This chapter covers everything you need to know to play wisely in a blackjack tournament either in a land-based or online casino. You’ll learn what the basic rules are for tournaments, the different kinds of tournaments, and some strategy tips to improve your chances of finishing in the money.
HOW BLACKJACK TOURNAMENTS WORK
When you play in a blackjack tournament, you are competing against other players rather than the casino dealer. You and your opponents start with the same bankroll and play the same number of hands. The player with the most chips at the end of the round (which consists of a designated number of hands) wins and advances to play other table winners. (Sometimes the top two players with the most chips advance.) The initial large field of players is eventually whittled down to a final table of six (or seven) players who play a final round to determine the overall tournament champion. The latter usually receives the lion’s share of the prizes while the other finalists receive less. Nevertheless, it’s the goal of every tournament player to want to finish “in the money,” meaning making it to the final table. Bottom line: Your goal is to have more chips at the end of a round than your opponents.
You don’t need to “win” a lot of chips to advance in a tournament. For example, suppose you have a starting bankroll of 5,000 chips and end up with only 500 chips at the end of the round. If that is more than your fellow opponents, you will advance. Therefore, in tournament play you not only have to play your cards against a dealer’s upcard but you have to keep an eye on your opponents’ bankrolls so you know if you are ahead or behind in chip count as the round progresses.
The following table compares what you already know - playing blackjack - to what you might not know - playing blackjack in a tournament.
Most tournaments are open to the public; others are by invitation only. There usually is an entry fee to play in the tournament, and if you get eliminated in the first (and sometimes second) round, you can re-buy and re-enter by paying another fee.
There are several different formats used in tournaments, and they include the following:
- TRADITIONAL ELIMINATION TOURNAMENTS.
This 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 re-buy 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 WITH ELIMINATION.
This format was made popular several years ago by the televised Ultimate Blackjack Tournaments 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, 25, and 30 were completed was eliminated from play.
- 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.
These tournaments are usually held on a weekly basis in land-based casinos (and often daily in internet casinos). They 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 sizable 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 ’N’ GO.
These are continuously running tournaments that begin once six players have been assembled. Sit ’n’ Go tournaments have been popular on Internet sites that offer blackjack tournaments.
If you’re a tournament beginner, I wouldn’t recommend the Live-Money tournaments, or the non-elimination tournaments. You should instead consider the traditional elimination tournaments for small stakes (mini-tournaments) that are held in many casinos throughout the country. Anyone can get lucky and win a tournament; however, to improve your chances of winning, you need to develop specific tournament skills, which I will review later.
- In blackjack tournaments, you are competing against other players
- Every tournament player starts with the same bankroll, and after playing a specific number of hands, the player with the most chips advances to play other table winners
- The winner of the final round receives the lion’s share of the prizes
- There are several different tournament formats, the most popular being the elimination tournaments
- It’s important to know if you are ahead or behind in chip count so you can bet accordingly
- You can get the edge by learning how to play better than your opponents
STRATEGIES FOR BLACKJACK TOURNAMENTS
As I mentioned above, 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 determines whether or not a player will succeed in tournament play, which I will be reviewing in this chapter.
But first, here are three tips that are important to save you money and headaches when you enter a tournament.
- 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 into the equation. Bottom line: Ask the tournament director how much of the entry fees are returned to the prize pool, and stick to playing tournaments that return close to or over 100% of the entry fees.
- 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. (If you are playing on an on-line casino, read the rules there.) 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 elimination hands, which ones they are, and so forth. Bottom line: Read the blackjack tournament rules, and if you have any questions, ask the folks running the tournament before you sit down to play.
- DON’T BREAK TWO RULES
There are two blackjack tournament rules that I’ve seen players violate (on several occasions) that resulted in their either losing a tournament or being immediately disqualified from the tournament. The first is making a “string bet.” This means palming several chips in your hand and then letting them fall one by one into your betting spot. In a blackjack tournament, you must place all of the chips that want to bet into your betting spot with one motion, meaning it’s best to stack the amount of chips you want to wager outside of your betting spot, and then slide the stack with one motion into your betting spot. If you make a string bet, or try to add another chip into your betting spot, the secondary chips that you bet will be given back to you. (The first chip that hits the felt in the betting spot is the one that counts; I’ve seen players lose their last hand because of this mistake.) The other faux pas you want to avoid is talking to observers during the final round. This is disallowed in most tournaments. (In one tournament I witnessed, a player started speaking to an observer in a foreign language and the observer answered back in the same language … both were immediately removed from the tournament room for breaking this rule.) In most tournaments, in the final championship round, players are also not allowed to speak to their opponents. You are on your own in the final round so be careful not to break the “no talking” rule.
