It may have only lasted for four years, but The World Series of Blackjack made quite an impact on the blackjack community and on the wider gambling industry.
It wasn’t until the final season of the tournament that the general public started to take interest in real numbers, but before it had a chance to take off the competition shut down, much to the disappointment of blackjack fans everywhere and not least the players competing who could take home a pretty penny if they won.
It was actually televised on the GSN cable network, and it was successful as a spectator sport because each episode was edited to only lasted an hour, and bold moves could change fortunes very quickly, making it quite an exciting event to watch.
Sadly though, many people found it all too complicated thanks to (what some people might call) novelty rules that were introduced, and the fact that televised poker was proving more popular ultimately put an end to The World Series of Blackjack as well as the few other tournaments that attempted to ride on its coat tails.
For those who enjoyed it, it was great while it lasted, and this is how it worked.
An Overview of The World Series of Blackjack
Blackjack is not a game where players compete with each other, they try to beat the dealer, so in order for a tournament dynamic to exist the game had to be tampered with a little.
This tampering has a big impact on strategy from a player’s point of view though.
Each player begins the round with the same number of chips, and the round is pre-destined to end after a certain number of games have been played. Whomever has the most chips at the end is the winner of the round.
This means that players can, and indeed must, make decisions that would be reckless in a regular game.
For example, if you have just over half the chips of the leading player in the game, and only one player is going through to the next round, you have to throw all of your chips into that last hand regardless of what you are dealt and just hope for the best, because you are technically dead anyway.
There were other rule changes that spiced things up a little too, and although things changed from one season to the next, a few of the biggest, rule, changes and additions included:
- Burger King Power Chip – From Season 3, each player had one of these chips per round, allowing them to change their card for the next one in the shoe.
- Six Decks – Each shoe held six decks during all four seasons.
- Knockout Cards – Each deck held 2 knockout cards per round, which when drawn, would eliminate the player with the fewest chips after that hand. The minimum bet also increased after each card was drawn, and the shoe was shuffled. This addition came in for Season 3.
- Doubling – Players can double down on any hand.
- Number of Hands – Each round lasted 30 hands in Season 1, and 25 hands for Seasons 2, 3, and 4.
- Chip Values – All players begin with $100,000 worth of chips ($10,000 in Season 1).
- Minimum/Maximum Bet – The minimum bet was $1,000 and the maximum was $50,000 ($100 and $5,000 in Season 1).
- Surrendering – This was allowed, saving the player half of their stake.
Other rules included the dealer standing on all 17’s, blackjack paid 3:2, and players could split, double and take insurance for less than their bet.
The competition attracted many top blackjack players, some of which we have whole pages dedicated to, and by the end even celebrities were getting in on the action.
Let’s go through season by season and you can get an overview of how things went.
The inaugural tournament, which aired weekly from March 15th – April 26th 2004, was a lot smaller than those that followed, with less money involved and fewer players competing.
It took place at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut.
There were 25 players in all, competing in groups of 5 which created 5 preliminary rounds. The winner of each of these rounds won $10,000 and automatically got a seat at the final table, while the player coming second got $5,000 and one last chance to progress via the Wild Card table.
This basically meant that every player coming second faced off in a semi-final of sorts, with the winner taking the final seat at the last table.
This meant there were 6 players taking part in the final game to decide who would be crowned the winner, and take home the $100,000 prize money.
|Round 1||Regina Guzior||Michael Konik||James Grosjean, Anthony Curtis, Connie Desimone|
|Round 2||“MIT Mike” Aponte||“Hollywood” Dave Stann||Ken Einiger, Joanna “Queen of Spades” W., Susan Pikor|
|Round 3||Micky Rosa||Bobby J.||Bradley Peterson, Cathy Hulbert, Ashwin Patel|
|Round 4||Jimmy Pine||Previn Mankodi||Stanford Wong, Ann Van Dyke, Nick Dillon|
|Round 5||Ken Smith||Richard Munchkin||Jane Gamble, Franky DeRocco, Skip Samad|
|Wild Card Round||“Hollywood” Dave Stann||Bobby J.||Michael Konik, Previn Mankodi, Richard Munchkin|
|Finals||“MIT Mike” Aponte||“Hollywood” Dave Stann||Jimmy Pine, Micky Rosa, Regina Guzior, Ken Smith|
You may well recognise a few names in the table, especially the winner, Mike Aponte, who was a prominent member of the famous MIT Blackjack Team, and Stanford Wong, who is often referred to as the Godfather of Card Counting.
