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What Goes Around...

5 January 2007

By Donald Catlin

Comes around? Right! The other day I was cleaning out some old files and I came across an old parchment certificate from the Sahara Hotel entitled Certificate of Participation. It said: "Be it known that Donald Catlin did this date participate as a contestant in the First World Championship of Blackjack Tournament held at Del Webb's Sahara Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada. Dated this 17th Day of December, 1978 in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.A." It was signed by Ed Fishman, David Fishman, and Duke Rohlffs. The Fishman brothers were the ones who first thought up the idea of a Blackjack tournament.

Those first few tournaments at the old Sahara Hotel were lots of fun and brought back a lot of memories. The rules were great. The entry fee was $250 and the buy-in was $500; you played with your own money. The minimum bet was $5 and the maximum was $500. But get this. The game was a single-deck dealt face up, double after split, split up to three times (except Aces), and the dealer stood on soft seventeen. We got to play this wonderful game for two one-hour sessions. Card counting was not only tolerated but welcome.

Now although betting strategy was a big part of the game, as it is in any Blackjack tournament, here was a game where Blackjack-playing skill was also a major component. Guess what? Many players didn't like playing for two hours. Other venues began Blackjack tournaments but these later contests where shortened, eventually becoming tournaments where one played for perhaps 30 minutes or perhaps 30 hands. They were no longer single-deck games and the dealers frequently hit the soft seventeen.

That's where we are today. Tournament play today requires skill but not Blackjack-playing skill as in the original Fishman game. The latest twist in this evolution is the Ultimate Blackjack Tour. Anthony Curtis has said that "Blackjack tournaments are second easiest to slots. The Ultimate Blackjack Tour's format is more complicated than a regular Blackjack tourney, but still easier than most tournament games and definitely easier than a Poker tournament."

Now here's an interesting twist. Shortly after the Fishmans introduced the World Championship of Blackjack, they started a new tournament called the World Championship of Craps. I played in several of these. The entry fee, like Blackjack, was $250 and the buy-in was $750. Here there was no playing skill involved but betting skill was certainly a consideration. As time passed these tournaments (and the Fishmans) vanished from the scene and for quite a stretch there were no Craps tournaments, at least none that I remember. This all changed last summer.

On the weekend of July 22 and 23 Frank Scoblete's World Craps Championship brought 167 players from around the country to participate in the first non-casino Craps tournament ever held. There were 10 tournaments spread out over two days - all of them head-to-head matches, based on dice-rolling skills. The tournament was an invitational, open to those who had taken Frank's Golden Touch Craps course. Anyone attending could observe that there were a lot of skilled shooters there.

Did I participate? Yes I did. How did I do? Well, nothing to brag about. I came in third in the Make the Point Challenge. The big winner was my good friend Linda Mabry - a well known gambling writer from Biloxi, MS and a frequent contributor to this web site.

So thirty-eight years ago if someone would have told me that playing skills would diminish in tournament Blackjack but the new venue for playing skill in the 21st century would be in the game of Craps, I would have told them they were crazy. Yet, when things come around sometimes it's a surprise.

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