Next week there will be a confluence of frequent flyer people in Vegas. Apparently there is the FreddieAwards on Thursday and then FTU on Friday/Saturday. Friday evening there is a Blackjack tournament occurring with the profits going to charity. I find Blackjack tournaments a fascinating thing, and wanted to share a primer on how to play them.
Step 1 – Understand Blackjack
Blackjack is a game of cards in which the player who gets closer to 21 (without going over it) wins. Everyone starts with 2 cards, and can draw more, split pairs, or double down based on agreed rules.
Step 2 – Understand Casino Blackjack
This is where you see the game most often, the definition of the game is different. It is to beat the dealer, getting close to 21 is not always the correct thing to do. Casino blackjack forces the player to act first (this is the house edge) and forces the dealer to draw cards based on a rule system, without discretion. These concepts force the casino into certain situations where they are trapped, such as if they show a weak card (such as a 5) where they MUST draw a third card. The theory is that each time you draw a card when your total is greater than 12 you risk busting (exceeding 21) and losing.
This is why a player would want to have as much money as possible when the dealer shows a 5, as the chances are their total is already greater than 12, and they risk an immediate bust. When this happens, players would double down (match the original bet) for 1 card more, or split pairs (other than 5,5 and 10,10) in order to shove as much money as possible against a weak dealer.
Example. Dealer shows a 5, player shows 8,8. A split would be the best move for the player, as 16 is a weak total, drawing a card is a bad play, but 8, 8 could turn into better than 16, or the dealer could also just bust.
Recap: The idea of Casino Blackjack is to beat the dealer, not to get 21. This is because the dealer has no discretion in their ability to draw cards. If you have 12 and they have 15, they must draw a card, and in that scenario they will likely lose. Got it? This concept is called ‘Basic Strategy’.
Step 3 Understand Tournament Blackjack
Tournament Blackjack is an interesting beast. It is similar and different from Blackjack and Casino Blackjack. The first difference is that you don’t need to beat the dealer, you need to beat the other players. If you start with 1000 in funny money and are the only person left with 50 at the end, you won!
In a Casino Blackjack game you might always split Aces against a 5 or double 11 against a 5, in a Tournament game you might not, because even though your are statistically more likely to win such hands, it doesn’t matter when n (number of hands) are so narrowly controlled.
This is a very important point for any gambler who plays real money also, the amount of events (hands dealt, dice rolled, reels spun) forges a regression to the mean, so you can always lose 100% of your money, or more if you have good credit, even in a game that pays back 101%
The influence points in tournament blackjack are as follows:
- House rules – how many splits and doubles can you make? Are there any limitations? What is the min and max bet, etc.
- Betting order – does it move per round?
In Casino Blackjack betting order doesn’t matter, but in a Tournament betting order is everything. Your bet should be calculated based solely on the other person’s bet, because of the variables of max bet and n hands dealt.
Let’s look at how to bet in a few examples. I’ll use the final hand of a 7 hand tournament, 100 min bet, 1000 max bet allowed, max 3 splits
two players remain as the others lost all their money already…
- Player A – 1100 in chips
- Player B -2000 in chips
If player A bets first and bets 100, player B simply needs to bet 100 and wins every outcome:
- Dealer busts : Player A 1200, Player B 2100
- Player A Blackjack, Player B busts: A 1250, B 1900
- Player A 3 splits, 3 doubles, total stake of 600, wins all bets, B busts: A 1700, B 1900
In all 3 scenarios, B wins because A does not bet enough to threaten.
Let’s look at another scenario, same starting chips in the final hand:
- B bets first, and bets 500. What should A do?
If B loses their bet, their balance will be 1500. Therefore, they still win unless A can create a winning situation that is greater than 1500 for themselves. As such, a bet less than 400 is not savvy.
But also, if B wins their bet their balance would be 2500 (or more).. which A simply cannot match unless they are dealt a Blackjack at 1.5x on the full 1100.
In this scenario, if A bets the full stack of 1100, they force B to beat them in order to win. There’s no real value in keeping back chips for A other than in the event where they are dealt a pair of cards that would be better split, EG receiving 8,8 against a 7 would be a smart split to improve the hand.
So – let’s assume B bets first, 500, A retaliates with a bet of 1100, and cards are dealt.
Let’s assume everyone is dealt a 10:
- Player A 10,10 for 20
- Player B 10,10 for 20
- Dealer shows a 10
At this point, because B has more chips going into this round, they would be best to stick, and ensure a win – regardless of what the dealer does, or what A does, they would end the round with more chips than A. There’s then suddenly one exception to this: if B decides to stick first, A cannot win the game with 20, and they should actually hit 20 in the hope that they get 21 and win the hand.. here’s where the probability of winning doesn’t matter because it is the impact of not winning that does matter.
But what if the initial chips were slightly different..?
- Player A starts with 1400
- Player B starts with 2000
- B to bet first for 500. If A bets all in and everyone gets a 10 again, things change.
A dealt 20 (for the Players) is more likely to beat a showing 10 (slightly) as the rules of the game eliminate the chance of a dealer Blackjack. Therefore, we enter the rules of probability for this hand:
- If dealer ultimately gets 20, and players stand on 20, B wins.
- If dealer gets 21, B wins
- If dealer gets less than 20, or busts, A wins.
What is the most likely event with a 10 showing? Drawing rules dictate that they must stop on 17,18,19 so is it more likely that they get that, than 20 or 21? I’ll leave the math on that for now, but here’s some interesting tables for more info.
What if the dealer shows a 9 against two 20’s? In this scenario A is more likely to win than against the 10 showing, so their chances of winning the hand increase if both player A and player B take no action. This pattern continues as the dealer card becomes weaker.
Let’s stop at 8 for the dealer, 10,10 for each player. 20 against an 8 is a hand that the player should win, the Wizard of Odds has it as 0.791815 probability. So in this case, both players should win, but if they do, Player B will lose as A wins more. So we are factoring in both the probability of the win, and the impact of the win on the other player’s position. This is Tournament Blackjack.
In this situation it would be wiser for Player B to do the unthinkable in Casino Blackjack, and split the two 10’s into new hands. This would allow the player to increase the total stake to 1000. If both players win, player A would have 2200 and player B would have 3000.
However, it is also possible to push (tie) the dealer. So if B lost both splits, and A ‘pushed’ the dealer, they would win the tournament.
Tournament Blackjack must be played differently from Casino Blackjack. You have both create reactions in other players via your betting strategy (like the risky splitting of 10s) and also constantly monitor the potential outcomes of every bet to adjust your play accordingly. You need to be comfortable in doing things that you’ve been taught are incorrect in Casino Blackjack because you aren’t trying to beat the dealer, you’re trying to beat the player. This might mean that you don’t double the 11 against the 5 because if the remote chance of you losing means you lose the tournament, and the upside is not necessary, it is a bad bet.
I’ll be flying into Vegas for this tournament, and intend to crush the competition. Bring your A game. I was also thinking to speak at the FTU event but they told me that they don’t have a need for any other speakers.