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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 2)

At first glance, Anthony Curtis just seems to be a wiry, intense, fast-talking publisher of some of the world's most enlightening books on gambling. His company, Huntington Press, can help you get the edge on everything from casino comps to poker machine probabilities. Less obvious at first glance is that Curtis was once among the world's most successful blackjack players. He made a lot of money counting cards against casinos and won more than half a million dollars over several years on the blackjack tournament circuit. The winnings provided seed money for his company. "I became so well known," he says, "that the days of my walking into a casino and acting like a square were over. I decided I could make more money in publishing than in gambling."

Nevertheless, when Curtis sees a good gambling proposition, it's impossible for him to resist. For that reason, he's ponying up $1,000 to join 139 other players in the next day's blackjack tournament at the Vegas Hilton. Seven players sit at a table and each receives $5,000 in tournament chips. The object is to finish 28 hands with the most or second-most money in order to advance to the next stage of competition (there are four rounds, culminating with a final match in which seven players compete for slices of $57,500 in prize money). In addition, the top 16 finishers in each of the Hilton's 12 monthly tournaments will get a seat at next April's $1 million finale. It's the latter possibility, naturally, that has brought Curtis out of a six-year tournament hiatus.

Though Curtis is a skilled card counter, he realizes that counting works only in the very long term and makes a player's strategy completely transparent in a tournament. Tournament play requires sound betting strategies and money management. Because the idea of the Hilton tournaments is to finish first or second (finishing third is as good as finishing last), a hard-charging approach is often required. "If you have chips left and don't advance, you made a mistake," says Stanford Wong, author of the must-read Casino Tournament Strategy and an early partner and backer of Curtis's. "It's like being in a gunfight and having bullets left at the end."

One of Wong's big breakthroughs was the realization that you can be a slow-playing underdog going into the late rounds of a tournament and put yourself into first place with a single bet. Emphasizing this fact, Curtis remembers a tournament he played at the Aladdin. "The table was going wild," he recounts. "People were winning, winning, winning. But they were all squares, betting like mad, and I knew that I could wait. These guys had so much money and they laughed at me because I kept betting the minimum. Then, with seven hands to go, I put up my entire stack and won the bet. Suddenly, I was ahead by $200. They looked at me with wide eyes and I was, like, ëHi, here I am.' They spent all tournament working so hard to accumulate chips and I pulled ahead with a single bet."

Talented as Curtis is, he acknowledges that luck plays a huge role in blackjack tournaments and that, thanks to books by guys like Wong, the public has gotten wise to tournament strategies. "What I'll try to do tomorrow is build a lead early on," says Curtis, as he finishes a salmon dinner he has barbecued on his grill behind his sprawling house 20 minutes west of the Strip. "I know how to maximize a lead, using money as a club to beat down the other players. Plus, if I fail to build that lead and lose money in the process, I know how to come back from a dismal situation. When you get down to a certain point, you don't cut your money into small portions. That's the big mistake that the average man makes. You get to a point where you have to put everything in at once. It's the most efficient way to get back into contention. Tomorrow, you will either see me with a big stack of chips, playing against the others in a calculated way, or else you will see me all in. If I'm a big dog and need to double my bankroll, I'll take a one-time shot."

The following morning, 10 blackjack tables are sequestered behind velvet ropes. Seventy contestants mill around and wait for the cards to fly (the first round is broken into two flights). Most noticeable among the contestants is Wong, the lanky, gray-haired blackjack guru, dressed like a tourist in knee-length shorts and sneakers. "One thing I'll have to do is gauge how skillful my opponents are," says Wong, emphasizing that tournament blackjack is more dynamic, and more complex, than simply playing against the house. "You have to continually reevaluate skill levels. If you see somebody who doesn't know how to play basic strategy, you can be sure he's never read a tournament book. Plus, I need to figure out where the puck [a plastic disk that moves from player to player as the betting position shifts] will be on the last hand. I might have to be more aggressive if I have the worst betting position. And that position can drastically change once people start to bust out."

As players begin filtering toward the tables, settling in for an open hand of five-card stud that will establish each person's starting position, Wong warns that he might pull an oddball maneuver. "If you do something wild with a small bet, and it encourages other people to play crazy, with larger bets, well, that can be a good thing," he says. "The best thing for me would be if everybody at the table bet wildly. Otherwise, I'll need to make some big [and risky] bets to get the lead."

Play begins slowly, with nobody doing quite what Wong had hoped. Checking out the action, Jimmy Wike, the Hilton's vice president of casino operations, points out that April's $1 million showdown will represent the biggest payout in blackjack tournament history. "I've invited everybody to this tournament," he says. "I want card counters, people with good card awareness, the best blackjack players in the world. There's one gentleman, an excellent card counter, a man I've known for years. He advanced to the semifinals and into the $1 million tournament by hitting a hard 18. Under no circumstances would you ever do that against a dealer. But he knew it was the only way to win enough money to advance. He doubled down and was fortunate enough to catch a deuce."

Such fortune does not smile on Wong. Never mind that the people at his table recognize his name and are thrilled to be playing with an acknowledged tournament master; he can't pull the necessary wins. In the game's late rounds, having fallen behind, Wong doubles down with 11 and draws a 5 while the dealer hits her way to 21. He goes all in on the 26th round and loses. He gets up from the table and shrugs. "I did the right thing by busting out, even though I didn't advance," says Wong, not seeming particularly vexed. "I got full value for my chips."

During the second shift of the first round, things begin auspiciously for Anthony Curtis. His position-setting poker hand is an aces-over-jacks full house. He complains that all his luck has been used up in that virtually worthless deal, but nevertheless he wins the first four out of five hands. By the 12th hand, however, Curtis's chip count is fairly decimated. "This is pretty classic," he says, rolling his eyes and acting nonchalant. "I had a chance to take a big lead and
didn't [because the cards failed to come up]." The dealer shuffles her six decks and he adds, "But it hasn't hurt me too badly."

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."

 

Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.

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