Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Last Man Standing - Tournament Tech

by Carl Van Eton

Image courtesy of flickr.com
If you have either been playing blackjack any length of time, then you will have noticed that all blackjack games are not created equal. This fact is especially poignant in regards to blackjack tournaments. Tournaments can be a godsend to many players, for several reasons:

#1 Their losses are limited to the buy-in.
#2 Since most tournaments take several hours to complete, neophyte players are kept from being sucked into live-action games where their lack of skill and knowledge can cost them BIG.
#3 An amateur has as much chance of winning first prize as a seasoned pro.

That's not to say that a knowledgeable player can't use skill to enhance one's chances of bringing home the bacon. Particularly in the case of two deck tournaments, a skilled player can greatly enhance his or her chances of winning a round or even the whole enchilada, i.e. taking first prize, if a little knowhow is employed.

Choosing a Seat

One advantage that can be used in virtually any tournament is to take the anchor seat. In the first place, the last seat on the table will give you a commanding view of the table. Later in the game when you are trying to see how much in chips is in your closest opponent's rack, this could be vital. Also, it is much easier to count cards from either end of the table than it is from center field.

First twenty Hands

(For the examples below, we are assuming a $500 stake with a minimum $5 and a maximum $300 wager.)

Image courtesy of flickr.com
Whether card counter or basic strategy player, during the early going, it is always wise to conserve your ammo. There is no reason to come charging out of the gate with $100 bets only to tap out long before any serious jockeying for position is merited. In fact, unless you are a card counter, or the dealer is busting his/her brains out, the best bet you can make during the first twenty hands is $5. Don't worry about the player who takes an early lead. It has been my experience that 99% of plungers don't know when to quit. Usually, these players are the first to tap out. Especially don't waste your time with paltry $25 or $50 wagers. If you win a few greenies, it won't amount to a hill of beans by the time you get to the final ten hands. If you lose them, you might not make it to the final ten hands. Even if you do, you won't have enough chips to make a charge. (Later, I'll show you how I went from $300 to $2,400 in only three hands.

Card Counters

Unlike six-deck tournaments in which you will see less than three shoes dealt, in double deckers, the dealer seems to spend as much time shuffling as dealing. This means that if the first few decks produce nothing but minus shoes, who cares? There are going to be plenty where they came from. On the other hand, should the count get above plus five(using a hi-lo count), it is time to send in the soldiers. As a rule, I will wage one third of my bank up to the maximum $300 wager. This translates to roughly a $150 bet the first time I encounter +5 or above. If I win, my next big bet will be at least $200. If I lose, I still have another two bets of $150 waiting in the wings. While it is true that I haven't won every time I have made my first big bet, it is also true that I have yet to tap out on three big bets.

End play, that is, making maximum wagers into plus counts deep in the deck can prove tremendously advantageous. One of the benefits of tournament play is that the dealer customarily deals beyond the 90% mark before shuffling. If I find myself in a situation where I am looking at a running count of +8 or better with less than half a deck to be dealt, I will shove out half my chips or the table max, whichever is less. This is also a good place to split pairs that in live-action situations you would be hard pressed to split, especially if the dealer is showing a 5 or 6. The secret formula to engaging the enemy early in the game is not to run away with the show, but rather to build up enough of a war chest that in the later stages of the game you find yourself in a position to do the most damage.

Image courtesy of commons.wikipedia.org

Just because you can't count, doesn't mean that you can't take advantage of counting technology. Remember, we're only talking about two decks here. In the beginning of a shoe, particularly during the first hand dealt, if you should see an exceptional number of small cards (2-7) hit the table, that is a good time to send a hundred dollars or so into the betting circle the next hand. If this situation fails to arise, the next best tactic is to keep plugging away with those $5 bets until round 21. This will at least assure that you are still standing when the final hands are dealt. Other than that, the only other advice that I can give a non-counter is please play with the correct basic strategy. Otherwise, even when you "go for it" you will miss out on many advantageous splits and doubles.

