This article is published here with the kind permission of Anthony Curtis. It originally appeared in Blackjack Forum magazine and at Las Vegas Advisor.
Note from Anthony Curtis:
The airing of GSN’s first World Series of Blackjack brought a flood of e-mail and phone calls, much of it asking why I played the way I did. I realize that for many, this was your first exposure to tournament play; hence, much of what you saw looked strange. It’s important to realize that playing a tournament often requires a strategy that’s vastly different from playing in a live game. After reading about tournaments, and playing or observing a few, you’ll begin to get a basic understanding.
What was more interesting, though, were the questions from many who have played tournaments before. Several were shocked to see me do things that were different from what they’d read in Stanford Wong’s classic Casino Tournament Strategy. Why was I “breaking the rules”? Part of the answer is contained in the article that follows, which was originally published in Blackjack Forum. Pay particular attention to the long list of considerations that go into determining how best to play a given round, then understand that this list is only partial.
(Editor’s addition: There is a recap of Anthony’s table in WSOBJ Season I here: World Series of Blackjack, Season 1, Episode 1.)
One evening in late 1985, my phone rang. It was a call that I look back on as one of the most important of my life.
Stanford Wong was on the other end, and as is his custom, he came straight to the point.
“I’m forming a tournament team,” he said. “There are four of us and I think five would make a nice, efficient group. You came to mind. Would you like to play with us?”
I was shocked. Wong was one of my earliest gambling heroes. We’d had a brief correspondence, and we’d met once. Now he was calling me at my one-bedroom apartment, asking me to join his team. It was like a football hopeful getting a call from the 49ers. A dream come true…
“N-n-no,” I stuttered.
“I’m a good blackjack player, but tournament play is another world. I don’t know anything about it.”
“Neither do I,” said Wong, “but I have some ideas. We’ll all learn together.”
And so began an incredible experience that made me a lot of money (and even a little fame).
By now, many of you know the story. Recognizing an opportunity, Stanford Wong constructed a computer model to analyze the tournament-blackjack end game. He compiled his findings in spiral notebooks and passed them out to me and the others on the team (the information in those secret spiral notebooks can now be found in Wong’s book, Casino Tournament Strategy). For about two years, we traveled extensively to play tournaments-Reno, Tahoe, Atlantic City, the Bahamas, and Aruba. Three highly successful years later, the team dissolved. It should be noted that Wong wasn’t the first to figure out tournaments. When we came on the scene, players were already utilizing these concepts. I learned later that they had dominated the tournaments for years, during a time when the prizes were much larger than they are today.
Wong knew going in that he would devote only a couple of years to serious tournament play. He wanted to write the great book on the subject, then go on to other things. I, on the other hand, saw tournaments as a deep well (of profits) that I would be able to go to for a long time to come. A few of the other guys (and gals) coming up at the time saw it the same way. We formed friendships, talked a lot, played together, and elevated the art.
Being young and impetuous, my buddies and I wanted to rule the tournament world. We stayed up late into the night discussing the day’s rounds if we’d played, or general strategy if we hadn’t. We picked apart everything that might add to our advantage, and the conversations got more esoteric as the free-drink tally rose. Among the topics of discussion: end-game, middle-game, secret bets, playoffs, adjustments for format, positional considerations, pros and cons of correlating, creating swings, techniques for counting chips, tendencies of opponents, shuffle-tracking in tournaments, hole-carding in tournaments, tells in tournaments (by dealers and players), time-management in timed tournaments, how to exploit a player’s rules infraction, how to exploit a dealer’s error, how to exploit our reputations, how to play if we were unknown, how to play with more than one of us on a table, how to deal with another expert on the table, how to secure a good table position at the draw, how to make an opponent bet out of turn, how to influence opponents by betting out of turn, and of course, how best to get a date with the tournament director’s good-looking assistant (a skill I never quite mastered). Keep in mind that I’m talking blackjack tournaments only; there were whole other sets of topics for craps, keno, etc. The point is, we spent a lot of time outside the pages of Wong’s tournament manual.
These days I don’t play the tournaments nearly as often as I used to, so I don’t mind letting you in on a few of our conclusions. Don’t get too excited, though. Compared to the value of the information in Casino Tournament Strategy and the strength of the singular tactic of betting your money (see Bombs Away below), this information is of marginal value. Then again, you just might pick up a tidbit that will get you through an extra round or two.
One easy way to improve results (regardless of skill level) is to be choosy about which tournaments you enter. Several factors are involved here, but equity is the fundamental measure of playability. Equity is the percentage of entry fees collected that’s returned in the form of prize money. It’s an important consideration. Any time the prize pool returns less than 100%, you have a decision to make. Namely, are you superior enough to the average player in that tournament to make up the shortfall? I don’t care who you are, there is always a point where the answer has to be “no.” The better you are at pegging that percentage, the better your results will be. I find myself laying off of more and more tournaments these days, because of the dramatic increase in the public’s skill level. If the average player is nearly as skilled as I am, then even a tournament that pays close to 100% equity offers too small a return on my investment to make it worth playing from a purely monetary standpoint.
