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Best of Henry Tamburin

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Blackjack tournaments 101

4 March 2011

The information in this article is intended for blackjack players that have never had any experience playing in a blackjack tournament. Let's begin by comparing what you already know -- playing blackjack in a casino -- to what you might not know -- playing blackjack in a tournament.

Casino blackjack:

  1. You play against the dealer.
  2. Your goal is to win money.
  3. How your fellow players bet, or play their hand, or how much bankroll they might have, has no influence on your chances of winning.
  4. You never root for the dealer to beat the table.
  5. With a modest bankroll, it's rare to win a large sum of money in any one session.
  6. There is no limit on how much you could lose per session since you can always dig in to your wallet or purse for more money.
  7. You should use the basic playing strategy to play every hand.
  8. You get the edge by learning card counting.
  9. The chance of becoming a "star" because of your blackjack prowess is slim to none.

Tournament blackjack:

  1. You play against a dealer and against your fellow players.
  2. Your goal is not to win money, but to wind up with more chips than your fellow table players, even if it means you end up with fewer chips than you started with.
  3. How your fellow players play and bet, and how much bankroll they have, has a major impact on your outcome.
  4. You sometimes root for the dealer to beat the table.
  5. It's possible to win a large sum of money -- six figures or higher -- if you win a major tournament.
  6. Your losses are limited to the amount of your entry fee.
  7. You should know the basic playing strategy, but more importantly, when to deviate from this prescribed strategy.
  8. You get the edge by learning how to play better than your opponents.
  9. Your tournament skills could land you on national TV and gain you stardom, similar to the fame achieved by previously unknown poker players.

If you are surprised at the differences, don't be, because most blackjack players really don't know about the nuances of playing tournament blackjack.

The objective of tournament blackjack is fairly straightforward and easy to understand. Players pay an entry fee to play in a tournament. You and your fellow table players start with the same bankroll and play a set number of hands (usually 20 - 30). The player with the most chips after the hands are completed wins the table and advances to play other table winners. After several tournament rounds, the initial large field of players is whittled down to six or seven players, who play a final round to determine the tournament champion. Monetary prizes are given to the top six or seven players (sometimes prizes are also given to the semi-finalists), with the player finishing in first place receiving the lion's share of the prizes (in the past, as much as a million bucks).

The main goal of tournament play is to end up with more chips than your fellow players. You could have a starting bankroll of 1,000 chips and wind up with only 100 chips but still advance if your fellow table players have fewer than 100 chips. Yes, you are still playing your hand against the dealer's hand, but you've got to keep an eye on your opponents' bankroll so that you know if you are ahead or behind and can bet accordingly. Obviously, if you are leading, you want to protect your lead. If you are behind, you want to try to bet more to catch up and hopefully pass the leaders. How best to go about this will be discussed shortly, but for now let's review the different formats used in blackjack tournaments.

  • Traditional elimination tournaments, which is probably the most popular format. In these tournaments, you are playing only against the players on your table, with the table winners advancing and the others eliminated (although in most elimination tournaments, you can pay a rebuy fee and play again).
  • Non-elimination or accumulation tournaments. Here you compete against all the other players in the tournament with the goal of trying to win the most chips after several rounds. The tournament leaders are often posted on a leader board so all players have an idea of how much they need to win to overtake the leaders.
  • Tournaments that have elimination hands. This format was implemented by the Ultimate Blackjack Tour (UBT) to make blackjack tournaments more exciting for players and also television viewers. In the UBT format, the player with the lowest chip count after hands 8, 16 and 25 are completed is eliminated from play. The televised World Series of Blackjack also employs elimination hands.
  • Live-Money tournaments. In most tournaments, the playing chips used have no value. But in live-money tournaments, players must purchase the chips and they can be exchanged for cash at the end of the tournament. So in live-money tournaments, if you decide to go all-in and wager the maximum bet, that's your own money (not funny money) that you are putting at risk.
  • Mini tournaments. These tournaments are usually held on a weekly basis, have a relatively low entry fee (usually $25 or less), and take less than a day to complete. The prize pool is usually $2,000 or less.
  • Major tournaments. These tournaments have higher entry fees, generally take more than one day to complete, and have a sizeable prize pool (often six figures). Casinos that offer major tournaments usually hold them over a weekend, offer the contestants free or discounted rooms, and usually include a banquet and free gift.
  • Sit-and-Gos. These are continuously running tournaments that begin once six players have been assembled. Sit-and-Gos are popular on Internet sites that offer blackjack tournaments (Ultimatebet.com and Bet21.com) and have been recently implemented in brick and mortar casinos (e.g., the Venetian casino in Las Vegas offers "turbo" style, UBT elimination format, 21-hand, Sit-and-Gos on Friday evenings).

Anyone can get lucky and win a tournament. But to improve your chances of winning, you need to develop tournament playing and betting skills. I'll summarize these in a moment, but first here are some tips that could save you some dough and headaches.

Determine the Tournament's Equity

Players must pay an entry fee to play in a tournament. The best tournaments are those that return all the tournament entry fees in prizes to the players. In some tournaments, the casino might even kick in some more money to fund the prize pool. These are the most desirable tournaments since the total prize pool exceeds the entry fees. The least desirable tournaments are those where the prize pool is less than the entry fees. But keep this in mind: Even though a casino might pay out less, it might also give players free rooms, free meals and other perks so you need to factor the value of these perks in to the equation. Bottom line: Compare the prize pool plus the value of the tournament perks to the total entry fees to be sure the former is close to, or ideally slightly greater than, the latter.

Read the Rules

Once you enter a tournament, make sure you read the tournament playing rules, because no two tournaments have exactly the same rules. I've seen many players make costly playing mistakes because they simply didn't take the time to read the written rules. You can usually get a copy of the tournament rules after signing up for a tournament or at the minimum you will be given a set of rules just prior to playing. Take the time to read the rules so you know what the betting limits are, whether or not each player's bankroll is counted a few hands prior to the last hand, how many hands are played, how many players advance, whether surrender is allowed, and in the case of tournaments with elimination hands, which ones they are, and so forth. Bottom line: Read the tournament rules and if you have any questions, ask the folks running the tournament before you sit down and play.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, playing blackjack in a tournament is not the same as playing blackjack in a casino. There is a unique set of tournament skills that often determine whether a player will succeed in tournament play. Below is a summary of these important skills.

  • Keeping track of the chip count of other players. You won't know how much to bet if you don't know the bankrolls of your opponents.
  • Knowing when it's best to go for the high (betting enough so that if everyone wins, you have the highest chip count), or to go for the low (keeping the most unbet chips so that if everyone loses, you have the most chips).
  • Knowing when to correlate (bet the same as your opponents bet), when to increase your bet, when to bet the opposite of your opponents, or to simply bet the minimum.
  • Being able to mentally determine the outcome of a player's bet (i.e., what his bankroll would be if he won, lost or pushed his hand).
  • Knowing how to lock out an opponent so no matter what the outcome of the hand, you will advance.
  • Knowing the importance of betting position (betting first in an elimination hand, or final hand, puts you at a distinct disadvantage compared to betting last).
  • Knowing when and how to deviate from the basic playing strategy.

In addition, if you decide to play in a UBT tournament with elimination hands, you need to master these additional skills:

  • How and when to use the secret bet and action card.
  • The use of surrender as part of your overall playing strategy.
  • How to be more aggressive in your betting if you are first to bet in an elimination hand.
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