Hands 20-25
Card Counters

If you come to the twentieth hand and find that you are:
  a) in the lead, or
  b) less than $100 behind the leader, My recommendation is that you stick to the original game plan, only raising your wager when the count is at +5 or higher.
However, if the leader is $300 ahead of you and you have at least $600 in front of you with the count at or above +5,there is no point in making a $200 wager and win it only to find yourself still behind the leader but now facing a count of -2. With only nine hands to go, that is the time to "go for it", risking half your bank to wind up at tied for first, or so close that it makes little difference. In fact, if you find yourself in an opportunity to take the lead by doubling down, even though you might very well wind up having literally your entire stake on the line, this is the time to do it. You might not get another count that is legitimately high enough to warrant another big bet in later hands, meaning you would have to risk it all anyway, only on a questionable count. Besides, it can prove so demoralizing to the other players at the table when you come from behind to take a commanding lead in only one hand, that this alone is reason enough to try it.


If through sheer attrition, you find yourself within one table maximum wager ($300) of the lead, it is best at this stage to vie with restraint. However, if you should find yourself more than one table maximum wager behind the leader, then I would recommend taking no less than one third and no more than one half of your remaining stake (up to the table max of $300) and laying it down on the first hand after the next shuffle. The first hand off the top is a 50/50 proposition. Unless you are a card counter, this is probably the best shot that you've got.

Last 5 Hands

Card Counters

Image courtesy of BigGameBlackjack.com

With only five hands to go, we're down to the nitty gritty. Your wagers during the last four of those five hands are the most critical, since the last hand is a crapshoot unless you've developed a substantial lead. Even that may fall short as it did when I caught my opponent who going into the thirtieth hand had a $1,000 plus lead, only to lose on the final hand when I split a pair of fives, doubled down on both and the dealer busted. If you wait until the final hand to make your move, then it all comes down to chance.

Far better is to make your move early and stealthily. By stealthily, I mean don't telegraph your move. If you are going to bet the farm, play with your red chips only to bet black. Especially during the final five hands, WAIT your turn to bet. If you are in the lead, counterbet during a low count when everybody else bets big, bet big when everybody else bets small. it's at this point in the game where intestinal fortitude really pays off. If there is a chance of the count going over +5 on the next hand, hang in there with a nickel bet unless this will make it impossible for you to catch the leader by the final hand.

You'd be surprised at how quickly you can roll up the profits. I once took a $300 stake and rolled it up to $2,400 in just three hands by betting the entire amount on the first hand, doubling successfully an a hard twelve on the next hand then splitting fives and doubling on both on the final hand. I thought my opponent, who as a result lost his chance to play in the finals, was going to either have a stroke or kill me or both.


If you are in the lead, counter bet, betting the minimum until the second place player overtakes you and then betting the table max until you overtake him. If you are anywhere but first place, take as much as you need to reclaim the lead and bet it or one third of your bankroll up to the maximum bet of $300, whichever is more. If you are behind, take advantage on gonzo double downs and splits; for instance, splitting fours against a dealer's 4,5 or 6, doubling down on A9 against anything except for a dealer's ten or ace, and so on.

The Final Hand

Image courtesy of BigGameBlackjack.com
I have seen many a player lose the game in the final hand because of over or under-betting. Unless you are in the lead by more than a $1,000, I strongly recommend that you bet the maximum wager. You don't want to be knocked out of the box by a bonehead who doubles down on a stiff and catches the card he needs to beat you. I myself lost a tournament with $300 and a blackjack, when one player doubled down on a hard seventeen and caught a four, beating me by less than $20 dollars. Wagering the table max in such a situation puts you in the driver's seat, especially if you have the final wager. This way if it looks as though a competitor will overtake you, you can do something about it, like maybe splitting those tens.

The only exception to the rule is if you are in first place by less than $300. If you are ahead by say $250, you don't want to bet $300 and lose the hand only to shoot yourself out of the saddle by your opponent who bet $5 hoping everybody else would lose. In that situation wager $245, so in the event that everybody including yourself loses, you will still end up in first place. Because in tournament play, as in a wild west gunfight,, only the last man standing wins.

Carl Van Eton is a professional blackjack player and instructor.  You can find more info, including his videos at http://biggameblackjack.com


  1. I have never played Black Jack in a casino. Very interesting stuff.

  2. Wow. A good read! I have not played in a BJ tourney. But, I did spectate in one tourney. And, as you point out, it was the last hand dealt that made me gasp! The lead player was well ahead at the last hand, and placed a minimal bet. The #2 player (and only other remaining player) although well behind... placed a maximum bet... all in... and edged out the leader... to win the hand/game!

  3. I might add... the #2 player was seated in the "anchor" seat. Thus he was aware of the lead player's minimal final bet. This was a huge advantage to the #2 player. Pure chance to win... but nothing to lose by going all-in on the final hand.