Winning at blackjack tournaments requires a different strategy than regular blackjack basic strategy or card counting. In this article, Stanford Wong analyzes a classic blackjack tournament strategy question.
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Casino Tournament Strategy

casino tournaments
winning blackjack tournament strategy Plan Your Play, Play Your Plan
    By S. Yama
professional casino tournament strategy Self-Styled Experts Take a Bath in
    By Peter A. Griffin
winning blackjack tournament strategy Blackjack Tournament Strategy
    By Stanford Wong
professional casino tournament strategy Blackjack Tournament Tips
    By Anthony Curtis
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Casino Tournament Strategy: Stanford Wong Spills the Beans on his Casino Tournament Team

By Arnold Snyder
(From Blackjack Forum Vol. VII #1, March 1987
© 1987 & 2012 Blackjack Forum

Serious blackjack players are about to enter a new era of play. The Age of the Professional Tournament Player has been ushered in with the publication of a new book by Stanford Wong—Tournament Blackjack. [Editor's note: Wong's book has since been revised and expanded, and is now titled Casino Tournament Strategy.]

Don't underestimate the importance of this book. In my opinion, this text will become a classic in blackjack literature, standing tall alongside Beat the Dealer and The Theory of Blackjack. Stanford Wong addresses his subject matter with thoroughness, accuracy, practical experience, and uncanny perception for the important details. This is the first and only text to provide accurate tournament strategies.

In the June '86 issue of Blackjack Forum (Vol. VI #2), I presented an article titled "Blackjack Tournaments: The Next Attack." In this article, I pointed out that high stakes gambling pros had been reaping great rewards from tournament play while there was virtually nothing available in print on the subject.

One of those high stakes gambling pros that I was referring to was Stanford Wong. In December of 1985, Wong secretly formed a six-man (actually 5-man/1-woman) team of tournament players. He bankrolled most of their efforts with his own money and was the primary force behind the devising of their strategies. They played in blackjack tournaments, craps tournaments, Keno tournaments and handicapping tournaments.

Proving A Casino Tournament Team Could Be A Success

To call this casino tournament team a success would be an understatement. Within one year's time, the six members of this team had taken no less than eight major tournament prizes totalling well over $200,000. Considering the relatively few hours of table play involved—compared to the typical Uston-style blackjack team where players often hit the tables 10 to 12 hours per day, every day of the week, sometimes for months on end—Wong's tournament team must be viewed as one of the most successful legal team gambling ventures in history.

All of this prize money was not won at blackjack tournaments. Much of it was taken from the craps tournaments, Keno tournaments, and so on. However, when I reported in the September issue of Blackjack Forum (Vol. VI #3) that Anthony Curtis, BJF's own "Las Vegas Advisor," had taken the first prize of $76,000 at the Las Vegas Hilton's Matchplay Blackjack Tournament on June 22, 1986, I didn't mention that Curtis had, in fact, entered the tournament as part of Wong's team, and that Wong had developed the playing and betting strategies that Curtis had used. Curtis told me about it later over the phone.

"I had a date that night with a cocktail waitress," he said. "I told her I had to finish playing in this tournament first, so she said she'd just come to the Hilton to watch the final round, and we could go out from there. She got there just in time to see me win my table and finish in first place. They gave me the prize money in cash. Did you ever see $76,000 in cash, Arnold?"

"Sounds like a good start for a date, Curt," I commented.

He laughed. "I was just glad she wasn't watching a few minutes later when I was unloading it all into Wong's hands."

Also in the June issue of Blackjack Forum, I mentioned that in July, less than a month after the big Hilton win, Anthony Curtis took third place in the Sam's Town Blackjack Tournament. First prize of $20,000 in that tournament went to former Las Vegas Advisor staff writer Blair Rodman. Blair too had learned to play blackjack tournaments from Stanford Wong.

In his book, Tournament Blackjack, Wong lists his five teammates as Anne Amster, Anthony Curtis, Blair Rodman, Ernie Amore and Doug D'elia. He acknowledges that they "deserve credit for helping develop, refine and test the ideas in this book." You may recognize Doug D'elia's name if you've been in Caesars Tahoe lately. They've got his picture up in lights because he stunned them by taking first prize in two of their tournaments— handicapping and Keno—just one month apart from each other.

Tournaments have taken casino games, which have always been players vs. the house, and turned them into games like poker, where it's player vs. player.

I asked blackjack math whiz, Peter Griffin, author of The Theory of Blackjack, what he thought of Wong's tournament venture. Griffin had played in a team effort with a few of Wong's teammates at the big 1986 Festival Reno tournament, which Griffin wrote about in the December Blackjack Forum. (See the link to "Self-Styled Experts Take a Bath in Reno" at the upper left of this page.) That team was not sponsored by Wong, nor did Wong devise their strategy.