There is a unique set of tournament skills that often determines whether or not a player will succeed in tournament play. Below is a summary of these skills.
TOURNAMENT SKILLS YOU MUST LEARN
- 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 possible outcomes 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 that 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.
For starters, you need to purchase some casino chips from a gaming retail store (I recommend Gamblers General Store in Las Vegas) and practice chip counting at home by stacking chips of the same denomination, then eyeballing the stack, and estimating the amount of money in each stack. Players who learn to chip count accurately have a big edge in blackjack tournaments. Here are more tournament strategy skills you need to learn.
- BETTING POSITION
The designation of the person who bets first on each hand in a tournament rotates around the table. (A button is placed in front of the player who bets first. After the hand is over, the blackjack dealer will move the button one spot to the player’s left.) The player who bets first on the first hand is determined by a random draw (often by rolling a dice; if the roll is a three, player seating in seat #3 will be the first to bet). As soon as it is determined who bets first, you need to figure out what betting positon you will have on the last round. If you are going to be “on the button” (meaning betting first) on that important last hand, you should bet more aggressively during the tournament to try to get the lead going into the last hand. (That’s because players who bet first are at a disadvantage compared to players who bet last on the last hand because they see the bets made by their opponents.)
Note: Also keep in mind, that if a player busts out (loses all his chips) during the round, the position of the last-hand button will change.
- CATCHING UP
If you fall behind a leader, it’s best to make one or two big bets to try to catch up rather than a series of small or medium-size bets. Wait for the button to pass you before you make your catch-up bet. Additionally, pay attention to the maximum betting limits. You don’t want to be more than one max bet behind going into the last couple of hands; otherwise, you won’t be able to bet enough to catch up. Be sure, also, to have enough chips to double down or pair split if necessary.
- BETTING OPPOSITE
Another way to catch up to the leader is bet opposite to the way he bets, meaning if he bets small, you bet big, or vice versa. However, if you fall more than one max bet behind the leader and it’s past the midpoint of the tournament, consider making large bets to catch up or get close to the leader.
- IF YOU ARE THE CHIP LEADER
It’s best to match the amount bet by your nearest competitor to prevent him from swinging you (i.e., if you lose the hand and he wins, he can overtake you).
- NOT ENOUGH CHIPS?
If you don’t have enough chips to catch up to the leader, then hold back one more chip than the leader, bet the rest of your chips, and then hope that the dealer beats the table. (This is known as going for the low.)
- EVERYONE ALL IN
If several opponents bet all their chips on the last hand or you believe they will if they bet after you, and you plan to do the same, then hold back one chip. If the dealer beats the table, you might possibly advance because you held back one chip while your opponents busted out.
- BETTING HALF YOUR BANKROLL
If you need to make a large bet toward the critical last few hands, consider betting half your bankroll. This gives you the option of pair splitting if you draw a pair. Unlike doubling down, you can’t pair split for less, which is why you bet half your bankroll and have the other half in reserve to pair-split or double down.
- LAST HAND PLAYING STRATEGY
If you need to bet more on the last hand to have more chips than a table leader, you sometimes need to double down no matter what hand you hold. (I once won my round by doubling down on a 20 and drawing an ace; an unlikely draw, but it was the only way for me to get more money bet to overtake the leader if we both won our last hand.)
- WHEN IN DOUBT OVER HOW MUCH TO BET
If you are going into the last hand and you are not sure how much to bet, there is an old adage in tournament play that says: “When in double, put it out,” meaning bet the maximum. (But there are exceptions; see below.)
In every blackjack tournament that I have played, I kept notes (i.e., a diary). What follows is a summary of several blackjack mistakes made by players that caught my attention along with my comments. (You’ll get a better appreciation of the kinds of mistakes made by players that you can capitalize on by reading what follows.)