Often there are ancillary considerations. In my case, I have the unique luxury of being able to play in tournaments where I have a small edge thanks to the publicity value I derive from winning. When I calculate equity, I sometimes assign double or triple value to the prize pool because of the increased credibility that winning the championship gives my career as a gambling writer. A professional, for example, might assign added value for the hard-to-come-by practice he gets by playing. A novice might justify his entry by considering the vacation value-he makes up the difference with a free room, comps, parties, drinks, and other perks that go with tournament entry. I know of many people who just plain love to play tournaments. For them, the enjoyment factor lessens equity requirements.
Here are two other realities that literally leap out at you when you examine extensive records of tournament results. First, early-entry discounts are valuable. Be sure to plan far enough ahead to take advantage of the savings they represent. Second, over-the-table losses represent a huge cost of doing business. Tournaments with high entry fees and low buy-ins are desirable. Tournaments contested with funny money are usually best of all.
I always rub my hands together when I run into card counters on a tournament table. Why? Because they’re so predictable. A powerful play in tournament competition is to create the opportunity for a swing when you’re behind. That usually means betting big when your opponents bet small (or vice versa). This can be problematic when the key opponent bets after you, because he can simply mirror your bets to the degree that he chooses. Since some card counters would rather be publicly caned than raise their bets into a negative deck, you can create the potential swing any time you want just by betting contrary to the count.
The most remarkable example of this I’ve come across occurred in a big tournament in the Bahamas. I was on a table of five and all of my opponents were dyed-in-the-wool card counters. A third of the way through the round the shoe went positive and the four others jumped on it. Having already drifted a few maximum bets down, I was happy to let them go, hoping that a few good hands by the dealer would bring them back to me. But by the time the shoe was finished, I was too. The four were in a dead heat for the lead some eight max bets ahead of me. Given the one-person-advance format, I was all but sunk. The next shoe, however, quickly went negative. I made a max bet, while everyone else bet the minimum. I won and gained a bet. As we played on, I didn’t even worry about what I was dealt. I was busy praying that the count would stay negative so I would continue to be the sole big bettor. It did, I was, and on the last hand I had only to win my bet to advance to the four-man final for $250,000 (alas, my remarkable comeback wasn’t consummated). After the round, one of the players who knew me as a card counter came up and said: “Nice comeback, but why were you betting so heavily into that huge negative count?” The question was even more ridiculous than is obvious – we were playing with funny money.
Though a vivid example, it’s by no means the main problem with counting cards in tournaments. If you know how to count, you’ll do it while you play, and there’s nothing wrong with that in the early stages. In fact, in one-advance formats where it’s almost certain that you’ll have to make at least one (preferably uncorrelated) big bet sometime during the round, making that bet early and according to the count will improve your results over the table. But in the last five to ten hands, you’re out of your mind if you maintain the count at the expense of all the more important things there are to be aware of, like an accurate accounting of the threatening bankrolls.
Few players give position the consideration that it merits. It’s important to base your total game plan on the last-hand betting order, especially in the one-advance format. In a nutshell, the worse your position on the end, the more aggressive you need to be before you get there. If position is determined by a dice roll or a draw at the table, you must immediately calculate where you will bet on the last hand (if everyone makes it that far), then play accordingly. You must also be prepared to recalculate and switch strategies when players bust out and change the last-hand order. Positional considerations, by the way, are much more important (and complicated) in tournaments other than blackjack, like craps.
The most successful card counters spend a lot of time making sure that the welcome mat remains out. You’d expect that tournament players would do the same, but they don’t. For some reason, the typical tournament expert can’t resist flaunting his talents, not so much to the casinos or other customers as to one another. Tournament players congregate in groups and cliques, openly analyze every move they and their cohorts make during play, and make not-so-subtle jokes about the non-optimal play of the less informed. The tournament pros need to realize that the very players that they’re exploiting are often the casino’s best customers. Antagonize them enough and they’ll eventually complain to casino management, and there goes that welcome mat. The casinos won’t risk losing its good customers for the sake of a few entry fees.
Some of those esoteric discussions I mentioned earlier had to do with how much leeway to give the regular casino customers when they made mistakes (rules infractions, receiving overpayments, etc.) before raising an objection that might make an enemy. Don’t underestimate this consideration. Some of the most successful long-term tournament winners I know are also among the most likable people I’ve ever met.
If you’ve done any studying of tournaments at all, you’re probably already aware of what I’m about to say. But it’s so important that I just can’t imagine discussing tournament play without mentioning it. No other strategy is as powerful as this: Bet your money when you’re behind. A tournament is a gunfight, and the chips are your bullets. You must shoot those bullets until you either win the gunfight, or run out of ammunition. If the heat is on and you’re not sure what to do, employ this rule: When in doubt, put it out. I do. Betting the max may not be the best play, but it’s rarely the worst.
I once played in a mini-tournament where the whole table had the betting bug. It was a frenzied affair with five of us turning a $500 buy-in into more than $2,000. When the smoke cleared, I had advanced along with a young airman from Nellis Air Force Base who was playing his first tournament ever. The airman had caught on quickly, making max bets every time someone’s stack of chips exceeded his. After the round, the excited airman jumped out of his seat, ran over to his girlfriend and shouted: “That wasn’t about playing cards. That was about betting!” Truer words…
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