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Gaming: The Million-Dollar Carrot

At the monthly Hilton blackjack tournament, winning is a hit-or-miss proposition
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
10th Anniversary Issue, Nov/Dec 02

(continued from page 1)

Nor does it hurt him when he bets less than everyone else and the dealer deals herself a 20 to beat the entire table -- underscoring the reality that losing less than the other players can be as good as winning. By making small bets and getting decent cards, Curtis manages to drift up to $6,000 in chips. He's either the leader or pretty damn close. He bets $1,000 and gets dealt a 10, a perfect doubling-down opportunity against the dealer's low card. He draws badly and she beats him, knocking him back to $4,000. But again he manages to rebuild his stake, so that by the 25th hand, he's got $5,350. But it's not enough to smooth him into first or second place. He tries to amend that by betting $1,600 on the 26th hand. He loses. Then on the next hand, he goes all in with the remaining $3,750 -- and loses again.

Beaten by Lady Luck, Curtis leaves the table, considerably less sanguine than Stanford Wong had been. "I had three shots to get where I wanted and I lost every one," he groans. "The opportunities came and there's nothing I could have done differently." After vowing to return for next month's tournament, he cracks, "This game sucks. And you can quote me on that."

Emitting a very different vibe, fresh from completing his first round, is Jeff Blenkarn, a short, puffy-chested guy from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Blenkarn is an early-retired publishing consultant who's played a few tournaments and is thrilled to have made the initial cut on this one. Feeling pretty cocky (and looking the part in a floral-print shirt), he asks, "Do you want to interview me now or later?"

He's making the point that he's an obvious shoo-in to win the tournament and, despite Anthony Curtis's insistence that "any square can win one of these things as long as he gets cards and bets aggressively," I laugh off Blenkarn's bravado.

A few hours later, though, Blenkarn gets the last laugh. He's sitting at the final table, guaranteed a seat in the $1 million event and now competing for today's first prize of $20,000. "Whatever happens at this table," he tells me, smiling, "my big thing was to make it into the million-dollar tournament."

Despite their cool exteriors, Blenkarn and the other finalists obsessively crook their necks to count opponents' chips and painstakingly think through every move. Emotionally vested spectators stand
six-deep behind the tables, looking up at strategically placed mirrors so they can watch the action reflected above.

By the 26th hand, the chip leader is a mellow, short-haired guy named Charles David, who cut his teeth in tournament action near his Oklahoma home. To catch him, Blenkarn must bet big. He puts half his stack at risk, gets an 11 to the dealer's 7, and considers doubling down before thinking better of it and taking a hit. It gets him up to 17 and the dealer goes over. Now he and David are neck and neck. When David bets big on the next hand, Blenkarn takes another page from the Stanford Wong book and bets the minimum, trusting that David is likelier to lose than Blenkarn is to win. The dealer gets a blackjack and Blenkarn looks like a supersmart guy.

By the final hand, however, Blenkarn is ahead of David by just three chips. David needs to bet first and he puts up $1,700; Blenkarn matches the wager. For David to win the tournament, one of three things needs to happen: he wins and Blenkarn loses; he pushes and Blenkarn loses; he wins and Blenkarn pushes. When David is dealt a 10 to Blenkarn's 13, David looks like a favorite. He considers doubling down, which would be a decisive move, takes a couple of hits instead, and comes up with 21. Blenkarn, now looking like a total underdog with his rotten 13, draws a 7. Players and onlookers hold their breath as the dealer takes a mandatory hit -- if she gets 20 or 21, David wins; anything else, he loses -- and goes over.

Tracking the chips so closely that he doesn't need to get a final count to know the outcome, Jeff Blenkarn emits an Austin Powers-ish "Yeah, Baby!"

An hour later, his biggest decision is whether to take his $20,000 in chips, cash or check (he wisely opts for the last). Over beers in a Hilton lounge, he acknowledges that chip counting was key. Realizing that a tiny mistake would have cost him the top prize, he modestly says, "I'm going to play local tournaments and practice counting for April. That's the thing for me to do right now."

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