"I went to see Curtis and Blair play in a craps tournament," Griffin told me. "It was fascinating to watch the way they squeezed out the other contestants, who had no idea of what they were up against. The other players were like lambs going to the slaughter."

Wong on Casino Tournament Strategy

In the September issue of Blackjack Forum (Vol. VI #3), I published a "Letter from Las Vegas," which read as follows:

What would you do in this tournament situation?

Last hand of the first round, count minus 2. I had just under $1000 with three other players all around $500. I was last to act. They all bet to catch me, I bet $5.

Dealer shows a seven. Player A doubles on 11, catches garbage. Player C is pat and will catch me if he wins. However, two people per table advance. I'm stiff.

The only way I cannot advance is for the dealer to break. If the dealer makes a pat hand, beating Players A, B, and myself, I will still advance to the next round with Player C, because I'll still cash out second at our table.

But if the dealer breaks, then Players A, B, and C will all beat me. My turn to act, the count is +1. Hit or stand.

Since I want the dealer to make a hand, I reasoned that if she's stiff, I want the big cards out, so she doesn't break. Sinice the count's plus, I hit, hopefully to take her bust card. I catch a five and make a pat hand. Dealer, sure enough, is stiff and catches a 10. She breaks. I'm out.

Let me tell you something about the author of this letter. He is one of the very few people who makes his living playing high-stakes blackjack. He's a former teammate of Ken Uston's. He's won a number of blackjack tournaments himself. I'm revealing this so that you'll realize the caliber of players who are entering tournaments.

I'm also revealing this so you'll realize that the types of problems that present themselves in casino tournaments are unlike any problem faced by card counters in regular casino blackjack play. It takes an entirely new view of strategy to beat casino tournaments professionally.

Wong's book is devoted precisely to this new type of strategy. A whole chapter of Casino Tournament Strategy is devoted to "Final Round, Two Winners Per Table." And a lengthy section of this chapter deals precisely with the betting situation described by this player: "Last Round, Four or More in Contention."

Wong first analyzes how to calculate your best bet in this situation when you must bet first, then he analyzes how to bet when you are not first to bet, as was the case in "Letter from Las Vegas." Wong sums up this betting situation very simply in his book (p. 64): "My rule of thumb is to keep the second largest pile of unbet chips, and bet the balance of my bankroll. Thus, if the dealer gets a natural and wipes us out, I finish second, and if the dealer does not wipe all of us out, I've got a large enough bet going to have a good chance to be one of the top two if I win the hand."

In other words, Wong calls for a large bet in this situation, not a small one. Letter from Las Vegas was protecting himself from personally losing any significant amount of money on this hand, but he'd left his bankroll wide open to attack by three other players in the case of a dealer bust, which is exactly what occurred. By betting large, as Wong's strategy requires, he would have protected himself from both a dealer bust and a dealer blackjack, while still maintaining a fighting chance in the play of his hand.

If Letter from Las Vegas had bet large, he would have won the table when the dealer busted instead of losing it.

More On Casino Tournament Strategy from Wong's Book

One thing you might note here is that card counting makes absolutely no difference whatsoever to the player's optimum bet. In fact, Stanford Wong states in his introduction to Casino Tournament Strategy that "...counting cards is so unimportant in a blackjack tournament that often I don't even bother with it, even at single deck."

Do you think you know how to bet in a tournament situation? Wong presents 51 different "end play" examples, with his concise analysis of the best bet. See how close you can come on two of these possible situations:

Example 13: Last round of play; three players left at the table; only the top player will advance to the next round. You are currently in second place at your table with $500; your opponents have $540 and $490 respectively. You must bet first. What do you bet?

Example 27: Last round of play; three players left at the table; the top two will advance to the next round. You are leading your table with $600; your opponents have $510 and $500 respectively. You must bet first. What do you bet?

Take a moment to try to figure these out right now. In an actual tournament, such decisions must be made quickly, so study the situations described briefly, and jot down your bet. At the end of this article, I'll provide you with the answers from Wong's book.

Casino Tournament Strategy is not a book for beginners. Wong does not describe the rules of blackjack. He assumes that the tournament player already understands basic strategy. If you have never played in a tournament, you may find this book difficult.

Don't expect to purchase this book a few weeks prior to some tournament and enter as an expert. There is a lot to learn, and not all of the strategies are easy and/or obvious. Wong devised many of these strategies by running computer simulations of the possibilities, then comparing the results. This is a text for advanced players and players who are willing to dedicate themselves to some hard studying to get in on this opportunity.

One thing I can tell you about tournaments from personal experience is how much fun they are. So much rides on so few cards. Your whole strategy, and your whole chance of winning, depends on just a few key betting and playing decisions.

Wong does his best to cover all types of blackjack and casino tournaments.

Did you take time yet to try and figure out your best bets in the examples given earlier? In Example 13, your best bet would be $250, according to Wong. In Example 27, Wong says your best bet is $85. Now, do you know why? ♠

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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