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Playing with the Pros

Our intrepid gambling columnist goes head-to-head with some of blackjack's top guns and holds his own
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

(continued from page 1)

As the final and decisive hand is about to be dealt, I am not in great shape. But my situation is far from insurmountable. I step back from the table to make my secret bet and have a couple of options. I can place a minimum wager of, say, $1,000, assume that Brennes will bet $17,000 (to cover my $25,000-max bet if we both win), and go for the low. In that case, if we both lose, I'll finish in second place. But if we both win, I'll be out of the tournament. The thought of hitting a blackjack and still losing this thing bugs me for reasons that are totally nonmathematical. So I let my ego get the best of me and make a maximum bet. Brennes makes his secret bet, while Castellana (who's now got a big stack and had used his secret bet earlier) pushes forward a medium-sized wager that insures he'll be covered for either first or second place. The cards come and Castellana gets an 18, Brennes has 14, I have a pair of 2s and the dealer shows a 7.

I am first to act (which is the worst possible position to be in) and completely unsure of what to do. Split the 2s? That is the perfect basic strategy play. But Brennes's 14 doesn't look too good for him. The dealer's 7, I figure, will force him to hit. With only 20 seconds to calculate a strategy, and woefully unprepared for being in such a situation, I opt not to split and take a hit. The thinking here is that if I split and lose either hand, then things are essentially over. But if I can just make a single, potentially winning hand with the two 2s, well, then Brennes will have to get lucky with his 14.

I scratch the felt and the dealer slides me a 9, which would have been a great card had I split. My heart begins to break a little. Then comes a 2, giving me a total of 15. I feel compelled to hit and draw a picture card. Busted. I curse myself for failing to bet the minimum with Brennes showing a 14. But then he makes a very smart play (which would have decimated my chance to win here, even with a miniscule bet): he surrenders, getting back half of his money and clinching second place with a guaranteed $50,500. So now it is officially over for me. I'm out of the tournament. No playing in L.A. No shot at the big money. No $2,000 guaranteed. Instantly I'm depressed. I become even more so when I run into Ophelia and her card-counting boyfriend at the Hyatt bar. She can't believe that I didn't split. She keeps explaining why it would have been the better move and insists that I had been given a golden opportunity to snag second place.

Then her boyfriend, who's absorbed more than his fair share of bad beats, admonishes her, saying, "The guy feels awful enough already. Give him a break." Maybe he's right, but so is she. To have increased my shot at winning, I needed to do two things: get as much money on the table as possible and pile on the uncertainty. Splitting would have done the former, and doubling down with the subsequent 11 would have accomplished both goals (doubled cards are dealt face down). Then Brennes would have been forced to hit or possibly even double down with 14.

Rick Blaine comes over, hears about the botched move and advises me to shrug it off. "Yeah," he says, "you needed to get more money in there. You should have split. You needed to double down with a lot of hands that you wouldn't normally do it with. But you also have to look at how well you did. You made it a lot further than some of the most experienced players [including Blaine himself]. It was your first tournament and you did great."

"You're not pissed at me?" I ask, feeling as if I've let down someone who put time into teaching me.

"Pissed?" he responds, sounding incredulous. "I'm proud of you, man. You did great."

I feel a little better, still angry with myself for not thinking things through more clearly, but adjusting to the reality of being bounced. Hollywood Dave hears the scenario, and he offers a philosophical response. "You've gotta figure that you used up your karma when you doubled down on the 15. You shouldn't have lived after that hand."

I order a Scotch and drink to karma and my next shot at winning big bucks on the Ultimate Blackjack Tour.

A couple weeks after my inglorious flameout, when the tournament moves to a soundstage at CBS Studios in West Hollywood, I am chagrined to be in the wings instead of at a table. Frankly, I was so outplayed at the Hyatt that I really don't deserve the seat. Nevertheless, the experience in Vegas did serve to immerse me in the ways of tournament blackjack, leaving me with a decent understanding of the game and its strategies.

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