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Blackjack Insider Newsletter, May 2003, #40


By Henry Tamburin

In about 30 minutes it was over. I lost on the last hand in the first round of the Las Vegas Hiltonís Million Dollar Blackjack Tournament to a fellow player that doubled down on hard 14 and drew a 7 for a 21. He advanced in the historic tournament and I was left to ponder what could have been.

This was certainly an exciting event, the first of its kind where a casino gave away a cool million dollars (lump sum) to one winner of a blackjack tournament. It turned out the million dollars went to Mr. Edward Rhoades, a New Jersey grandfather who hadnít played in a tournament since the 1970ís (he won several blackjack and craps tournaments back then). This time he hit the mother load.

The folks at the Las Vegas Hilton, specifically Mr. Jimmy Wike, V.P. of Operations and the brains behind this tournament, took a risk last year to launch this tournament with a guaranteed million dollar prize especially when early-on the number of participants were below expectation. But Wike stuck to his guns to give away the million and once the publicity spread about the tournament, the monthly satellite tournaments eventually filled to capacity.

The format involved 12 monthly tournaments where up to 200 contestants paid a $1,000 entry fee to play for a chance to make it to the million dollar final round. Each monthly tournament had itís own prize structure ($57,500 in prizes with $20,000 for first place). But the real plump in the monthlies was to advance to the semi-final round where you automatically received an invitation to the finals and a shot at the million dollars.

The tournament was elimination style, which meant two players from each table with the most money after 30 hands advanced to the next round to play other table winners. The process is repeated until you wind up with 7 players playing for the top prize.

I got my chance at the million by competing in February 2003 and making it to the semi-final round. Part of my good fortune however was due to dumb luck. The Hilton has a unique wild card drawing as part of their tournament format. If you lose a round your name goes into a drum and if your name is randomly selected you get another chance to play. Luckily my name was selected after I lost in the first round. I was re-entered into the tournament and managed to become a semi-finalist, which automatically gave me entry into the finals.

The Million Dollar final round began with a wild card drawing. About 400 or so players who had lost in previous monthlies were assembled for a shot at being one of only nine players selected at random to be re-entered into the finals. One of the lucky winners was non-other than blackjack guru Stanford Wong, author of the classic book Casino Tournament Strategy and mentor to many tournament players (myself included). Stanford told me the only reason that he entered the tournament was for a story being written about him for a magazine (howís that for luck).

I selected to play the first round the following morning at 11:00am. My strategy was to get the lead going into the final hand and I came close Ė I was in second place slightly behind the table leader after we completed the 29th hand. But I had a big dilemma - I had to bet first on the last hand, which puts me at a disadvantage compared to my fellow table players who bet after me.

To make a long story short I was dealt an 18 on the last hand and the dealer showed a small card. I felt good with 18 and after sizing up what the other players had bet I stood. At that point I thought I had a shot at finishing second high, which is OK because the top two table winners advance. But one of my fellow players, who played after me and was dealt a hard 17, carefully analyzed the situation and figured that his only shot at beating me was to double down and hope he won the hand. Ditto for the next player who doubled down on a hard 14. And would you believe the player with a hard 17 drew a 3 for a 20 and the one with hard 14 drew a 7 for 21. I knew I was in deep trouble after these two miracle draws. The dealer subsequently drew to a three-card 20 and beat me. The player with the 20 pushed but the fellow who lucked out with the 21 ended up in second place, beating me by $500.

Why did these players double down with 14 and 17? That certainly isnít a play you would make in a regular blackjack game. But these were smart tournament players. They knew that their only chance to end up with more chips then me was to double down and hope they won the last hand. They had the advantage on the last hand because they bet last. The strategy worked for one of the players (the one that drew the 7 for 21) and that was the end of the tournament for me.

I enjoyed the camaraderie and excitement of the tournament plus I had the chance to meet and talk to many players who recognized me from my books and articles (we wore name tags). Jimmy Wike had declared me, several other blackjack gurus that were playing in the finals as "tournament favorites" (Anthony Curtis, Stanford Wong, Ken Smith) but none of us made it past the second round. Even though skill is important, luck has a lot to do with your outcome in a tournament that is based on a relatively small number of hands.

An interesting aside was what happened to my friend Anthony Curtis (publisher of Las Vegas Advisor newsletter and owner of Huntington Press). He was providing on-camera analysis of the final 28 hands for the Travel Channel (they filmed the championship round for a TV special). Anthony with headset was positioned on the floor behind the players so he could observe and narrate every one of the 28 hands that were dealt the final round. It turns out that Anthony had an agreement to split winnings with two other friends and one of them, Blair Rodman, was one of the seven contestants playing for the million dollars. Rodman was only 28 hands from wining a million dollars and Anthony got to witness his fate unfold while narrating the hands to millions of viewers. According to Anthony, "Blair played beautifully but the cards didnít come. He was forced to bet it all on hand 21 and lost. This was nerve-wracking. Can you imagine how I felt calling his last hand for television."