A few actors are in there too, “Hollywood” Dave Stann isn’t exactly famous but he’s been in a bunch of movies and TV shows, and Bobby J is otherwise known as Robert Jayne, the child actor from Different Strokes, Knots Landing, and Tremors.
A bit of a shake up saw a slightly new format for Season 2 of the World Series of Blackjack, which took place at The Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas between Jan 21st – April 22nd 2005.
There were now 40 competitors taking part in 8 preliminary rounds, with the winner of each round progressing to the semi-finals and the player coming second going onto a wild card round.
The competition was cut in half, so the runners up for the first four rounds would compete in one wild card table, while the runners up from rounds 5-8 would compete in another wild card round.
This meant that 8 players would ultimately make it through to the semi-finals, 4 players in each semi-final round.
Both the winner and the runner up of the semi final made it through to the last table, where the four remaining players battled it out for a top prize of $250,000.
|Round 1||Kevin Blackwood||“Hollywood” Dave Stann||Joe Pane, Rene Angelil, Katya Underhill|
|Round 2||Leann Moell||Charlene Ono||Ken Smith, Russ Hamilton, Marshall Sylver|
|Round 3||Stanford Wong||Robert Blechman||Regina Guzior, Richard Taraska, Nicki Vermeulen|
|Round 4||Kami Lis||Nancy Kubasek||Rick Blaine, Michael Konik, Henry Tamburin|
|Wild Card Round 1||Charlene Ono||“Hollywood” Dave Stann, Nancy Kubasek, Robert Blechman|
|Round 6||Anthony Curtis||Erica Schoenberg||Tyrone Washington, Rick Swogger, David Page|
|Round 7||Rick Jensen||Ken Einiger||Angie “Moneytaker” Hardy, Jimmy Pine, Jean Scott|
|Round 8||Viktor Nacht||Micky Rosa||Chuck Gorson, Joe Maloof, Lorna Fox|
|Round 9||Jason Geraci||Michelle Richards||“MIT” Mike Aponte, Eric Kiel, Brian Zembic|
|Wild Card Round 2||Ken Einiger||Micky Rosa, Erica Schoenberg, Michelle Richards|
|Semi-Final||Rick Jensen||Ken Einiger||Anthony Curtis, Viktor Nacht|
|Semi-Final||Stanford Wong||Kami Lis||Kevin Blackwood, Leann Moell|
|Finals||Ken Einiger||Kami Lis||Stanford Wong, Rick Jensen|
Mike Aponte showed up to defend his title but didn’t make it past the first stage this time around, while Stanford Wong got all the way to the final but didn’t win.
The well known gambler and magician Brian Zembic, also competed, most famous for getting breast implants to win a bet (really, read the linked article), as did Celine Dion’s husband and manager, Rene Angelil.
Numerous professionals and published authors of blackjack books were also present, but the winner was actually a recreational player.
This time it was The Hilton Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas that hosted the event, taking place between June 5th and September 4th 2006, and once again aired weekly.
A slight change to the scheduling saw both wild card rounds take place a week apart, rather than after the 1st and 8th preliminary rounds, and they also decided they wanted 5 players at each wild card round and in the final.
The achieve this, the same system was followed as in Season 2, but a random draw selected one very lucky player from all the 3rd to 5th place finishers in the preliminary rounds to progress to the wildcard round.
This was Jamie Root and Tommy Connor from Rounds 3 and 4, although they didn’t make it past the wild card round.
What with 4 preliminary round winners and 1 wild card round winner, each semi-final now had 5 players, with the winner and runner up progressing to the final table. Once again, to make the table up to 5 players, a random draw of all 3rd-5th finishers from the semi finals selected Tony Duong to take the final seat, and he actually ended upcoming second.
|Round 1||Paul Haas||Tommy Dyer||John Grannis, Sheila Taylor, Ken Einiger|
|Round 2||Charlie Montoya||Kami Lis||Anthony Lu, Steve Bortle, Darrell Arnold|
|Round 3||Jeff Bernstein||Angie “Moneytaker” Hardy||Jamie Root, David Weston, Mano Fuentes|
|Round 4||Henry Tran||Randy Driggers||Jennifer Ortega, Ted Coustenis, Tommy Connor|
|Round 5||Tony Duong||John Payne||Shawn Crowder, Vicki Reed, “Hollywood” Dave Stann|
|Round 6||Dominick Haven||Ken Smith||Paul Eckstein, Val Hunter, Elie Karam|
|Round 7||Pat Nicholas||Henry Fletcher||Mikki Padilla, Frank Calderone, David Matthews|
|Round 8||“Razor” Rob Boisvert||Erica Schoenberg||Marshall E. Lafferty, Scottie Black, Randy Joyce|
|Wild Card Round 1||Kami Lis||Randy Driggers, Ken Smith, Tommy Dyer, Tommy Connor|
|Wild Card Round 2||John Payne||Jamie Root, Erica Schoenberg, Angie Hardy, Henry Fletcher|
|Semi-Final 1||Jeff Bernstein||John Payne||Henry Tran, Paul Haas, Pat Nicholas|
|Semi-Final 2||Kami Lis||Charlie Montoya||Tony Duong, Dominick Haven, Rob Boisvert|
|Finals||Jeff Bernstein||Tony Duong||John Payne, Kami Lis, Charlie Montoya|
The grand prize had doubled to $500,000 for the Series’ third outing, so there really was big money riding on the final table, and there were some astonishing results.
With only 3 players left in the game thanks to two earlier knockout cards, and the leader, Dr Jeff Bernstein, ahead by over $50,000 (the table maximum), both Tony Duong and John Payne had to bid maximums and then double them if they had any hope of winning.
Jeff bet $20,000, the other two bet $50,000 each, and all three of them drew 5’s on their first card.
After the second Jeff had a hand worth 15, Tony had a hand worth 9, and John had a hand worth 11. The dealer’s up card was a 2.
This obviously but the two challengers in a potentially strong position to take the lead if they doubled down, which they both did.
The dealer revealed an Ace in the hole, followed by a 5, giving her a hand of 18. Now both Tony and John were counting on a 9 or a 10/face card to stay in the game, with only one hand remaining.
A 3 killed John’s hopes of winning, leaving him with 14 and just $45k in the pot, and Tony was dealt a 7, giving him just sixteen and a total of $105k. All three players lost the hand, but Jeff still had $238k and could not be caught, so the final hand was irrelevant.
Returning to the Hilton Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and operating in the exact same way as Season 3, the fourth and final World Series of Blackjack took place from June 4th – August 27th 2007.
This time around, the full amount of prize money was a very serious $1,000,000, with $500,000 of that going to the winner of the final table, and the rest split between the winners and runners up of all the previous rounds.
Some of the famous faces at the various tables included 90s pin-up Shannon Elizabeth, of American Pie and Scary Movie fame; actress a professional poker player Tiffany Michelle; LA Dodgers baseball star Orel Hershiser; famous magician and the verbal half of Penn and Teller, Penn Jillette; and Caroline Rhea, who UK audiences might remember as Hilda Spellman, one of the 2 aunts in Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Former winners Dr Jeff Bernstein and Ken Einiger also turned up to attempt a second win, but neither of them made it past the preliminary rounds.
|Round 1||George Mandilaras||Phil Dunaway||Tiffany Michelle, Christiane Hogenbirk, Jeff Bernstein|
|Round 2||Jeff Swenson||Kami Lis||Lon Johnson, Juan Cloud, Joe Malc|
|Round 3||Alice Walker||Norm Sheridan||Joe Fisher, Kacie Bergeron, “Hollywood” Dave Stann|
|Round 4||Salomon Cohen-Botbol||Rick Jensen||Orel Hershiser, Philip Richman, Mikki Sullivan|
|Round 5||Jarek Markowiak||Darrell Arnold||Caroline Rhea, Hans Schmid, Eli Haber|
|Round 6||T. J. Boros||Marlin Horseman||Penn Jillette, Ken Smith, Helen Ho|
|Round 7||Kristine Johnson||Rick Fortin||Ken Einiger, Don Rebentisch, Joe Reitman|
|Round 8||Marvin Ornstein||Dannye Long||Henry Tran, Angelo Merkouris, Shannon Elizabeth|
|Wild Card Round 1||Rick Fortin||Darrell Arnold, Henry Tran, Dannye Long, Kami Lis|
|Wild Card Round 2||Marlin Horseman||Christianne Hogenbirk, Rick Jensen, Norm Sheridan, Phil Dunaway|
|Semi-Final 1||Rick Fortin||Kristine Johnson||Marvin Ornstein, T. J. Boros, Salomon Cohen-Botbol|
|Semi-Final 2||Alice Walker||Marlin Horseman||Jarek Markowiak, George Mandilaras, Jeff Swenson|
|Finals||Alice Walker||Marlin Horseman||Rick Fortin, Kristine Johnson, T. J. Boros|
As you can see, none of the famous faces got anywhere near the final table, but the winner made history as the tournament’s first and final female victor. Interestingly, Marlin Horseman came second to her in both the semi-final and the final.
Alice Walker had also previously won GSN’s 3 card poker championship, making her a real inspiration to female poker and blackjack players everywhere.
How to Qualify for the World Series of Blackjack
You can’t anymore because it is no longer held, but during its’ short life there were only two ways into the competition, and unless you knew the right people or were already very well known as a blackjack player it was extremely unlikely that you would make the cut.
That said, it was possible for unknowns to make their way to the tournament, but you would have to fight almost as hard to get a seat at the table as you would to win the tournament itself.
This would be the preferred method for most competitors because it means you are already thought of as one of the world best blackjack players, or at least one of the best in America.
This is why names like Mike Aponte and Stanford Wong show up in the first few tables above, although there will doubtless be plenty of players who turned down the opportunity, preferring to remain as anonymous as possible.
No professional player who still plays to win big money at casinos wants the casinos knowing what they look like.
As the seasons went on and word spread, the list of players grew more and more diverse, with previous winners or watchable players invited back, and celebrities known to play given a shot as well.
For the people running the tournament and making the show, it was about balancing the quality of the players with the entertainment value in each round.
Via a Satellite Tournament
A lot of big poker competitions do this, where players can earn a seat at a prestigious tournament by winning a less prestigious one.
In the week before the final series of the competition for example, there were 6 satellite tournaments held at the venue (the Hilton), where players could buy their way in.
Four of them had a buy in of $2,500 and a $50 entry fee, the other two had a buy in of $1,000 and a $25 entry fee. The more expensive tournaments were limited to 6 players per table, so 24 players in total, while the less expensive ones allowed 18 players in total.
The winners of those 6 tournaments got a place in Series 4 of the World Series of Blackjack, competing against some real legends of the game.
These tournaments weren’t exactly well advertised though, so there was even an element of luck as to whether you would even hear about them or not.
Will the World Series of Blackjack Come Back?
Poker is still shown on television, usually late at night here in the UK, and there does still seem to be a market for that sort of thing, although the ‘boom’ in popularity has long been and gone.
Blackjack was never as popular, so it seems the odds of a company putting the money required into a televised tournament are pretty low, as it would be difficult for them to get enough of a return to make it worthwhile.
That is one of the issues with any niche area of interest, but when that niche area of interest also requires massive amounts of prize money to make it exciting enough to watch and worth the time of the best players in the world, it is something of a catch 22.
Still, we can hope.
Blackjack tournaments are still commonplace, so anybody who wants to take part in one shouldn’t find it too difficult to find a tournament to join, but none of them a televised for a wider audience, sadly.