Blackjack Tournament Strategy Basics

In tournament blackjack, having just a little knowledge about tournament strategy can dramatically improve your chances of success. In this article, we'll look at the general principles that form the most important ideas in tournament strategy. These concepts will give you a big edge over most opponents, and they're simple enough that you don't have to study to make use of them.

Like most types of informed gambling, effective tournament strategy is all about Risk Management. To win a table, you'll usually have to risk much of your bankroll at some point. The key to long-term success is to make sure that you get full value for every big bet you make. If there is one thought process that is important in every single decision you make at the tournament table, this is it. Weigh the risk and reward of your choices. If you constantly think in those terms, you can assess the value of different strategies according to your current situation at the table.

Players will generally tend to have similar outcomes on any given hand.

One of the defining characteristics of blackjack tournament play is that all players are competing against the same dealer. That means that players will generally tend to have similar outcomes on any given hand. If the dealer draws a blackjack, the entire table is likely to have the same result, a loss. While it's certainly possible (and often necessary!) to gain ground by having better cards than one of your opponents, it's a lot easier to gain ground by betting and playing your hand differently than that opponent.

Knowing correct basic strategy is important to your tournament success, but you may be surprised to learn that it's actually not that big a factor on most of your hands. If you're limiting risk by betting small on most hands, then mistakes on those hands won't amount to much. However, playing your big bets incorrectly can be a costly mistake, so solid basic strategy rounds out our trifecta of tournament concepts. That's "Risk and Reward, Similar Outcomes, and Basic Strategy."

Now let's take a look at how to apply these ideas at the table. These examples assume that you're playing a typical elimination-style round, competing solely against the other players at your table.

Once you run out of chips during a tournament round, you're done. You can't buy more chips for a second chance.

Risk management starts with bet sizing. Small bets reduce, or even eliminate, your risk of ruin at the tournament table. Once you run out of chips during a tournament round, you're done. You can't buy more chips for a second chance. That means that you should choose your battles wisely. Years ago, when most of the competitors were new to tournaments, a conservative minimum-bet strategy would almost always guarantee you a great shot at going into the final few hands of a table with either the lead or at least second or third chip-count. Many players at the time believed that the only way to succeed in tournament play was to make lots of big bets, and amass a mountain of chips. While those players sometimes succeeded, they busted out a lot more frequently. A player who instead preserved his initial bankroll until the final ten hands or so was a big favorite in these events. Although catching those successful big bettors in the end was difficult, it was also not unusual to win a table by default when the dealer was hot and wiped out everyone before the round had even finished. Much of my early success in tournament play was attributable to this simplistic approach. Bet small until the end, then bet large enough to catch the leaders if there are any.

Times have changed a lot, as tournament players have become much more sophisticated. Once lots of players began mimicking this timid approach, its effectiveness declined sharply. In current play, I often base my decision of strategy on how timid or bold my opponents seem to be. If the entire table is making small bets, it's often wise to make an early large bet. However, if I have a few wild bettors at the table, I'm perfectly willing to still use the same simplistic approach I used with great success years ago.

Betting just enough to get the job done maximizes the value of the chips you're risking.

Much more common these days is a hybrid approach, where risk management really starts to shine. By making mostly small bets, and choosing opportunities for large bets, you can effectively combat both styles of players. Since most tables will have a mix of aggressive and minimum bettors, this gives you the ability to carefully choose hands where a large bet will be most effective. In mid-round, I'll usually wait until the button has passed my spot, so that I can see the bets of all my competitors before choosing my bet size. This gives me the ability to bet precisely enough to take the lead, without risking any extra chips. The idea is simple: Betting just enough to get the job done maximizes the value of the chips you're risking. Anytime you're choosing to make a substantial move, remember the key second concept, that all players' results are usually similar. If you bet enough to reach your target even if your opponent also wins his bet, your bet is probably sized appropriately. There are exceptions, particularly when you're substantially trailing the chip leaders. Usually though, betting enough to take the lead if the dealer pays the entire table is your best plan.

Once in the lead, you should still remember that similar outcomes are the rule. Making minimum bets as the leader just gives all your opponents free chances to pass you. Instead, see if you can margin their bets by betting a similar amount. Though you'll often be the victim of poor cards, and see them pass you as a result, risking a medium sized bet to match your trailing players is the stronger strategy.

Choosing your battles means not placing a large bet unless you have a reason. Players who habitually bet medium-size amounts on most hands are severely handicapping their chance of success. Those bets individually can't accomplish much, yet the cumulative effect on risk of ruin is considerable. I tend to be a player of extremes. You'll usually see me making very small bets or very large bets. If I place a medium sized bet, it's for one of two reasons: Either I'm in the lead and margining my opponent's bets, or a medium-sized bet is large enough to accomplish my immediate goal, and thus it's really a large bet of sorts.

Consider a situation where you're trailing by nearly a full max bet. If the leader has made a small bet, you should consider the risk and reward of making a max bet on this hand to take the lead. You're likely risking most of your bankroll, but the reward is possibly substantial. Depending on how many hands are left in the round, this may be the last opportunity to retake the lead with a single bet. If you decide that the time is right for that risk, determine how much you really need to bet to accomplish the goal of being chip leader. You might not need to make a full max bet. If possible, bet enough to take the lead if the leader also wins his small bet, or perhaps even a double down. The main idea here is don't make a medium-sized bet and hope to gradually get there. If you need to take the lead, do it all in one hand if possible. It may seem paradoxical that minimizing risk means risking your entire bankroll on one hand. But, one successful large risk can eliminate the need for many medium-sized risks.

The advice to not risk extra chips has one common exception. Anytime you're risking so much in a bet that your remaining chips would be ineffective if you lose the bet, you should go all-in. That is, if you're late in the round, and need to bet $350 of your $400 bankroll to take the lead, you should probably bet the $400 instead. Otherwise, the $50 you could have left over is probably just dead money. Going all-in has its disadvantages since you can't split, but if you need to win an amount that is more than half your bankroll, you're better off trying to do it with a single bet win instead of hoping for a good double or split hand.

Those ideas will go a long way toward insuring long-term tournament success. Most tournaments are won with just the basics and a little luck.

I hope to see you in the finals, -Ken-


For more articles on blackjack tournaments and tournament strategy, you can:
Return to the Blackjack Tournaments Section, or
Move on to the next article Position, a Critical Part of Blackjack Tournament Strategy.


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