This Blackjack Forum article by a professional casino tournament player discusses the basics of professional blackjack tournament strategy.
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Blackjack Tournament Tips

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Casino Tournament Tips:
Plan Your Play, Play Your Plan

By S. Yama
© 2003 S. Yama

The $1 Million Blackjack Tournament at the Las Vegas Hilton Casino has breathed fresh interest into tournament blackjack.

Thanks to Blackjack Confidential Magazineís detailed descriptions, bet-by-bet and hand-by-hand, each month we can relive experiences of the contestants. For the last few months, perhaps starting with K. Smithís article, BCM has included wonderfully telling tales of major tournaments.

Being able to view all cards in the order they were dealt, knowing the playersí bankrolls, bets and decisions, creates pictures of high fidelity and makes an analysis of each playerís strategy easy and revealing.

Looking at these play-by-play reports Iíve tried to imagine what could have motivated a player to bet or play the way he or she did. But then, it dawned on me: The majority of players are betting randomly and haphazardly, perhaps playing hunches. There was no planned strategy to their play.

I understand that blackjack tournaments are social events. Tournament players enjoy seeing one another during these tournament rendezvous. We meet, talk, joke around and gossip. We are genuinely happy for those blessed with success and share the sorrows of those not-so-blessed. Often, we complain about our lack of luck or somebodyís extraordinary luck.

Well, my advice here is to give luck a chance.

How? By having a plan on how to bet and play even before you enter a blackjack tournament.

Oh, I realize there is a small group of players who analyze tournament plays to death. But these same players achieve better results then most, too. The average player doesnít need to worry about trying to pull a fanciful play that bring an additional percentage point or two to their game. Especially if, in doing so, they lose concentration or the effort obstructs the "bigger picture."

Such fine points arenít necessary. But, a basic tournament plan is absolutely necessary. It doesnít have to be an ultimate plan.

After playing a round you should always ask yourself, "What could I have done better?" If you do this, chances are you will play better in your next round.

Here are some simplified strategies or ideas for playing at Las Vegas Hilton with an eye toward reaching the finals:

Casino Tournament Tips for Beginners

  1. The less tournament experience you have, the more aggressively you should bet.
  2. In the first half of a round you shouldnít try to correlate to other players.
  3. In the first half of a round, betting slightly more or less will have no strategic importance.
  4. When trying to catch up with your opponent:
  1. Use a betting progression starting with (pick one) 1/15th, 1/7th or 1/3rd of your bankroll. Contrary to some opinions, my advice is to double down or split if Basic Strategy calls for it.
  2. Bet big when your opponents bet small. It is twice as easy to win a maximum bet two times in a row than it is to wait until the last hand and get a swing (you win and your opponent lose) versus just one player.
  1. The last few hands are most important.
  2. Try to position yourself going into the last hand of a round. To get there you have to plan and succeed in the hand leading up to it.
  3. Try to be in the lead (or in the top two places in a qualifying round) going into the last hand of a round with a lead within the following ranges:
  1. Have any lead. Having any lead is often as good as having a big lead.
  2. Have a lead of more than half of the maximum bet.
  3. Have a lead of more than the maximum bet.
  1. If you arenít in the lead, try to stay within the following ranges:
  1. Trailing by less than Ĺ of maximum bet (or half of leaderís bankroll).
  2. Trailing by less than maximum bet.
  1. Most of the time it will not matter by how much exactly you are leading or trailing as long as it is within the striking range.
  2. The "double down" is one of the most powerful techniques you can use. When you double down regardless of what cards you have, or if you split a pair and play optimally, you will win one-third of your hands!
  3. If losing your bet takes you out of contention, then bet the maximum.
  4. If losing your bet would take you out of contention and you plan on drawing only one card, then double down.
  5. When trailing, try to intersect ranges to determine your bet:
  1. The smallest winning bet that gets you ahead of your main opponent if your opponent also wins. If you are betting before your opponent, try to guess what she or he might be betting when it is their turn.
  2. The smallest bet, which when doubled, gets you ahead of your main opponent if your opponent also wins.
  3. The biggest bet, which when lost, leaves you with more than half of your main opponentís bankroll if your opponent also loses. If youíre betting before your opponent, assume that she or he will push.
  1. Generally, when leading and there are two or fewer opponents and you bet first, bet less then your lead.
  2. When leading and there are more than two opponents, bet slightly more then the bigger bet of the two:
  1. The maximum bet minus half your lead over the next player.
  2. If your opponent bets in front of you, risk the opponentís bet times two, minus your lead, all divided by two.
  1. When you need to swing your opponent, then draw to at least 18 and two points more then your opponent has.
  2. When you need to gain on your opponent (you win, while she or he pushes, or you push while she or he loses), draw to at least 17 and one point more then your opponent has.
  3. Donít surrender small bets when Basic Strategy doesnít call for it.
  4. Proper use of surrender may be profitable but it is also complicated. Donít use surrender if you havenít mastered it.
  5. Deal with one issue at a time.

To Win Casino Tournaments Keep It Simple

Perhaps the last point requires some additional comments. Analyzing tournament strategies can get so complicated that even the best players can get confused. Donít panic. Stay focused by trying to answer prioritized questions:

Who is your main target (whom to "whack")?

What is the difference between your bankrolls?

Is the difference bigger or smaller than half of the maximum bet?

Is it more than the maximum bet?

Do I have a lock?

Can I catch up with this player? Should I focus on another player?

How much will he or she lose or gain on this hand?

How much do I need to bet if we both win?

How much do I need to bet to succeed if we both win doubled bets?

What is the downside if we both lose? And so on.

Analyze one player at a time with questions and answers. This is a method of small steps. Donít move to the next question until you have a clear answer to the previous one.

Donít worry about mistakes. You will make mistakes in casino tournaments. I rarely play a round without finding a better play I could have madeótwenty minutes after the game. Donít insist that your way of playing is best. See if there was a better way. After awhile you may find that "coulda-shoulda-woulda" is more fun than what really happened at the table.

Have a plan for your next casino blackjack tournament. Good results will follow.

I promise,

S. Yama ♠

[Ed. Note: S. Yama is a professional casino tournament player who is widely regarded by tournament pros as one of the handful of top tournament players in the world.]

For more information on winning tournament strategy, see Casino Tournament Strategy by Stanford Wong and Play to Win: A World Champions Guide to Winning Blackjack Tournaments by Ken Einiger.

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Blackjack Tournament Tips from a Tournament Pro

A professional tournament player discusses how to develop a winning betting and playing strategy for tournaments before you enter the tournament.