Today and tomorrow nine players will sit down in Las Vegas to compete for the $10 million grand prize in the 2014 World Series of Poker. But gambling in a tournament requires a completely different strategy and mindset than when you’re simply playing against the house. Cigar Aficionado’s gambling guru Michael Kaplan discusses this technique in this feature story from the October 2014 issue of the magazine.
Arguably, there were better ways to invest $1,000. But my friend Danny had been on a rush with sports and I had already won some money for us via a miraculously good run at card counting. Plus he knew that I understood the rudiments of blackjack tournaments. In light of all that, risking a fraction of his recent windfall on a piece of a $150,000 jackpot didn’t seem like a terrible idea.
The casino was putting up a chunk of the prize money and player entry fees covered the rest. In typical tournament style, it worked like this: Six players filled the seats on each of a dozen blackjack tables; everybody began with $2,500 in tournament chips. There were 20 rounds of play. The three players with the most chips at each table advanced to the next level. On ensuing rounds, though, only two advanced from each table, and it went that way until there was just one table left with six players, all vying for a share of $150,000.
Watching me from the rail, Danny didn’t blanch when I surrendered a 17 on the last hand of one round. He did not try to throttle me when I split 10s against the dealer’s 7 at the close of another. Playing for cash, these would have looked like boneheaded plays, but in tournament blackjack they were correct and statistically sound under the specific circumstances. We would have gotten a shot at the jackpot had the dealer’s cards held up at the end. And they should have. His final hand went from 10 to 12 to 16 to 26. He busted and so did I.
Yes, I was hoping for the dealer to win. In that scenario, I would have lost my tiny bet and the guy to my right, with whom I was contending for advancement, would have been hosed for his large one. But then that’s the problem with tournament blackjack dealers: They don’t always win when you want them to.
Such situations unfold often enough that tournaments turn the notion of casino gaming on its head. All gambling tournaments—they go on for everything from baccarat to roulette to craps to blackjack and even slot machines—share the same contrarian goal: You are not trying to beat the dealer or the machine; you’re trying to end up with more chips than the other players. Often, this means surrendering when you normally wouldn’t and hoping for a dealer blackjack. “It’s largely about money management,” says Ken Einiger, author of the blackjack tournament instructional Play to Win and, as you’d hope, winner of multiple blackjack tournaments. “But, at the end of the day—when you decide to double down with a blackjack, because collecting 1.5 times your bet is not enough—you also have to have luck on your side. Or else you won’t win, no matter how well you play.”
While there is no shortage of entry-fee tournaments (usually for blackjack and often taking place in Las Vegas casinos such as Orleans, Palms and Golden Nugget), the most alluring tourneys are the ones that you do not have to pay for. These are invite-only events, with prize pools that go up to $1 million, and are offered to casinos’ best customers, usually on slow weekends when business needs to be generated. “It shows our existing customers that we value them and also helps us to bring in new ones,” says Colleen Birch, vice president of revenue optimization at Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. She’s explaining all this in the casino’s luxe Talon Lounge, where the Scotch is old and the stakes are high. “We recently had a $500,000 winner-take-all baccarat tournament, and it finished right in this room. That generated a lot of excitement. We had people flying here from as far away as Asia.”
Sounds great. How can I get in? “You need a credit line of $100,000 to $250,000 in order to be invited,” Birch replies coolly. What she doesn’t mention or imply is that if your goal is to get invited to one of these tournaments, some games will be less wallet dinging that others. Pai gow poker, for example, moves slowly. So, compared to a session of blackjack or craps, you’ll spend less time actually gambling and playing at a disadvantage while getting credited for the same theoretical loss.
The fact that the tournaments tend to be the purview of high rollers, most of whom gamble as a pricy form of recreation, makes them particularly alluring for professionals who know how to find edges that go far beyond my rudimentary understanding. It’s so juicy, in fact, that a small coterie of advantage players gamble in the pit—at games such as baccarat and especially pai gow poker—playing at disadvantages and knowing that they will lose a percentage of money to the house. But what they get in return are invitations to the so-called free-roll tournaments, where there is nothing but upside for anyone and even more for players who strategize wisely.
