Tournament Blackjack is unlike the basic game in several important ways. First and foremost, tournaments are played against the other players at the table, not against the house. Therefore, a participant’s ultimate goal is to finish up with more chips than any other player. This is quite different from playing against the dealer at a usual Blackjack table. Losing can actually be a viable strategy, as long as all of the others at the table lose even more.
Second, Blackjack competitions are played with non-redeemable tournament chips. In return for an entry fee, each player receives exactly the same fixed number of chips. During the course of play, if a player loses all of her/his chips, that player is eliminated from the competition. There is no repurchase option, although some tournaments allow reentry at a different table in a later round if an additional entry fee is paid.
Third, in multi-table tournaments, when a round ends, the winners move on to the next table and leave their chips behind. No chips may be taken from one table to another. Each new round begins with al players having exactly the same number of chips; there is no accumulation of winnings.
Obviously, Basic Blackjack Strategy will not apply in all cases when participating in tournaments. A different approach is required in order to win. It will based not so much on what cards are dealt but on how much needs to be bet in order to take the lead or remain the chip leader. The size of opponent’s chip stacks is much more important in tournament play than what card the dealer’s up card is or whether the deck is rich or poor in tens.
A fourth difference between tournaments and straight-forward cash games is that no matter how aggressive the betting or wild the card play, losses are limited. No player can lose more than the entry fee that’s been staked. The potential payout for finishing “on the podium,” however, is enormous relative to the cost of entry.
As a result, high risk-taking is a key element of tournament play and conservative tactics often lose. In fact, Stanford Wong, who is ranked among the world’s most successful tournament players, says, “Succeed or go bust.” Advancing to the next round is the only way to win, so nothing should be held back.
Most multi-table tournaments have two or more elimination rounds to determine who sits at the final “money” table. Although token cash prizes may be paid to table winners in the qualifying rounds, the majority of the prize pool is divided among the last six or seven players remaining, according to their final chip rankings.
When a tournament involves nine tables of six players, with three rounds of play—a common format—the chip leader and runner-up at each table advance to the next round of play. Winning the most chips is a sure way to continue in the tournament, but playing for second place is just as effective for qualifying.
All players at the table face the same dealer and play the same number of hands, typically 30 per round. Statistics show that each player should expect to win thirteen hands, lose fourteen or fifteen of them, and push two or three. The dealer will catch at least one natural Blackjack during the 30 hands, as will each of the players. That means everything comes down to what is wagered and when.
The opening five to seven hands reveal player characteristics—aggressive, passive, calculating, wild, and so on. Some will “go for broke” in beginning; others will bet small, playing “wait and see.” Strong players play moderately, looking for information about opponents—who leads, who follows, who threatens, and who wilts.
During the next eighteen to twenty hands, players jockey for position. Some will aggressively attempt to build a stack of chips. Others will do their best to protect a dwindling supply. Card counters can use their knowledge of the deck to guide to betting. Many use betting position to direct their wagering, betting heavier when on
third base” and lighter when on “first base.”
By the time the last five hands come around, it should be clear who has set the pace and who needs to catch up. Those in or near the lead can dominate the action, forcing others to stay with them or fall even further behind. By the final hand, it should be clear what needs to be wagered in order to win as well as how to play the cards. Finishing on top of the leader board may require splitting 10s against the dealer’s 6 or even doubling down on a hard total of eighteen—whatever it takes to end up with more chips than the others.
Some good tips for beginners at tournament Blackjack include: Bet big when behind, stay with the pack when ahead; to catch a chip leader, bet big when he/she bets small and small when he/she bets big; make it a goal to be in the lead or near it by the fifth to last hand; and in a close finish, bet all but one chip on the last hand, hoping every one busts and a single chip is enough to win.