can win the round. Think about it. If the dealer ends up with 17 though 21, you can't win. Likewise, if the dealer busts, you can't win. Whenever you are playing for a swing, you need to hit your hand until you have at least two more points than the leader. In this case, the player needed to have at least 19 (or ideally 20 or 21) and then hope the dealer winds up in the middle with an 18 (in which case, the dealer beats your opponent, 18 to 17, and you beat the dealer with your 19 over her 18). Yes, I know hitting an 18 is a long shot, but if that's the only way for you to beat an opponent you need to go take the hit (otherwise, you lock yourself out of any chance of winning).

Now that I've espoused these tournament tips, you are probably wondering how I did in the tournament. As I said earlier, luck plays a big role (but not the only role) in tournament play and I came out on the short end of the stick in both rounds.

In the first round, a player passed me on the 28th hand by making a big bet, doubling down, and winning both bets. She took the lead from me when I pushed. On hand 29, I knew I had to make a big bet to recapture the lead going into the last hand so I bet $5,000. Even if I won that bet, I would still be behind the leader (assuming she won her hand also) because she had about $11,000 in chips. So I was praying (you get very religious when you play in tournaments) I would get a decent hand to double down. And would you believe I got the perfect double down hand ... a 7-4 ... so I put in the rest of my chips (about $3,000) and hoped for a 10 or picture card. Instead, the dealer gave me an ace for a 12, and, of course, I lost the hand and the round.

I also got a bad beat in the rebuy round. This is a case where I was in the driver's seat going into the last hand with a lead, and I had to avoid being swung by a chaser who bet ahead of me. Unfortunately for me, the chaser wound up with a four-card 21. I was facing a 13 against a dealer 10. I agonized whether to stand or hit until my time almost ran out. I knew if I hit and busted, I'd be out of the tournament (the chaser would have swung me, assuming the dealer didn't also get a 21). If I stood instead on my 13 and the dealer broke, I would have the same outcome as the chaser and I would have won. I honestly didn't know what the best percentage play was, but with time running out, I took a hit. The dealer gave me a picture card and I was out of the tournament (no, I didn't win the wild card drawing). (By the way, I checked the next morning and hitting 13 was the better play even though I busted.)

Even though I didn't do well in this tournament, I can't wait for the next one. Perhaps we'll meet at the final table. You never know.

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:

Winning Baccarat Strategies

> More Books By Henry Tamburin