Pros Play Blackjack

Poker pros turn their hands to anything – but Blackjack’s a whole different card game

The Blackjack players won, but that’s to be expected.

These days there is lots of competition for the attention of poker players: marketing meetings, promotional events, TV shows and even the occasional cash game. But when the folks behind Ultimate Blackjack Tour began courting players for a freeroll with a prize pool in excess of $1m, it certainly got their attention. For a week in October, poker’s elite – Phil Hellmuth, Annie Duke, Mike Matusow – turned up to play in this invitational Blackjack tournament at the Hyatt Regency Lake Las Vegas resort. The inducement was this: Win or place at two of the Hyatt’s tables and you advance to the finals in Los Angeles where the winner will receive $300,000.

Blackjack tournaments, still a fairly esoteric form of gambling, work like this: Everybody at the table starts with $25,000 in chips, you must bet between $500 and $25,000 on each of the 30 hands that get dealt. After the 8th, 16th and 25th hands the player with the fewest chips at each table goes out. A betting button moves around the green felt, transforming Blackjack into a competitive game of position and money management. There is one secret bet and the two leading players at each table move on to the next level.

No Win, No Risk

The poker pros took to this right away. True to form, Phil ‘Unabomber’ Laak coffee-housed and Phil ‘Poker Brat’ Hellmuth strutted around with a superior air. Mike ‘The Mouth’ Matusow clearly retained all of his poker table bravado as he busted balls and ogled girls.

Big-talking Matusow failed to make the cut, but other poker players – Antonio ‘The Magician’ Esfandiari, Dewey Tomko, Jennifer Tilly and Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott among them – handily advanced to Los Angeles. So, considering the success of the Hold’em studs (and one stud-ette), it led me to wonder what poker players can learn from Blackjack tournaments. ‘It hones your position-playing skills,’ says Blair Rodman, a former Blackjack pro who, in the first 10 months of 2005, won more than $500,000 on the poker tournament circuit. ‘Because you’re forced to play every hand in Blackjack, you have to manoeuvre around bad positions via betting.’

Rodman, author of the just published Kill Phil – a beginners’ guide to making it in tournament poker – believes poker players can benefit by learning to think more hands ahead than they are used to doing. He agrees with Russ Hamilton (winner of the 1994 WSOP Main Event and a key organiser of this Blackjack event) about the need to be aggressive – especially if outclassed by the card-and-chip number crunchers at your table. ‘Poker players made big bets and played in an aggressive manner in Vegas – it worked,’ says Hamilton. ‘But once they got to L.A. they froze. They didn’t make the big bets and none of them beat their tables. The Blackjack players won, but that’s to be expected.’

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