How to Adjust Your Blackjack Strategy in a Tournament
By Randy Ray
| July 21, 2019
Ask twenty-one blackjack players about their experience with the game, and 20 will report back about their adventures trying to outduel the dealer.
Well-timed double downs outdone by a picture-perfect draw. Waves of face cards and aces underneath ending the hand early when they make blackjack.
Wishing for a bust card to come followed by the thrill of seeing it hit the felt. And that wry grin old-timers get when they’ve finished cleaning your clock.
Indeed, the dealer and their cards lie at the center of traditional blackjack. Contrary to popular belief among recreational gamblers, the objective of blackjack isn’t to make a 21 total — it’s simply to wind up with a better total than the dealer.
In fact, the bona fide Bible of blackjack is “Beat the Dealer,” an instructional masterpiece written by mathematician Edward O. Thorp back in 1962. Subtitled “A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One,” Beat the Dealer was the first book to present both basic blackjack strategy charts and a proven method of counting exposed cards to gain an edge on the house.
But as important as the dealer is to blackjack as most players know the game, a select few specialists enjoy a hybrid version where the dealer is rendered irrelevant.
Tournament blackjack is a clever fusion of casino blackjack and Texas Hold’em poker shootout events.
In case you haven’t heard of a shootout in poker, this format sits ten players to a table in winner-take-all format.
After every table has crowned a winner, those players move on to another table and repeat the process.
Finally, the last ten table winners reconvene at the final table, where the lion’s share of the prize pool is divvied up on an escalating scale.
Blackjack tournaments use the exact same concept, with five players sitting along with a dealer to start the game. Rules vary depending on the house of course, but the basic gameplay structure goes like this…
Everybody begins the tournament with an identical bank of chips, so for the sake of explanation, we’ll roll with the $100,000 used by the short-lived World Series of Blackjack (WSOB). More on that experimental blackjack tournament tour a little later on, but for now, just know that WSOB players started out with $100,000 to work with.
From there, players can bet as they please — using minimums ($1,000) and maximums ($50,000), of course — during the course of a 30-hand session.
To mimic the ramping up of pressure caused by blind bets in poker, blackjack tournaments usually have the minimum bet increase, either at random or on a scheduled basis.
In any event, the goal of blackjack tournaments is deceptively simple. Players are hoping to have the most chips in play at their table when the 30-hand threshold is reached.
This means the eventual winner won’t always be the player who applies perfect strategy pertaining to their hand, but the one who sizes their bets strategically along the way.
To get a full look at the rules used in blackjack tournaments like the WSOB, check out the tour’s official rules below.
Players start the match with $100,000 in chips
Minimum bets begin at $1,000; maximum bet is capped at $50,000
Show contains six decks
Show contains two “knockout cards.” After a knockout card is drawn, whoever holds the fewest chips following the next hand is eliminated
Once the first knockout card has been dealt, minimum bets rise to $2,500; minimum climbs to $5,000 after second knockout card
Splitting, doubling down, and insurance are all permitted for less than original bet
Double downs allowed on any two cards
Players can surrender by conceding half of their bet and forfeiting their cards
Players who lack chips needed to make the minimum bet are eliminated
Players receive 3 to 2 on their bet for making blackjack
Dealer stands on all soft and hard 17s and higher
Following 30 completed hands, the player with highest chip count wins match
And if you’re more of a visual learner, check out this extended coverage from the 2006 WSOB Championship final table. That clip is labeled Part 1, so be sure to click through to Part 8 to watch Dr. Jeff Bernstein win the $500,000 grand prize.
While the days of televised blackjack tournaments boasting six-figure prizes are long gone — the WSOB folded in 2007 after four seasons on the Game Show Network (GSN) — this entertaining way to enjoy twenty-one in a different setting is still around.
Most of the major Las Vegas casinos hold weekly or monthly blackjack tournaments, and even the smaller commercial and tribal venues found from coast to coast host the occasional event.
That means anybody interested in experiencing blackjack tournaments firsthand doesn’t have to look far.
But before you break off a piece of your bankroll to buy in, it’s in your best interest to brush up on the best way to play blackjack tournaments.
Along with incorporating basic strategy when acting on your own hand, excelling at this game requires a firm grasp of the strategic considerations which come with playing against several opponents instead of a single dealer.
To help you get started on that front, check the list below to find four strategy adjustments blackjack players must make to succeed in tournament play.
1 – You’re Not Really Competing Against the Dealer, Only Other Players
The page led off on this front, so we’ll keep this one short and sweet — blackjack tournaments are all about outmaneuvering your opponents, not the dealer.
In a normal game of blackjack, your wagers are sized based on your personal tolerance for risk, and there are no arbitrary endpoints for a session. You could play one hand, bet it all to double up, and leave right then and there. Or you might bet the minimum and put in several straight hours grinding hundreds of hands.
In any event, the end goal is to find a way to a) avoid going bust, b) land a higher total than the dealer, or c) let the dealer go bust.
But in a tournament, every bet you place during the capped 30-hand match makes a huge difference in determining the eventual outcome.
Bet too much on a losing hand, and you’ll dig an early hole that can be hard to escape. Bet too little on a winning hand, and you might just watch your run of good cards come and go without building a stack big enough to win the table.
Meanwhile, as you’re running the mental math necessary to nurture and build a chip stack, your opponents are doing the same. The minute their stack size changes based on the previous outcome, the calculations you’ll put in to size bets relative to theirs changes in kind.
Most importantly of all, players take turns acting from strong and weak positions.
Essentially, the player who has to choose their bet size first is at a disadvantage for that hand, as opponents can use that information to guide their own decision-making process.
Conversely, whoever acts last in the hand gets to see where everybody else stands before deciding on a wager size to counter them.
Knowing all this, blackjack tournament novices should worry about their opponents and not the dealer’s hand.
2 – Winning a Big Bet Early Puts Pressure on Opponents
On the very first hand of the match, each player’s opening bet size sends them on vastly different trajectories. Eventual champion Jeff starts out with a wager of $10,000, or 10% of his $100,000 stack. John bets $7,000, Charlie goes with a $5,000 bullet, and both Tony and Kami bet the minimum of $1,000.
Beginning with the biggest bet on the line is obviously risky, but if you can score a winner like Jeff, while several opponents go bust or only win the minimum, you can put yourself in the catbird seat from Hand #1 onward.
From that point until somebody else takes the lead, your bets will set the pace, and the table will be forced to play by your rules.
3 – Keeping Track of Opponent Chip Stacks Is Critical
This should go without saying, but blackjack tournaments create a whole new dimension for players to deal with.
The winning is done when you end up holding more chips than your opponents at the final bell, and getting there is eminently easier when you know exactly how much ammo everybody else has at their disposal.
4 – Betting Small to Protect a Lead Is Essential to the Endgame
En route to winning the 2006 WSOB, Jeff Bernstein had a nice lead late, so he did what any savvy tournament player does in that spot — bet the minimum.
With just three hands remaining, Jeff’s two opponents were forced to wager $50,000 if they had any hope of catching him. In response, Jeff bet the minimum of $5,000, protecting his lead when all three players lost to a dealer 20.
Sometimes in tournament blackjack, less really is more.
Blackjack tournaments are challenging, exciting, and potentially quite lucrative. If you love the game of twenty-one but find yourself growing bored with the age-old battle between player and dealer, test your skills by signing up for an affordable blackjack tournament and trying your hand.
Worst case scenario, you don’t enjoy the shift and go back to the table game pit. But in the best case, you might just find a renewed passion for your favorite casino game.
Blackjack tournaments are mostly held in land-based casinos, but a few of the top online casinos also host them.