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 means the leader’s bankroll was greater than 2.5 times her closest competitors. 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 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 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 play your hand based not on what the dealer shows, but rather on what your opponent has done.
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 the max betting limit 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-last hand and you have a big lead, do a quick mental calculation to see if you can 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.
TAKE WHAT THE PLAYERS TO YOUR 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 hand) then you should take the low. Taking the low means you hold back one more chip than the highest unbet stack 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 through 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 take the hit (otherwise, you lock yourself out of any chance of winning).
At first glance, the above tournament skills may seem daunting. There are, however, several excellent resources that can help you. The first is by my good friend Kenneth Smith, who is probably one of the best tournament blackjack players in the world. (My worst nightmare is when he is assigned to my table, especially in the latter rounds in a tournament.) Ken shared a lot of tournament strategies that he developed in my Blackjack Insider Newsletter and eventually, in two e-books that he wrote (How to Win More Blackjack Tournaments Vol. I and II … for details go to www.bjinsider.com). (I often tell tournament players that they will be at a great disadvantage if one of their opponents has read Ken’s books.) The second book is a classic on tournament play, Casino Tournament Strategy by Stanford Wong. It contains the successful blackjack tournament playing strategies used by Wong and his team of players. (The book also contains tournament strategies for craps, baccarat, keno, and horse racing handicapping.) Other resources include the book Play to Win by Kenny Einiger, the tournament strategy articles by tournament experts in my Blackjack Insider Newsletter (you can search the archives of newsletters for tournament strategies on www.bjinsider.com), and the articles and message board on www.blackjacktournaments.com (hosted by Ken Smith).
- Always determine the tournament’s equity
- Always read the blackjack tournament rules before starting playing
- Know which rules if broken could get you disqualified from the tournament
- You can improve your chances of winning a tournament by learning tournament playing and betting strategies
- Learning chip counting is a must
- Betting last in a round is always more advantageous than betting early
- How much you should bet depends on when you are going to bet (early or late) and whether you are ahead or behind your competitors
- When in doubt, put it out
- You goal in a blackjack tournament is to beat the dealer and win as much as possible. True or False.
- Which tournament format is the most popular?
- If you win in the first round, what happens?
- Tournament players all begin with the same what?
- If your starting bankroll is $5,000 and you wind up with only $1,000, your chance of advancing in the tournament is slim. True or False.
- What is the most important skill you should master to improve your chance of winning a tournament?
- What is the “Tournament Equity”?
- It’s not necessary to read the tournament rules before you begin playing. True or False.
- What mistakes could get you disqualified from a tournament?
- What does it mean to “go for the high”?
- What does it mean to “go for the low”?
- What does it mean to “play for a swing”?
- What does it mean to “correlate your bet”?
- Betting position is very important in tournament play. True or false.
- Which player has the advantage … the one betting first or the one betting last?
- If you want to make a catch-up bet, when and how should you do it?
- What is another way to catch a leader?
- When in doubt over how much to bet on the last hand, how much should you bet?
- False. Your goal is to wind up with more chips than your opponents.
- Elimination tournaments.
- You advance to the next round to play other table winners.
- False. If your $1,000 ending bankroll is greater than your opponents ending bankroll, you will advance.
- Chip counting.
- The ratio of the amount of total amount of prizes given to winners to the total entry fee played by players. The best tournaments have a Tournament Equity at or over 100%.
- False. It’s very important that you read and understand the tournament rules.
- Making a string bet or talking to your opponents or observers during final round.
- Going for the high means betting enough so that if everyone wins his or her hand, you will have the highest chip count.
- Going for the low means holding back one more chip than the highest unbet stack of chips that your opponents have in front of them.
- Going for the high means betting enough so that if everyone wins his or her hand, you will have the highest chip count.
- Playing for a swing means you bet enough so that if the leader loses the hand and you win your hand, you lead in chip count.
- Correlating your bet means when you have the lead you want to bet the same amount as the opponents who are trying to catch you.
- You have the advantage when you bet last.
- Wait until the button passes you (meaning you bet last on next hand) then make a large catch-up bet.
- Bet opposite to the amount of chips he bets.
- Make a max bet.