This was a first rate tournament and I applaud Jimmy Wike, Les Thacker and the rest of the staff at the Las Vegas Hilton for a job well done. Million Dollar Blackjack Tournament II begins with the first qualifying round on May 8-10 followed by 11 consecutive monthlies. The final championship round is scheduled for May 2004 where another player will walk away with one million dollars. Iíll be entering again and perhaps Iíll see you in the finals next year.


Note: Thanks to Ken Smith ( and Rick Jensen ( or 1-866-839-8687), I received a copy of the results of the last five hands in the championship round. Hereís how Rhodes won it.

Hand #24

Rhoades had $4,900 worth of chips and was behind three other players who had a $5,650 to $6,300 bankroll. Rhoades bet first and wagered the table minimum $100. The three leaders also bet small between $200-$400. Rhoades busted and lost $100 while two of the leaders won and another surrendered.

Hand #25

Rhoades was still in 4th place. The leaders bet small ($500 to $300). He bet last and made his move, wagering $2,400 (half his bankroll). Rhodes was dealt a 2-8 against dealerís 8 and he doubled down for another $2,400 (essentially betting his whole bankroll). He received a ten on the double down for a 20 and won the hand (the dealer ended up busting). His big $4,800 win pushed him into the lead by $2,850.

Hand #26

The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place players had $6,750, $6,500 and $6,400 bankrolls and they all made big wagers ($2,500, $2,000 and $2,500 respectively) in an attempt to catch Rhoades, who wagered the table minimum ($100). This was the turning point in the championship round because the dealer had a face card and then flipped over an ace for a blackjack. The three players who were trying to catch Rhoades lost a sizeable amount of their bankroll whereas he lost little.

Hand #27

Going in to the next to the last hand Rhoades had a $9,500 bankroll and his closest competitors had $4,500, $4,250, and $3,900. The player with the $4,500 bankroll bet first and wagered virtually his whole bankroll ($4,400). Rhoades wagered next and bet $2,800. The other two players essentially bet their entire bankroll ($4200 and $3800). Rhoades pulled a 20 against the dealerís 6. He won his bet but so did two of his closest competitors making it closer going into the final hand.

Hand #28

Rhoades had $12,300. Only two other competitors had any chips left from the original seven players. One had $8,900 and $7,700. Rhoades with the big lead bet first and wagered $2,500. The player with the $7,700 bankroll bet $3,900 and the other with the $8,900 bankroll bet the maximum, $5,000.

Rhoades was dealt a hard 19 against a dealerís 5 upcard and stood. The player with the $7,700 bankroll doubled down on a pair of 4ís and caught a 10 for 18 which was a smart play and a great draw. The other contestant who bet $8,900 was dealt a Q-6. He could have had a shot at a million if he doubled down but he didnít (he stood on 16). The dealerís downcard was a 4 to go with her 5 and then she drew a face card for 19 and Rhoades is a millionaire.

If you analyze the result of the final five hands that was dealt to Rhoades it was bust (lost small bet), 20 (won a large bet double down), lost to dealerís blackjack (small bet), 20 (won big bet) and 19 (pushed).

Fortunately for Rhoades when he bet big he won (especially the $4,800 double down bet) and when he bet small he lost. Had he lost the $4,800 double down wager (hand 25), he would have been eliminated. Had he bet large when the dealer pulled the blackjack (hand 26) it could have been a different ballgame. Also if the player who wagered the $5,000 on the last hand would have double down on his 16 (his only chance) instead of standing and caught a 4 or 5 he would have won the last hand and ended up with the million dollars instead of Rhoades. Likewise, the other contestant who doubled down on a pair of 4ís on the last hand (he doubled because he didnít have enough chips left to split) and caught the 8 for 18 could have also won the million if the dealer busted or drew to 17. As you can see, strategic playing and betting as well as luck have a lot to do with success in blackjack tournaments.

The Las Vegas Hilton has renewed their $1MM blackjack tournament for 2003/2004 with 12 new monthly preliminary rounds. The first around is May 8-10, 2003 and the finals will be in May 2004. In each preliminary round, the Hilton will be giving away a guaranteed $57,500 in payouts. And if you win your table and make it to the semi-final round, you get the automatic entry into next Mayís final round.

One of the major rule changes made in Million Dollar Blackjack II is the lowering of the maximum bet from $5,000 to $2,500, a good move that makes it more difficult for players to win the table by betting it all on the last hand.

The schedule for the 2003/2004 preliminary and final rounds is:

May 8-10, 2003

June 12-14, 2003

July 10-12, 2003

August 7-9, 2003

Sept. 11-13, 2003

October 9-11, 2003

Nov. 6-8, 2003

Dec. 18-20, 2003

Jan. 15-17, 2004

Feb. 12-14, 2004

March 18-20, 2004

April 8-10, 2004

Finals: May 13-15, 2004


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