More and more casinos are offering blackjack tournaments, especially during the slower winter months. They can be fun, but before you enter it's best that you know the basics of how to play blackjack under tournament conditions.
Tournaments work like this. Every contestant is assigned to a table and every player will begin with the same bankroll. Players will play blackjack over a specified period of time (or number of hands) and at the end, the player with the most amount of money is declared the table winner. Table winners then compete against each other until you end up with 6 (or 7) finalists, who compete for the top prize.
What makes tournaments popular is the competition amongst players. Unlike traditional blackjack where it's you against the dealer, in tournament play it's player against player.
There are two types of tournament formats, elimination and non-elimination. In the elimination format ,players compete against each other at each table with the player (or in some cases top two players) with the most money advancing. The other table players are eliminated from the competition (hence the name "elimination format"). In a non-elimination tournament, players compete against all the other tournament players with the goal of trying to win the most money after several rounds. In this format, no players are eliminated. Of the two formats, the elimination tournaments are more popular.
Most blackjack tournaments charge an entry fee. Make sure that the sponsoring casino returns all of the player entry fees in prizes. You can determine this by requesting details about the tournament from the casino. You need to know the amount of the prize pool, the number of players the prize pool is based on, and the entry fee. For example, suppose the casino entry fee is $100 and the prize pool based on 200 entrants is 1st - $10,000, 2nd - $5,000, 3rd - $2,000, 4th - $1000, 5th thru 8th - $250 ($1,000), and 9th thru 13th - $100 ($500), and 14th thru 23rd - $50 ($500). To calculate the return percentage, add the total of all the prizes ($20,000) and compare this total with the total amount of entry fees (200 entrants times $100 = $20,000). If the total of all the prizes to be given away equals the amount of the entrant fees, then the return to players is 100%.
Some tournaments return less than 100%, but they may include free rooms for tournament players, free meals, and even a tournament gift. You may have to factor the worth of these freebies in computing the overall return percentage.
If you have difficulty determining the return percentage, don't be afraid to call the marketing department of the host casino and ask them for the details. There are plenty of 100% return tournaments so don't settle for less.
In some tournaments, you must put up your own cash as bankroll. Others use special tournament chips (they cost you nothing). Usually, but not always, the tournaments that offer very large cash prizes require players to bankroll each round.
There are several different approaches to playing in the popular elimination tournaments. Some players like to bet big from the start in an effort to accumulate an early lead in the round. Others tend to bet conservatively and wait to make their move with bigger bets if it's necessary. My advice is to use the latter approach.
It's important that you be able to estimate how much money (chips) your fellow players have as the round progressives. If you find yourself behind the leader, then you should try to bet differently than him/her to catch up. For example, if you trail the leader by $200 and he bets $400, how much would you bet to catch up with him on the next hand? You should either bet more than $600 or less than $200. If you bet $610 and both of you win the hand, you'll be ahead. If you bet less than $200 and you both lose the hand you will be in the lead.
If you are in the lead, your best strategy is to match the bets of players who are trying to catch you. That way if you both win or lose you will still have the lead.
The most important hands are the last ones. Many players lose their rounds because they make an incorrect bet down the stretch. How you bet depends on whether you bet first or last and whether or not you are ahead or behind. Most tournament players take the all-or-nothing approach and will make the maximum bet on the last hand if that is what it will take to win the round. If you must bet first and if one of your opponents can catch you by making the maximum bet and winning the hand, then you should also make a maximum bet. If no one can catch you by putting all their chips on the last hand and winning, then make the minimum bet. The best position to be in is to bet last on the final hand. This gives you a chance to see how much your opponents bet and calculate how much bankroll they would end up with assuming they win the final hand. Based on that, you would need to bet enough to end up with more money assuming you also win the final hand.
One more tip. Many players will make very strange plays on the last hand in order to overtake the leader. I've witnessed players double down on 10/7, for example, in order to get more money on the table to catch the leader. And how about this? In the very first tournament offered in Atlantic City, I lost the round when one of my fellow players doubled down on a blackjack hand. The 3 to 2 payoff on his blackjack would not have been enough to overtake me, but the 2 to 1 payoff on a double down did (yes, he drew a picture card for a 21 and beat the dealer hand). By the way, don't think of trying this play the next time you play blackjack because it is no longer allowed.
Some casinos offer inexpensive, fun tournaments where the entry fees are usually less than $50 and tournament chips are used. This is a good way to get your feet wet and experience what tournament blackjack is all about. If you are serious about advancing to a more expensive tournament, there is an excellent software program, Tournament Blackjack, by Stanford Wong that allows you to practice and develop your tournament playing skills using your PC.