Blackjack tournaments have never been as popular among casual crowds as poker tourneys. Instead, they’ve always been relegated to serious gambling enthusiasts.
Nevertheless, blackjack tourneys enjoyed their time under the sun in the mid-2000s. This era saw several blackjack tournament TV shows arise.
Televised blackjack games were seemingly on the rise at this point. However, it crashed and burned before catching on with the general public.
Why did TV blackjack tournaments fail despite such a big marketing push? I’ll discuss this matter by covering the various tourney organizations and the reasons behind their demise.
Major Televised Blackjack Events
The World Series of Blackjack (WSOB) became the first televised blackjack event. Following the WSOB’s launch, several other TV shows joined the fray.
One of these shows even introduced the revolutionary “Elimination Blackjack.” Below, you can see the four programs that sparked a mini-blackjack boom.
World Series of Blackjack
WSOB was the longest-running blackjack tournament TV show. It spanned four seasons and ran on GSN from March 15, 2004 to April 26, 2004.
Blackjack legend Max Rubin and now-MLB announcer Matt Vasgersian provided the commentary. Participants could earn their spot via satellite tournaments or an invitation.
The tournaments included some interesting rules, including the “Burger King Power Chip” and “Knockout Cards.”
The former allowed players to switch one card with the next card from the shoe. A Knockout Card eliminated whomever had the lowest chip count at the time.
The WSOB’s highlight included celebrities like Caroline Rhea (actress) and Penn Jillette (magician) playing for $1 million in Season 4. Alice Walker, who won GSN’s three-card poker championship, won the final table and $500,000.
World Blackjack Tour
The World Blackjack Tour also aired on GSN. However, it wasn’t as successful as the previously covered WSOB.
This program, which debuted on September 4, 2006, never made it past the pilot. The World Blackjack Tour featured a single event at the Las Vegas Hilton (now Las Vegas Hotel & Casino).
Mexico’s Sergio Segura won the first-and-only event along with $10,000. Canada’s Henry Tran took second place and $5,000.
The World Blackjack Tour announced plans to take their show on the road to different casinos. However, these plans were canceled after the pilot failed to generate much interest.
Running on GSN for two seasons, Celebrity Blackjack wasn’t the longest-running blackjack show. But it’s arguably the most-memorable thanks to the celebrity participants.
Hosted by Vasgersian and actress Alex Borstein, it featured small tournaments comprised of five celebrities. Each celebrity competed to win money for their chosen charity.
Some of the stars who appeared on this program include Jason Alexander, Billy Baldwin, Dean Cain, Shannon Elizabeth, and Rhea.
Rhea won Season 1 along with $100,000 for “Much Love Animal Rescue” and “Project ALS.” Alexander took down Season 2 along with $300,000 for “Oakwood School Capital Campaign.”
Ultimate Blackjack Tour
The Ultimate Blackjack Tour aired through syndication from 2006-2007. The online poker site UltimateBet sponsored this tournament series.
This show was based on a new tourney format called Elimination Blackjack. Invented by 1994 WSOP champ Russ Hamilton, Elimination Blackjack sees players systematically eliminated throughout a tourney.
Rubin and actor Matt Moralejo commentated on the events. Playboy Playmate Nikki Ziering and Miss USA Shandi Finnessey performed sideline reporting.
This TV show gained traction in its first season due to heavy marketing by UB. However, it lost popularity in the second season and folded.
What Was the Promise of TV Blackjack?
It’s no coincidence that televised blackjack tournaments launched around the same time that poker was booming. In fact, UltimateBet’s success in poker helped them sponsor the Ultimate Blackjack Tour.
These tourneys seemingly combined many of the same elements that made poker famous. They featured famous gamblers, celebrity players, skill, and serious prize money.
UltimateBet even took their efforts to capitalize on poker further with Elimination Blackjack. This tournament format is a combination of blackjack and Texas hold’em.
TV blackjack tourneys didn’t take off the way that producers wanted. But nobody can blame them for trying when considering that this game seemingly offers much of what poker does.
Reasons Why Televised Blackjack Failed
Blackjack tournaments on TV failed for multiple reasons. You can see the biggest factors behind these tourneys going off-air below.
Many Viewers Assumed Blackjack Tournaments Were Difficult
Blackjack and Texas hold’em are both fairly easy games to learn. But the latter seems easier in a tournament format.
Texas hold’em doesn’t feature Knockout Cards, Burger King Power Chips, or other novelties. Instead, it just has two hold cards, betting rounds, and the community cards.
However, appearances are everything. Many viewers felt like blackjack tourneys were above their heads.
The Poker Boom Died
The rise of TV blackjack tournaments had many similarities with the poker boom, which ran from 2003 to 2006.
Televised blackjack’s boom roughly coincides with poker’s biggest growth period. TV tourneys began running in early 2004 and stopped running by late 2006.
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) went into effect in 2006. This law bans online gambling businesses from taking payments from states where doing so is explicitly illegal.
Many payment processors and banks stopped serving the US internet gaming market following the UIGEA’s passage. Online poker sites that banked on American customers struggled in the aftermath.
TV Blackjack tourneys had a close association with poker tournaments from the beginning (e.g. UltimateBet). Already on shaky ground, they were doomed when the UIGEA ended the poker boom.
House Banked Blackjack Is Far More Popular
House-banked blackjack has been a popular casino game for centuries. It still remains one of the most-played table games in casinos.
Millions of people around the world play blackjack in casinos. Only a small percentage of gamblers play tournaments.
For whatever reason, the general population isn’t interested in blackjack tournaments. They’re fine with taking on the dealer and trying to overcome a small house edge.
Can Televised Blackjack Tournaments Ever Rise Again?
Blackjack tourneys on television came and went in the mid-2000s. They haven’t resurfaced on TV ever since 2006.
The potential is still there for viewer-friendly tournament blackjack. The only question is if anybody would ever put the work into maximizing this potential.
The original push for TV blackjack events was a bust. WSOB is the only show that lasted beyond two seasons. The World Blackjack Tour didn’t even make it past the pilot.
Blackjack tournaments were introduced on television amid the poker boom. GSN, which had so much success with poker shows, rolled the dice on TV blackjack at the time.
At best, they’d have a perfect complement to Texas hold’em tournaments. At worst, these events would quickly flame out.
Tournament blackjack ended up somewhere in between. Shows like WSOB and Celebrity Blackjack Showdown were popular enough to survive for multiple seasons.
The televised blackjack era was an interesting side note to the poker boom. However, no producers will revisit this concept now that the boom euphoria is long gone.
Blackjack tournaments offer a fun way to enjoy blackjack in a different manner. Some people enjoy playing these events at land-based and online casinos.
However, blackjack tourneys never proved quite as fruitful for television producers. They caught on to some degree but fizzled out after a few years.
These tournaments may have been inspired by poker’s success. But they don’t contain enough poker elements to be a great compliment to Texas hold’em tourneys.
Nevertheless, certain TV shows did have good runs. WSOB ran for four seasons, while Celebrity Blackjack and the Ultimate Blackjack Tour lasted for two seasons.
Viewers eventually tuned out, though. Many felt that the format and skill level needed to succeed in blackjack tourneys was above their heads.
Additionally, players have long been satisfied with standard blackjack. They’re perfectly fine living out their gambling dreams via the house-banked version.
Blackjack tourneys are still readily available today. You’ll have no trouble finding one of these tournaments if you’re interested in playing. Just don’t expect to be able to watch these events on TV ever again.