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Tournament Blackjack and the Art of Sabotage

I was recently invited to play in the Daily Invitational Blackjack Tournament at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. Tournament blackjack differs a great deal from the regular version, and my tournament strategy would - at best - be considered a work-in-progress. I've played in a few in the past, though, and had a lot of fun time and again, so I headed up to 'The Woods' for the day.

Their tournament structure is pretty straight-forward. Each player begins each round with 5,000 in tournament chips, and a preliminary round is played. If a player has the most chips at their table after 25 hands he advances to the semifinals. In the semis, the player with the most chips after 25 hands goes to the final table. At the final table everyone's in the money; the player with the most chips after 25 more hands would win $5,000 in cash.

I had just barely squeaked by in the preliminary round to win my session. Me and two other players were neck-neck-and-neck going into the final few hands. One of the ladies I was up against busted out with one hand to go, while I got a blackjack on my big bet, pulling me ahead with a decent chip lead. It came down to my opponent going all-in and needing to win her hand to beat me out for the session.

She had a hard 14 against a dealer's ace - big trouble. She had practically no choice but to hit as I helplessly stood there holding my breath. I chant to myself, "Break! Break! Break," and the dealer delivered my opponent the news. Nine. Game over.

I was the only finisher for that session with about 2,700 in chips. A pretty ugly session all in all, but a win's a win. That session was the kind of nail-biter that left me tingling all over, and it's that rush that brings be back with every invite they send me. That, and the fact that they tend to draw spectators is pretty nice, too!

My semifinal round would turn out to be the most memorable. It seems I wasn't quite done with the ugly winning just yet.

Many tournament strategists recommend players start out conservatively for the round. Most of us weren't very conservative, but we weren't very aggressive, either. I started betting 700-900 a hand and cards were going my way the first several hands. Blackjacks were dropping right in front of me, and got some really good double down hands. I just went with the flow, and before long I had a lead of about 4,000 on the nearest contender. The other players had some catching up to do, so at this point, I decided to try for a little fun, hopefully at my opponents' expense.

I started to play low - betting smaller than the others with the hope that everyone loses the hand. I bet the minimum of 100 while the others went for 1000-1500 to catch up to me. It wasn't so much about me winning or losing the hand since I only bet 100. If the other players lost, it would increase my chip lead. One hand I had a hard 16 versus the dealer's 6. In a regular live game, of course, no one would EVER even think of touching the hand. I decided to hit - amid gasps and groans from the other contestants, of course - and busted with 26.

It turns out, that just as I was hoping, I 'took the dealer's bust card' and 'sabotaged' the hand. If I left my hand alone like I very well should have, the dealer would've broke and everyone would've won. Instead she drew to 20 and everyone lost. My opponents were clearly rattled and a sea of dirty looks shot my way.

Next hand, I got an 11 against a 6. Again, I had a 100 bet so I was more focused on the others losing. I didn't double down the hand. I didn't even hit the hand. I decided to stay on the 11. The ensuing Jack that was meant for me helped the dealer make a tidy 21. Everyone lost again, and all of a sudden I had a 9,000 point chip lead. Everyone is now furious!

I had such a large chip lead at that point, I practically cruised through the rest of the session. I won the session by 11,000 points and made it to the final table, but not before getting a tongue lashing from one of my opponents.

"I've never seen anyone play the way you did."

"What? Are you talking about that 'sixteen versus six' hand?"

"Yeah. That was really, really nasty. Really nasty! You don't play much, do you?"

"Oh, I play all the time."

"You'd get beaten up [at the regular tables] if you played like that."

"Of course I would. I would never play like that regularly."

From there she went into this whole sob story about "doing these tournaments to have a good time" and that I "ruined the fun for her."

"Look, this is a tournament. A tournament that's paying five grand in cash money to the winner! So, I did what I had to do to win, and now I'm off to the finals. Trust me, it was nothing personal."

In all fairness, let me stress that the 'sabotage' tactic doesn't really work, at least not in the long run. Any reputable blackjack player knows a 'saboteur' is just as likely to hurt the table than he is to help it. A sad fact of the matter is that the average blackjack player is bogged down in superstition - 'taking the dealer's bust card' is just one of dozens of them - so the whole idea of sabotaging hands is merely a psychological trick.

If you play low and try to rattle 'the flow of the cards' (I'll go into 'card flow' and all the other blackjack superstitions at another time) more often than not one of two things will happen. You 'save' the table with your bad play, and your opponents will think "OK, he's an idiot, but I'm not mad at him because he made me win." Or, if you kill the table, you're right where you want to be - inside your opponents' heads.

An observation I've made through several years at the tables is that anger and frustration can rattle even the most disciplined player. Many times - as was the case with my opponents this particular day - this causes them to bet more aggressively than they probably should, and make riskier double down plays and splits to offset your earlier 'mistake,' which usually paves the way to self-destruction. On the last hand that sealed the fate of my nearest rival in the semis, She doubled down a 7 against a dealer's 7 and lost it all.

If a down-and-dirty approach to gambling is your cup of tea, perhaps you should give this strategy a shot.

In case you were wondering, I went on to finish in 5th place for the tournament.

Until next time, best of luck to you in the casinos, and in life.

Shawn Tinling runs 21 Nights Entertainment (http://www.21nights.com), a casino entertainment and events company in New York City. He's an avid player and full-time casino events dealer.

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