AN INTERVIEW WITH BLACKJACK TOURNAMENT PROS
KEN SMITH and JOE PANE
By Henry Tamburin
Two of the most respected and well-known blackjack tournament players are Ken Smith and Joe Pane. Together, they have won about 90 blackjack tournaments and 1.1 million dollars in prize money. They have appeared in the World Series of Blackjack and will be seen in the upcoming Ultimate Blackjack Tour. Ken hosts the worldís most popular blackjack site, www.blackjackinfo.com, and also www.blackjacktournaments.com.† Joe is co-host of the live radio show Be in Action, which is broadcast Thursday evening at 6 p.m. PT on www.klav1230am.com/lowbandwith/liveonair.htm.† Ken and Joe are featured writers for the Blackjack Insider e-Newsletter (www.bjinsider.com).
Are all blackjack tournaments the same?
Ken and Joe: Formats vary widely.† The two most common are elimination-style, where each table competes independently, and accumulation-style, where all players compete simultaneously to accumulate the highest chip count. The new Ultimate Blackjack Tour features an elimination format with a twist. The player with the lowest bankroll after every eight hands is eliminated, adding excitement to the game. The latest season of the World Series of Blackjack on GSN also features a new twist, the knock-out card. When a knock-out card appears, the next round is completed and the player with the lowest bankroll is eliminated.†
What should players look for when selecting a tournament?
Ken: They should pay attention to how the total prize payout compares to the total entry fees collected. A high payout ratio will give you a better chance of getting good value for the event. You can find out the prize payout and total entry fees by asking the tournament sponsor.
What are some of the common mistakes you see novice players make in tournaments?
Ken: Many beginners are too aggressive early in a tournament round, but too timid late in the round.† They'll often play the entire round with medium-sized bets.† These bets are large enough to be risky, but not large enough to pose a real threat to their opponents at the end.† You can start with small bets and hope that the dealer wipes out your opponents, but be ready to switch gears and bet aggressively if that doesn't happen.
Joe: One glaring mistake is to play and bet like itís a regular blackjack game. In the latter you are playing against the house and a dealer. In tournaments, you are playing against other players. Your bets and how you play your hand are influenced by your opponentsí bets and the results of their hands. Another mistake I often see novice players make is to bet out of turn.† Your betting position in a tournament is very important and you should always wait until itís your turn so you can see how much your opponents bet ahead of you before deciding what to bet.
Is it better to make a big bet early in the round to get a lead or lie low and wait until the end of the round to catch up?
Joe: For the most part, making a big bet early in a round is never a good option. However, if you are at a table with tournament pros and you have a bad betting position on the last hand, then it makes sense to make a move somewhat earlier in the round to force the other players to catch you. If you wait too late to make your move, the experienced tournament players will be mirroring your bets (i.e., betting the same as you) making it difficult for you to pass them. Therefore, when you decide to make a move, itís best to wait until after the button passes you (and you bet last). †
Ken: In an elimination format, early big bets don't have as much value as you might think.† If you lose those big bets, you'll be out early, but if you win them, that's no guarantee that you'll advance.† When the whole table starts chasing you, usually at least one of them will catch up.† One reliable approach is to be among the smallest bets at the table over the first third of the round, and then adjust to your situation.† If it appears you'll need a big chip stack to advance (and that's usually the case), start making your larger catch-up bets with about a third of the round to go.† If you wait too long, your big bets will just be mirroring everyone else's big bets, and that makes it tough to catch up.
Being able to count your opponentsí pile of chips is an important tournament skill.† How did you guys learn how to do this quickly and accurately?
Ken: In one word, practice.† Next time you're at a blackjack table, try looking around at the other playersí chip stacks and counting them down.† Accuracy in counting bankrolls is a big help once you're in a tournament. Most tournaments have an official countdown with a few hands remaining.† I find it helpful at that point to just remember the most important bankrolls at the table, and adjust them up or down in my head as they win or lose bets.† It's challenging, but I find it much easier than having to constantly recount chip stacks.† The problem is that the process of counting is very disruptive to your short-term memory.† By the time you count seat two's chips, you've forgotten how much seat one had! Accurately determining your opponentsí bankrolls especially during the final rounds, is a tough skill to master, but it is a critical part of most tournaments.
