Blackjack tournaments transform a game that never ends into a fascinating contest between the players themselves. Bet smarter than your opponents to build the biggest stack and you could come away with a 1st prize far bigger than anything you would have won in a regular game.
So how do blackjack tournaments work, and what skills do you need to succeed? In this beginner’s guide to blackjack tournaments, I’ll explain the basic rules of common blackjack tournament formats, how the game differs to your garden-variety blackjack and share some strategy tips to help you lift your first trophy.
What is a blackjack tournament?
Blackjack tournaments still involve playing blackjack against the dealer at a regular table, but that’s where the similarities end. The most important thing to remember is that blackjack tournaments aren’t about playing cards. They’re all about betting and managing your stack size.
When you play regular blackjack, you buy your cash chips from the casino, pull up a chair and choose how much you want to bet on each hand. You can start and finish whenever you like, and take your time over each decision. It doesn’t really matter how other people at the table play, and whether they win or lose.
So how does a blackjack tournament work? In a tournament format, 1 or more tables of players play hands against the dealer but compete against each other to win prize money based on an eventual finishing position that is usually determined by the size of their stack. Let’s look at a typical blackjack tournament structure.
We start with 3 full tables of 7 players (a field of 21 players). Everyone starts with 1,000 chips and plays 20 hands. At the end of those 20 hands, the 2 players with the most chips at each table advance to the final table, where we repeat the process for 30 hands. In this event, the players with the 3 biggest stacks win a prize. The winner will get the biggest share of the prize pot, 2nd place getting the next biggest prize, and 3rd place the smallest prize.
Because the size of your stack after Round 1 determines who makes it to the final table, the betting decisions your tablemates make and the size of their stacks become by far the most important factors. It also means the Basic Blackjack Strategy is no longer the perfect way to play every hand. To win tournaments, you’ll need to accumulate more chips than your opponents, or survive while they fall by the wayside. And that often means making bets and playing your hand in ways that break fundamental Basic Strategy rules.
But how do you know when to follow Basic Strategy, and when to ignore it? That all comes down to the rules of the tournament you’ve entered.
Blackjack tournament rules
Although there are several different types of blackjack tournament, the basic rules of online blackjack tournaments are the same. From what kind of chips you play with to how you win a prize, knowing the rules of any tournament you enter is absolutely critical if you want to have a better chance of bagging some cash.
Entry and prize structure
Instead of betting your own cash on each hand, you pay a single entry fee and get the same stack of tournament chips as everyone else. Just like in poker tournaments, these chips have no cash value, which is why some call them funny money. They’re just the way we keep score during the game.
Knowing the rules for how you advance to the final table is essential, but so is knowing what prizes are paid out. Here’s a typical tournament prize structure.
If you entered this tournament but hadn’t looked at the prize structure, you will not know (as every other player will) to play carefully with 5 players left, or you risk busting out ‘on the bubble’, the last place before the money.
Tables and seats
The casino running the blackjack tournament will randomly draw your seat and table number, to ensure the game is fair. As you’ll discover, where you are sat can give you a big advantage in the final hand of the event.
Rounds and hands
Blackjack tournaments are usually played in rounds, with players eliminated after each round. In each round, you will all play the same number of hands.
Order of play and position
In a regular non-tournament blackjack game, the dealer will always deal to the player in seat 1 first, then clockwise around the table. Unless you are counting cards, there is no benefit to playing last. But that is not true of blackjack tournaments.
When you act last, you get to see how much your opponents choose to bet, and then use that information to inform your own bet size. Acting first is a tricky situation as you have no information about how much your opponents will bet. So to ensure that everyone gets their chance, blackjack tournaments use a button, just like in Texas Hold’em poker, which moves one place round the table after every hand.
Although there is, strictly speaking, no time limit in a standard cash blackjack hand, the dealer will usually give you a nudge if you take too long. In tournaments, there will be a strict time limit, for example 25 seconds, and in some rounds, that might be reduced to 10 seconds. In that time, you’ll need to assess the size of your own stack and your opponents’ stacks, be aware of how much the players before you have bet, and use all of that information to pick your own bet size.
Blackjack tournaments have a minimum and maximum bet limit for each round. This stops players from spoiling the game by betting too aggressively i.e. betting their entire stack every hand, or playing too conservatively by betting no chips at all. You can bet anything between the min and the max, but you must make a bet. The minimum bet size may increase as the rounds progress, which applies pressure on players to accumulate the biggest stack they can, helps to eliminate players and progress the tournament.
Bet sizing is all about risk and reward. If you have the biggest stack with one hand to go and no other player is within a max bet of you, then bet the minimum, as betting more will unnecessarily risk someone overtaking you. If you are far behind with a few hands to go and need to play catch-up, several max bets in a row (and even some hyper aggressive doubling down) may be the only way to overtake your opponent.
Not considering other stacks at the table and how they are betting is one of the biggest blackjack mistakes you can make.
