Thousands upon thousands of people enjoy a game of blackjack every once in a while, but only a relatively small percentage of them have ever played in a blackjack tournament.
To the uninitiated tournaments can perhaps be a little intimidating, especially if contemplating playing in person, but they are actually great fun and there is nothing to be nervous about – especially if playing online.
Saying that, playing in a blackjack tournament is not the same thing as playing a regular game of blackjack. The rules are the same, but the player’s mentality needs to be totally different and many decisions that might usually seem ridiculous make perfect sense when playing in a tournament format.
Also known as ‘tourneys’, blackjack tournaments are a great way to flex different card playing muscles, and can also offer very large prizes for a relatively low entry fee – providing you finish near the top of course.
How are Blackjack Tournaments Different to Regular Blackjack?
First things first, there are a few different types of blackjack tournament, so talking about them in general terms can be tricky, but there are a few basics that remain true regardless of the tourney you are playing.
When playing bog standard blackjack it is you against the dealer, and the objective is to win as many hands and as much money as possible.
When playing in a tournament you are not only competing against the dealer, but more importantly, you are competing against the other players. This extra dimension totally shifts what makes sense from a tactical point of view, and changes the field of play completely.
Tournaments are not structured on a bet per hand basis either, but by an entry fee that players stump up before all being given the exact same number of chips to play with. How they bet after this is up to them, but everyone has the same starting point.
A tournament will either be timed or consist of a pre-determined number of hands, and within the period of play the player has to either avoid being knocked out, or simply amass more chips than anyone else.
The easiest way to explain each tournament type or variation is by running through them one at a time:
- Elimination – These tournaments are sometimes called ‘Survivors’ and take place one round after another, and the person with the fewest chips at the end of each round is eliminated.
- Non-Elimination – Instead of knocking people out, players have to simply amass as many chips as possible and whoever has the most at the end of play wins.
- Mini Tournament – Short and sweet, these are cheap to enter and don’t last too long, they will definitely be over and done with in the same day.
- Major Tournament – This is where the big money can be found. Some of these can span 2 or even 3 days if there are enough entrants, and if that is the case then the prize money can be massive – six figures in some cases.
- Freeroll Tournament – Totally free to play, these tournaments will usually have more modest cash prizes. The casino foots the bill, and often uses freerolls as a loss leader to get people’s interest, or as a way to reward loyalty or VIP players.
- Guaranteed Tournament – This refers to the prize pot. Instead of the prize money being decided by how many entry fees the organiser receives, the organiser guarantees an amount. If they sell more tickets then great, if they don’t, they have to make up the difference out of their own pocket. For players, a guaranteed tournament with a low take up is brilliant because the fewer players you have to compete against the better your chances of winning, and the prize money doesn’t suffer because of it.
- Satellite Tournament – This is a bit like a screening tournament or a qualifier. They might even be free to enter or be given away as promotions. Finishing towards the top of the table will get you entry into the real money tournament for free.
- SNG or Sit n’Go – A sit and go tournament will start when enough people are at the table. If you want to play a tournament in the spur of the moment then this is the kind you need. They work in the same way when it comes to buy ins etc, but they usually don’t last very long and prizes will be smaller. You can think of them as snack sized tourneys.
- Scheduled – The opposite of the above; a scheduled tournament starts at a specific time on a specific day. Buy ins are often pre-bought although you may still be able to enter a few minutes before they start.
- Rebuy – Tourneys that allow rebuys can go on much longer because when a player runs out of chips they can buy their way back in by paying the entry fee again. This is sometimes only allowed once or twice, sometimes it can go on indefinitely, but it will eventually become unprofitable so most players wouldn’t rebuy more than once.
Be aware that there can be crossover with all of these; for example you could get an elimination based major tournament which is scheduled and has a guaranteed pot.
Blackjack Tournament Example
If we run through a brief example it should give you a fairly clear picture of how blackjack tournaments works.
Let’s say you are playing a small single table elimination tournament against 5 other players, so there are six of you all together. Depending on the format, players will be knocked out one by one until a winner is found.
You have all paid £20 to enter the tournament, so the organiser is holding £120. They may be keeping £20 of that as their fee, which leaves a prize pot of £100. This could be split as £80 to the winner and £20 to the runner up.
Each player receives the same allocation of betting chips, before the dealer deals the cards and the game plays out as normal with each player betting against the dealer’s hand. Chips are then paid to the winners and taken from the losers, before the dealer deals again.
However, the lead off player will now change, so the first person to bet will be different. There is a button that is placed in front of the lead-off player which moves after every game, and creates the opportunity to strategise based on what other players are doing and how many chips they have and are betting.
Once the time is up or the number of pre-determined hands has been dealt and the round is over, the knockouts begin and the process repeats until the tournament ends and the winner is declared.
Do Blackjack Tournaments Require any Skill?
Blackjack is one of the only casinos games in which there is any element of skill, and blackjack tournaments actually require more skill again because of the extra dimension of competing against others.
This is where the game really changes, because in order to win a tournament you need to first avoid being knocked out then ultimately establish and protect a lead – although luck of the draw definitely comes into it too.
The only way to do this is to keep track of your opponent’s bank in comparison to yours, as well as knowing how each outcome of each hand will affect their bank, and then betting accordingly depending on your position in the betting.
It takes a lot of brain power and skill to master this at the same time as playing the game optimally (when it makes sense to do so).
The effect this has on your decision making is huge, because the game is not simply about giving yourself the best chance of winning each hand anymore; in fact, sometimes you may be playing in what would be considered a reckless manner in a regular game, or even crossing your fingers for the dealer to beat the table.
This is all part of your tournament strategy.
Blackjack Tournament Strategy
Say you are in the lead with one game to go, but the player in 2nd has bet all of his chips on the final hand in an attempt to overtake you at the last minute. If you have any sense you will have bet the minimum in order to limit risk. That means that if the dealer beats the table you both lose, but your lead is maintained, winning you the tournament.
Your betting position can be an advantage or a disadvantage too, especially towards the end of a tournament. If you are the last person to play then you already know what everyone else has done, how much they have bet, and how many chips they have in their pile. Using this information, you can make the optimal choice for your situation. It might be that you have to go all in to have any hope of staying in the game, or it might make more sense to play more conservatively at that point.
Players will even wait for the button to pass them (putting them last in the betting) before making big catch up bets, because they can do so armed with the knowledge of every other player’s actions.
It’s important not to fall too far behind the leader because the longer the round goes on the more difficult it will be to catch them up. In the first half of the round you can attempt to gain ground by betting small when they bet big and betting big when they bet small. Of course, playing aggressively and placing large bets can also have the desired effect if you’re lucky.
Another slightly sneaky trick, is to hold a single chip back if everyone else has gone all in on the last hand. This way, if the dealer wins then everyone is wiped out except you, who wins the table with a single chip.