Joe:† Chip counting is an important skill for tournament play because this is how you will know if you are ahead or behind, and by how much, so you can determine how to bet. I learned chip counting by placing stacks of different color chips in every room of my house and when I walk into a room, I glance at the stack of chips and estimate the amount. You must train your eyes to quickly look at the stack to determine the amount.
Should novice players use the basic blackjack playing strategy in tournaments?
Ken: Stick with basic strategy unless you have a specific reason to do otherwise.† Once you get some experience, you'll find many occasions when you should make unusual plays.† Consider a final hand play when winning a single bet is useless.† In that case, you may have to double hard 18 or split tens.† But, for most hands, basic strategy is the way to go.
Joe: You should always use the basic playing strategy if you need to win the hand. If you are behind on the last hand, forget about basic strategy. You need to do what will get you ahead of your opponent even if it requires doubling down on hard 19.
If you start to fall behind the table leader(s), when is the best time to increase your bets in a tournament?
Joe: The best time to increase your bets is when other players canít mirror them. †Betting position is critical so itís best to wait till after the button passes you to make a catch-up bet.† If you fall behind by less than a maximum bet lead, and your opponent who is ahead of you is still betting aggressively, then I would be more patient and wait until he or she bets small before making a move. I prefer to make one bet that is large enough to regain the lead rather than make several medium-size bets over several hands. The reason is that you have a 44% chance to win one hand and the probability greatly diminishes trying to win several hands in succession.
Ken: Make your move before the whole table starts heating up.† It's easiest to make up ground when you're the only player making large bets.† Once you're pretty sure that your current chip count won't be enough to advance, go ahead and play for the lead.† If you postpone that decision until the last two or three hands, you will almost certainly find that the whole table is betting big, and your job is much tougher.
If you have the lead, should you bet small and let everyone try to catch you?
Ken: Unless you lead by at least a max bet, that is a mistake.† Remember that your outcome and your opponent's outcome will usually be the same.† Most of the time you'll both win or you'll both lose.† If your opponents are betting big to catch you, your best play is to bet big along with them.† Protect your lead.
Joe: Once you have the lead your main goal is to protect it. You can do this several ways based upon the skill level of your opponents. If your opponents have been betting conservatively, and you have to bet first, you should bet somewhere between half to a third of your lead. If you bet behind your opponents, you should mirror their bets.† If you have an aggressive style player or an experienced tournament pro betting behind you, you may want to bet almost all of your lead less a chip or two (this will make it risky for them to attempt to pass you, because if they lose the hand, it will most likely cripple their bankroll).
The last hand in the round often determines who advances and who doesn't.† Can you give some general guidelines on how best to play and bet on the last hand?
Ken: If you have the benefit of late betting position on the last hand, you often have a good chance to advance even if you are not the current chip leader.† As the bets are placed around the table, try to make a big enough bet to take the lead if you get paid, or alternatively, make a small bet to have more unbet chips if the dealer beats everyone.† The more opponents that you have, the more you should prefer the large-bet choice.† If you're not sure what to bet, just make a max bet.† That's almost always a reasonable choice. If you are forced to bet big while the chip leaders also bet big, be prepared to double or split more aggressively than usual.† If you stick with a single bet, make sure that you don't stand on a hand total lower than theirs, or you'll be locked out.
Joe: Your success in tournaments often hinges on how you play your last hand because if you make a betting or playing mistake, there arenít any more hands to offset your error. You will also be under time pressure since, on the last hand, most tournaments allow you only a specific amount of time to decide how much to bet and how to play your hand (usually about 30 seconds). Therefore, itís important that you use the same thought process in determining your betting and playing decisions. Here are several examples of what I mean.
Suppose you bet after a table leader, you are less than a max bet behind, and the table leader bets more than his lead. In this case you should take whatever the leader gives you. So if the leader bets big, you should bet small and hope the dealer beats the table (this is known as going for the low). If instead the leader bets less than his lead, you should bet enough so that if you both win the hand (including the leaderís doubling down, which is always a possibility), you will wind up with more chips and win.