Busting out and re-entry
In general, once you have run out of chips, you are eliminated from the tournament immediately. In some early rounds, there may be a rebuy or re-entry rule that means you can pay the entry again and get a fresh stack of chips. It’s important to know before you enter if it’s a freezeout (one entry only) or a rebuy tournament, as it can affect how you and your opponents will play.
How to win
The tournament structure is easily the most important factor to consider when entering or playing a blackjack event, as it tells you what you need to do to win a cash prize. Here’s how the rules differ in the main types of blackjack tournament:
Elimination / Survivor – A multi-table tournament where most players are eliminated at the end of each round, and either the top 1 or top 2 go through to the next round. At the final table, everyone usually wins a prize and they are awarded by stack size.
Accumulation – These are usually timed tournaments where no one is eliminated unless they lose their entire stack, and the prizes are awarded to the players who have accumulated the most chips by the time the tournament ends.
Sit & Go – These are shorter, single-table events involving 6 or 7 players, where the winner is the player with the biggest stack at the end of a set amount of hands.
Blackjack tournament strategy
When you play blackjack for cash, every hand is an isolated moment. All you can do is follow Basic Strategy and the rest is down to luck. Win, lose or draw, you always know the next hand is a fresh start.
Your stack size is never important because you can add or remove chips between hands. As long as you practice good bankroll management, no single hand of blackjack should ever really matter.
None of that is true of tournament blackjack. To understand why tournaments demand different skills and discover how to win a blackjack tournament, it helps to really see the difference between regular cash tables and tournaments.
Because of the risk of elimination, tournament blackjack is very different. You’ll need to use a combination of basic strategy and tournament strategy, but you’ll often find yourself in situations where tournament strategy overrides Basic Strategy advice. There are many classic books about complex blackjack tournament strategy that teach you how to play in a blackjack tournament, but these 5 tips are a good starting place for anyone who is at the very beginning of their tournament journey.
1. Rules rule
What are the bet limits? How many players progress form each table? When are stacks counted? These can be different from one tournament to the next, and without knowing what you’re up against, you’re relying on blind luck to win.
2. Count stacks
At any moment in a blackjack event, you must always know how many chips you’ve got, how many chips your opponents have and what the stacks will be if they win, push or lose. It sounds like you have to be Rain Man, but it’s easier than you think, and comes with practice. Knowing stack sizes will help you decide when to bet bigger, bet smaller or bet exactly the same as your nearest opponent.
3. Know when to go high, low, or correlate
Adapting your bet size to fit the situation is the number one skill in tournament blackjack. Unless you are the chip leader, you and everyone else at the table will spend most of their time trying to ‘go high’, or bet an amount which, even if others at the table win their hand, means you will become the chip leader.
There are times when, as the chip leader, you just need to bet the same (or correlate) as your nearest opponent, so they cannot overtake you unless you lose your hand and they win theirs.
The third betting strategy is called going low, which means you are hoping that everyone loses, including you! If all of your opponents are going high (or betting the maximum), you should calculate what their stacks will be if they lose, and pick a smaller bet size that ensures that if the dealer beats the table (including you), your remaining chips will be bigger than everyone else’s. Betting to lose is a strange tactic but given the number of times the dealer hits a strong hang, it’s a cunning tactic especially if you are acting last and your opponents won’t be aware of your intention.
4. Respect position
At various points during every tournament, you will be first to act. Early on, it won’t make life too difficult as everyone is trying to simply build their stack. But if you’re one of the first to act on the last hand of any round or the last hand of the entire tournament, you’re at a huge disadvantage and should therefore be more proactive by playing more aggressively in the hands leading up to it, where you due to act last or close to last.
5. Know when Basic Strategy won’t work
It’s a given that you need to know how to play blackjack, and to know Basic Strategy, in order to play well in a blackjack tournament. But that will only get you so far, and competent blackjack players who have never played a blackjack tournament are often shocked by the decisions they see that break the most sacred rules of basic strategy. Here’s one of the most frequent situations you’ll encounter.
It’s the last hand of the round and to advance to the final table, you’ll need to have the biggest stack at the table. You are 2 max bets behind the leader, who makes the minimum bet to defend her lead. You obviously need to bet the maximum, but even if you win, you will still come up short. You are dealt 19 against a dealer’s 8. If this was a cash game, Basic Strategy says you should always stand. But in order to have any chance to win, you must double down! Doubling on 19 seems suicidal, and yes, you will lose most of the time. But you have a small chance to draw a 2 or Ace and have a shot at winning the round, and that Hail Mary is your only chance to win.
Tournament blackjack is full of scenarios where you’ll need to do something different to the norm, so the real skill in becoming a good tournament player is recognising how the format changes the way you play and making better bet size decisions than your opponents.
With enough luck, anyone can win a blackjack tournament, but if you pay attention to rules about advancing, and to everyone’s stack sizes, you’ve got a solid foundation to build on.