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Blackjack Tournament Play: What's Luck Got to Do With It?

2 August 2003

By Donald Catlin

This past June I was in Las Vegas visiting with customers of mine and was staying at the Las Vegas Hilton. Ever since the Las Vegas Convention Center got rid of all the convenient (and free) parking I have been staying at the Hilton because of its close proximity to the convention center. Anyway, while I was there the Hilton was holding the June tournament in their Million Dollar Blackjack tournament series. I decided to give it a shot.

Tournament blackjack goes back to the year 1979. It was then that the Fishman brothers created the concept and held the first tournament ever played. It was called the World Championship of Blackjack and was held at the Sahara Hotel. I played in that tournament (and lost). The entry fee was $250 and players played with their own money; the buy-in was $500. The rounds were two hours in length and the game was a single deck dealt face up with great rules. Blackjack will never be any better. As time went on the Fishmans went off in other business directions but their idea caught on big time. Today there are small blackjack tournaments somewhere in Las Vegas just about every day of the week. The format has changed drastically though. Now your buy-in gets you tournament chips, the game is usually a shoe game, and the number of hands per round is limited to around 30.

The Hilton Million Dollar format consists of 30 hand rounds, a six-deck shoe, standard Hilton rules (double after split, split Aces once for one card on each, late surrender, and dealer hits soft 17). Except for the soft 17 rule, this is a decent game. In my opinion, however, the surrender rule makes this a great game for tournament play and I'll illustrate why this is so below.

In the first round, my table consisted of five players. From first base to third they were Mike Harbec, Dan Nolan, yours truly, Bill Haru, and Daniel Darnell. We had each bought in for $1000 and were now sitting in front of a stack of tournament chips totaling $5000. Besides the tournament chips, we had each received a baseball cap with "Million Dollar Blackjack" embossed on it and three free nights at the Hilton. At the end of 30 hands, the two players with the highest chip totals would advance to the next round. Minimum bets were $100 and maximum bets were $2500. Players that make it to the semifinal round qualify to compete in the million dollar tournament held next May.

The game began with the dealer dealing a five-card poker hand to each player. The highest pat hand determined the location of the "button", a marker that rotates clockwise around the table and indicates who receives the first card out of the shoe and, more importantly, who bets first. Daniel got the button. This meant that in the next to the last hand I would bet first but on the last hand I would bet last, a good position in which to be.

Play started out with conservative bets, $100 and $200. At about hand 7 or 8, I risked $400 and was dealt a blackjack for a $600 profit. This made me the table leader, a position I held for most of the round. Both Haru and Nolan were having miserable luck, busting on stiff after stiff. Harbec wasn't doing well either. During the first four of the last five hands, Darnell had some great luck and moved into first place, moving me to second. Here was the last hand.

There were three of us in contention: Daniel Darnell was first, I was second, and Bill Haru was a distant third. Haru bet $2500. I don't recall Darnell's bet, but it was over $1000 and presumably enough to cover a win by Haru. I bet $2500 since a win by both Darnell and Haru with doubles, splits, or blackjacks would leave me in third place unless I went for it.

The cards came out and all three of us were dealt stiffs. I had 13, Haru had 15, and Darnell had 12. The dealer showed a 10. Not good. Haru could not win by surrendering since if he did both Darnell and I would surrender, leaving us in first and second place. He hit and -- kapow! -- pulled a 5 for a total of 20. All of a sudden, luck had drastically changed the situation. Haru looked like a winner. Darnell thought about surrendering but finally decided to go for it. He caught an Ace and then busted on the next card. The last bet in the game came to me. I seriously thought of surrendering. The decision depended upon whether or not $1250 added to my table stack comprised a higher total than Daniel's stack (I figured Haru for a sure winner); if so I could surrender and take second place. The trouble was the totals were too close and I just couldn't determine if that decision would hold up. I hit! The next card out of the shoe was - miraculously - an 8. I had 21. The dealer ended up with 20, so Haru pushed. I came in first and Darnell was second. Had I surrendered the dealer would have ended up with 18, Haru would have won, and either Darnell or I would have come in second -- to this day I don't know who would have held that slot. Nolan told me later that he thought for sure that I was going to surrender. What's luck got to do with it? A whole lot!

My second round, in my opinion, had a much less interesting ending. There were six of us competing: Robert Updike, George Long, Oriente Esposo, Albert Schuenke, John Grubb, and myself. Although I had led the table for about half the round, late in the round George Long and Oriente Esposo in seats two and three had made some good plays and were in first and second place. By the last hand John Grubb, to my right in seat five, was in third place and I was in fourth place. I wagered $2500 and hoped for a lucky break. John Grubb had also wagered $2500. When the cards were dealt, I -- mercifully -- received an eleven meaning that I could double, get up to $5000 in play, and hope for the ten. Oh no! John to my right had been dealt a blackjack and the dealer showed an Ace. John took even money. Smart move. Surrender was not an option for me. Insurance might have been a reasonable decision since if I lost it I could still double half of my original wager and be in the game. The trouble was it wasn't clear to me that winning such a bet would give me second place. And if the dealer did have a blackjack, I would lose anyway. Besides, I thought the KO count was at -14, so a dealer blackjack wasn't probable. I refused the insurance, as did everyone except John, hoping that I could double my $2500 and get lucky. Doubling against an Ace is normally not a correct play but in a tournament setting, in fourth place, it was the only choice. Guess what? The dealer had the improbable blackjack. That's what luck has to do with it. John was the table winner; either Long or Esposo took second.

Speaking of luck, Dan Nolan had more than his share of it. The tournament has wild card drawings for each round -- drawings that put you into that round even if you didn't qualify for it. Dan's name was picked to play in the second round. His fate there was the same as mine. Incredibly, his name was drawn as the single wild card entry into the final round -- minimum prize of $1500.

The final round consisted of seven players. Three of the players with whom I had competed were in the final round: John Grubb from Calgary, Canada; Dan Nolan from Evanston, Illinois; and Daniel Darnell from Ft. Collins, Colorado. Darnell had some bad cards along the way and on the next to the last hand in the round he doubled 13 in hopes of getting enough money to make a large bet on the last hand. He drew a 9. In his shoes I would have made the same play. On the last hand, facing a high dealer card, both Nolan and Grubb, with $2500 wagered, surrendered their stiffs in hopes that the dealer would beat the rest of the table. He did, with the exception of Carl Rickard in seat seven, who drew a winning hand and took the table, a $20,000 win.

Well, it wasn't a total loss for me. I had a lot of fun and, besides, I am now the proud owner of a $1000 baseball hat. See you next month.

Donald Catlin
Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers