Even the most casual casino-goer knows all about the WSOP. It’s the World Series of Poker, where card sharps compete for glory, gold bracelets, and bricks of cash. But it takes a hardcore gambler to recognize the WSOB. Short for World Series of Blackjack, the WSOB was a short-lived experiment involving televised blackjack tournaments.
The WSOB wasn’t able to capitalize on poker’s tournament-driven boom, but blackjack tournaments never went away. If you’ve ever wondered what goes down behind the velvet ropes ringing a secluded section in the pit, read on to learn all about Las Vegas blackjack tournaments.
What Are Blackjack Tournaments and How Do They Work?
To help explain the central premise of a blackjack tournament, the well-established WSOB model provides students with the perfect starting point.
Every WSOB tournament features five players competing against one another. In addition to these five players, a designated house dealer distributes the cards from a six-deck shoe and supervises the game a la traditional Las Vegas rules.
Each player begins the match with $100,000 in tournament chips to work with. The minimum wager stands at $1,000, while bold bettors can go big for the maximum wager of $50,000.
The objective of a blackjack tournament is to finish a 25-hand session with more chips than your remaining opponents. Players can and will go broke, so the field can be culled from five to fewer, but building the biggest chip stack is the priority at all times.
To get a better idea of how this process plays out at the table, let’s run through some example hands…
Player 1 starts the action by betting $5,000 before Players 2 and 3 both opt for a slimmer $2,000 sizing. Player 4 goes for the gusto by betting $10,000, and Player 5 caps the action with a minimum wager of $1,000.
Right off the bat, Player 1 connects with A-10 for a blackjack, good for a $7,500 profit at 3 to 2 odds. Player 2 is dealt a lowly 2-4 for a 6 total, Player 3 holds the 3-8 for an 11, Player 4 looks down at Queen-Queen for a 20, and Player 5 sits on 7-7 for a 14.
As for the dealer, she slides a 6 to her spot just in front of the box to set up the hand’s most pivotal juncture.
Player 1 is already set with a smile on their face having landed a natural blackjack, so they don’t have a decision to make.
Player 2 only shows a 6 total, so they obviously hit and take a third card (Jack), improving to a 16 just like that. Sticking with the basic strategy script, Player 2 stands on 16 vs. 6 and takes their chances on the dealer going bust.
Player 3 is in the catbird seat holding an 11, so they follow basic strategy and double down by adding another $2,000 in chips on top of their original bet. In tournament play, the decisive third and final card drawn after a double down is dealt face down, so we’ll wait until all other players have acted to see what fortune has in store for Player 3.
Player 4 doesn’t have much to think about, what with their 20 ranking as the second-strongest starting hand in blackjack.
And finally, Player 5 has a perfect splitting opportunity with a pair of 7s against the dealer’s 6 up card. They decide to split their 7s by adding a second $1,000 bet on top, and the dealer cooperates by doling out 10s to each new hand. With 17 totals twice over, Player 5 follows basic strategy guidelines by standing twice.
Now, it’s the dealer’s turn to expose their down card—a king for a 16 total in this case—before running through their predetermined actions.
Now that we know the dealer has lost, while no players went bust, we can easily tally up the revised chip counts:
- Player 1 / $100,000 starting stack + $7,500 profit ($5,000 bet with a blackjack) = $107,500
- Player 2 / $100,000 starting stack + $2,000 profit ($2,000 bet) = $102,000
- Player 3 / $100,000 starting stack + $4,000 profit ($2,000 bet with a double down) = $104,000
- Player 4 / $100,000 starting stack + $10,000 profit ($10,000 bet) = $110,000
- Player 5 / $100,000 starting stack + $2,000 profit ($1,000 bet with a split) = $102,000
Thus, the 1st / 2nd / 3rd / 4th / 5th totem pole would read Player 4 / Player 1 / Player 3 / Player 2 + Player 5 after the first hand.
Assuming everybody made the same sized bet on their second hand, while the dealer scored an immediate winner with blackjack to beat all players, let’s see how the leaderboard would change:
- Player 1 / $107,500 stack + $5,000 loss ($5,000 bet) = $102,500
- Player 2 / $102,000 starting stack + $2,000 loss ($2,000 bet) = $100,000
- Player 3 / $104,000 starting stack + $2,000 loss ($2,000 bet) = $102,000
- Player 4 / $110,000 starting stack + $10,000 loss ($10,000 bet) = $100,000
- Player 5 / $102,000 starting stack + $1,000 loss ($1,000 bet) = $101,000
Within the swing of a single hand, our new leaderboard looks like this – Player 1 / Player 3 / Player 5 / Player 2 + Player 4.
Am I Playing Against the Dealer’s Hand or the Other Players?
As in any blackjack hand, your goal isn’t necessarily to wind up with the highest total, but merely to outdo the dealer when the drawing is done. You can win with any total when the dealer goes bust, but you can also lose on 20 should they hit blackjack our run out to a 21 on their draw.
With that in mind, blackjack tournament players—at least in their early going anyway—almost always follow basic strategy in hopes of beating the dealer.
Basic Strategy Provides a Roadmap for Optimal Play in Tournaments, Right?
For the most part, yes, it does. By adhering strictly to the mathematically optimal decisions which form basic strategy charts, you’ll give yourself the best possible chance to beat the dealer on each hand.
On the other hand, blackjack tournaments tend to create very interesting dilemmas during the endgame when only a few hands remain.
As the table’s short stack, you might need to bet it all on one desperate hand looking to catch up in a hurry. Conversely, when you have already staked yourself to a big lead over all opponents, conservative betting offers a certain level of protection should the dealer get hot.
Let’s say you’re trailing the table chip leader with two hands left, and you get to act before them. You’re dealt a 12 and they find a 15 while the dealer shows a 5 up card. In this spot, basic strategy says both player hands should stand and hope to see a dealer bust.
But you know that your opponent will stand, and you know the dealer is statistically likely to go bust drawing on an assumed 15 total.
Recognizing a unique tournament spot, many experienced players would change lanes and double down on their 12 here. Sure, you’ll go bust yourself a decent portion of the time, but you’ll also draw to a better total than your opponent a fair amount of times too. And by doubling your bet, you can carve into their lead (or even take one of your own) by adding a little risk for a higher reward.
Tournament blackjack serves up a slew of these quirky scenarios late in the match, giving seasoned veterans a chance to flex their mental muscles in ways the traditional game simply doesn’t require.
Are Blackjack Tournaments Popular in the Big Las Vegas Casinos?
You bet they are. Almost every casino in Sin City—from the mega-resorts on the Strip to the far-flung “local’s” joints—runs a daily or weekly blackjack tournament.
Over at The STRAT (formerly the Stratosphere), you can pony up a $100 buy-in to enter a $50,000 guaranteed prize pool event.
Over at the Sahara, a $50 entry fee gets you a seat in a tournament with $20,000 up for grabs.
And leaving aside these guaranteed prize pool tourneys, you’ll find an assortment of smaller daily events where every $20, $25, or $100 entry fee is simply added up to arrive at the payout amounts.
Even better, you don’t even have to visit Las Vegas to enjoy blackjack tournaments. In any case, it’ll be you against four opponents and the dealer in a battle of blackjack acumen and bet size strategy.
The Takeaway About Playing in a Blackjack Tournament
Real money blackjack tournaments are at once entertaining, educational, and most importantly, exciting. It’s one thing to lazily play a few hands alone against an uninterested dealer, but engaging in tournament warfare is another beast altogether. Constantly monitoring the various chip stacks while calibrating your bet sizes.
Deciding when deviating from basic strategy offers a short-term boost in expect value. And the sheer anticipation which builds as the final few hands play out… Tournament blackjack takes this classic casino game to the next level.