Suppose that you are the table leader and bet first. With less than a max bet lead, and only one opponent that can catch you, then you should always bet all of your lead less one chip. This forces your opponent to win his or her hand to beat you. If there are two or more players that can catch you, the best percentage play in this scenario is to make a max bet.
Suppose instead that you are the table leader, you bet first, only one opponent can catch you, and the tournament offers surrender.† You should use the ďsurrender trapĒ on the last hand, which is to intentionally bet slightly more than your lead. You hope that your opponent, after seeing your bet, bets small to keep the most unbet chips (your opponent hopes the dealer beats you and he or she will win without even having to play the hand). But after the opponent falls for the ĎĒtrapĒ, you surrender your bet. You will now have more unbet chips, and your opponent canít win even if he or she gets two or three more bets down by doubling or splitting. The only way the surrender trap could hurt you, is if the dealer has a ten showing and an ace in the hole (i.e., dealer blackjack without the possibility of insurance). But thatís a long shot, so using the surrender trap is a good strategy on the last hand when you are the table leader and bet first.
Is card counting important in tournament play?
Ken:† In most cases, no.† I think most card counters who enter a tournament would be better off completely forgetting about the count, and instead focusing on the bankroll totals around the table.† In a tournament round, your bet size should almost always be dictated by tournament strategy, not the composition of the deck.† Sure, the best tournament players use card counting to give them that extra small edge.† But until you are a very accomplished tournament player, I advise ignoring the count.
Joe: In my opinion, card counting in a tournament is
not worth the time and effort. There are a lot more important things to focus
on in tournaments. However, having said that, let me add one caveat.† The
Have you had any memorable hands in your playing career?
Joe: In a semi-final round in a tournament where the cards were dealt face down to players, a player on my table exposed his hand and I was able to see that he had a 20 vs. a dealerís 8. I factored into my decision-making process that he was going to win and get paid on his hand. I had a blackjack but because I knew his exact chip count, I knew that my blackjack would not be enough to win.† So I doubled down on my blackjack, won the hand, went on to the finals and won the tournament, which had a first-place prize of $60,000.† A lesson to be learned from this experience is that when playing in a face-down tournament, itís imperative that you protect your hand so other players donít see what you have.†
Ken: It always seems easier for me to remember the hands that kept me out of the money instead of the miracle hands that delivered a victory.† Tournament strategy can be complicated, and mistakes are inevitable.† For example, in the 2006 Canadian Masters of Blackjack, I made a seemingly small mistake with two hands to go in the semifinal round.† I made a calculation error, and bet $300 instead of $250.† The difference proved critical though, and cost me a seat at the final table with over a quarter-million dollars in play (the details of my faux pas appeared in the May issue of the Blackjack Insider e-Newsletter).
Where can readers find a schedule of blackjack tournaments and more information on tournament playing strategy?
Ken: At my www.blackjacktournaments.com youíll find a free calendar that lists hundreds of blackjack tournaments each month, and also links to a number of excellent free tournament strategy articles. Youíll also find tournament strategy articles written by me and other experts in the Blackjack Insider e-Newsletter (www.bjinsider.com).
Joe: I discuss upcoming tournaments on my weekly radio show and also give a weekly tournament tip to listeners. A good beginnerís book on blackjack tournaments is Play to Win written by my colleague and co-host of my radio show, Ken Einiger.
Give our readers one final tip to help their chances of winning a tournament.
Ken: When you need to catch up, be decisive.† Don't try to catch up with a series of medium-sized bets.† One big risky bet is better than several smaller bets.
Joe:† On the last hand, players are usually given 30 seconds to decide how much to bet and how to play their hand. Donít wait until itís your turn to make this decision. If other players act before you, use that time to count their stacks of chips and decide how you will play your hand. So if four players act before you, youíve got 2 Ĺ minutes instead of 30 seconds to make that important last bet and playing decision.†