In the last decade, poker has gone through a tremendous boom thanks to the rising popularity of poker tournaments. In fact, for many people, high stakes tournaments might be the first thing they think of when they think of poker. On the other hand, blackjack is mostly known as a table game played in the casino, not a competitive endeavor where you compete against fellow players.
But blackjack has a tournament scene too, and it’s one that’s just as exciting and competitive as the world of tournament poker. In a blackjack tournament, the goal isn’t just to beat the dealer – though you probably will have to do that more than a few times to win. Instead, you’re competing against the other players at your table to see who can amass the most chips in a certain number of hands.
Typically, a blackjack tournament will consist of elimination rounds (though single table blackjack tournaments do exist), in which the top one or two finishers out of a table of about five to six players will advance to the next round. At the beginning of each round, each player starts with the same number of chips. Typically, a round will last somewhere between 20-30 hands, after which the players are ranked by the number of chips they hold.
Immediately when sitting down and playing in a blackjack tournament, you’ll notice that some things are different from your typical blackjack game. For instance, the dealer doesn’t always start dealing from the “first base” position (the player to the dealer’s left). Instead, the first position changes from hand to hand, with a button moving around the table, much like the dealer button in poker. This helps keep the competition on a more equal footing; players who act last are at a significant advantage, since they can see how much their opponents have bet, and see how their hands are doing before they need to make any decisions of their own. This is an especially critical advantage on the final hand.
Blackjack Tournament Strategy
Not surprisingly, blackjack tournaments require very different strategies than when you’re just playing blackjack against the casino. Since your goal is to accumulate more chips than your opponents, it is sometimes wise to do things which you would never do when simply playing blackjack at a regular table.
One of the key strategic concepts in blackjack tournaments is that players will tend to have very similar results in terms of winning or losing hands. While it is far from a guarantee, hands where a few of the players win against the dealer and a few lose are less common than hands where the whole table beats a busted dealer, or the dealer defeats all (or nearly all) of the players. This means that when you gain chips, you can expect the other players to be generally gaining chips as well; and when the dealer is running over you, chances are that the other players at your table won’t be faring much better.
This concept led to the discovery that one very effective strategy in blackjack tournaments was simply to do the opposite of what the rest of the table was doing. For instance, if the rest of the table is making small, conservative wagers, this strategy suggests that you should make large wagers instead. This works because, in general, the players making bets of similar sizes will end up with a similar number of chips. Meanwhile, you – as the only player at the table trying something different – will likely find yourself with a very different amount of chips. This might put you in first place, or it might put you in last, depending on how the dealer treats you. But having a 50/50 shot at first at a table of five or six players is a pretty good deal.
These days, blackjack tournament strategy has evolved to the point where these easily exploitable tables are less common, which means more advanced strategy is required. Most good players will generally bet small, but look for some good spots to make larger bets, especially when they can act last and see what their opponents are doing first. When in the lead, players often switch to bets of moderate size (especially when acting early), so that their opponents can’t get the full benefit of playing in an “opposite” manner. As round progresses, it also becomes important to calculate just how much you’ll need to bet to get yourself into a position to advance, without risking so much that you won’t have later opportunities should you lose a given hand.
Blackjack tournament strategy eventually comes down to a balancing act: you must take enough risks to win, but only when the rewards are big enough to justify taking those risks. Advanced blackjack tournament strategy goes even further, taking steps to optimize bet sizing, pointing out when to ignore basic strategy because you need to take bigger risks (or need to play extra conservatively), and much more.
Major Blackjack Tournaments
In recent years, several blackjack events have gained considerable notoriety. Perhaps the most well-known to television audiences was the World Series of Blackjack, a competition televised on the Game Show Network. This mostly closed tournament does allow players to enter through satellites, and the top prize – which started at $100,000 in the show’s first season – has risen to $500,000 over the past two seasons, the last of which was aired in 2007. GSN also briefly aired a series known as the World Blackjack Tour, and UltimateBet ran the Ultimate Blackjack Tour for two seasons.
However, unlike with poker, most major blackjack tournaments are not televised. Still, blackjack tournaments are commonly held in major casinos around the world, often with large prize pools that can range into the hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Blackjack tournaments are also spread regularly at many online casinos, meaning you can play in an exciting blackjack tournament from the convenience of your own home!