Not surprisingly then, casinos do what they can to discourage these somewhat rogue participants. “We’ve done a few things to make it harder for pros to dominate,” says Doug Seidenberg, Bellagio’s senior vice president of marketing. “For one thing, we don’t have 40-round tournaments anymore. Fewer hands make it easier for the regular guests to get lucky.” Also, he adds, “On occasion, depending on a variety of things, we reserve the right to let people in or not let them in.”
One who has felt the wrath of such seemingly arbitrary rules is a tournament pro who likes to call himself S. Yama. He’s the kind of person that everybody at the table should fear. Whether he’s competing at baccarat, keno, blackjack, or even a game as benign as video poker, he carves out an edge. Where video poker is concerned, Yama simply plays faster than anyone else, getting in extra hands over the allotted play period and accumulating more winnings in the process. As much as his presence at a tournament hobbles players, it is also less-than optimal for casino bean counters. Unlike the typical action-hungry Las Vegas denizen, he will not randomly gamble away his tournament windfall. He’ll play just as he would have without it, carefully wagering enough to wangle more invites and losing the bare minimum in the process.
Underscoring his superiority is the fact that Yama is not content to merely finish first in tournaments. “One of my dreams,” he says, “is to win two tournaments in one day. Last year I came second in one casino and [tied for first] in another. I made about $30,000 that day.” Had he won them both, it would have been a six-figure afternoon. Lifetime, says Yama, he’s won around $4 million in tournaments, playing all the games and often invited as a free-rolling guest.
His tournament odyssey began innocently. Yama was counting cards at the old Stardust casino when he heard a roar coming up from a corner of the blackjack pit. Somebody had just won $100,000 in a tournament. He had never heard of blackjack tournaments before, but the seven-figure return captured Yama’s attention. “It took me four years to win my first $100,000 tournament,” he says, acknowledging that he worked hard to get there. “Somebody gave me a printout with statistical analysis based on dealer hands. I read Stanford Wong’s book [Tournament Blackjack] and then I went past Wong’s book. It’s 90 percent optimal, but there is still so much more that you can do in terms of different plays, knowing what will work, correlating between various people.”
For newcomers to tournament strategy, Yama advises measured ballsiness. “The less experienced you are, the more aggressive you should be,” he suggests. “Go all in, and half the time you will bust out and half the time you will double up. Then correlate against me”—that is, make the same bets he makes—“and you will cut my skill edge. You’ll be putting me in a position where I have to get lucky.” For that reason, he adds, “My results are better against average skilled players than they are against aggressive novices. Super conservative only works if you are the best one at the table.”
Since he is usually the alpha, Yama tends to make minimum bets (at blackjack, craps, whatever) until late in the tournament. If there will be 20 rounds of betting, he’ll often hold off on making a move until the 15th round. At that point, several players at the table might have knocked themselves out by losing all their chips. Others will be ahead or behind Yama, but he’ll know what he needs to do to catch up or maintain his lead.
Though most savvy players believe that card counting is worthless for tournaments (over the course of 100 or so hands, your edge would be trivial), Yama thinks otherwise. He uses it in a way that suits tourney play. Gambling for cash in the casino, you’d have the count dictating bets you make and how you play specific hands. Yama calculates his bets based on what he needs to do to end the tournament with more chips than his competitors. “So the card counting is not used for betting,” he says. “But I do use it for playing efficiency, counting cards and keeping a side count of 2s, 7s and aces. It adds a bit to my overall advantage.”
Sometimes, though, sheer intelligence and calculations are not enough to win the day. That’s when Yama might get a little outrageous. During a craps tournament, after an opponent took so long to set down her bets that Yama could not place all of his correlating wagers in time, he shot the dice right off the table. This nervy move was designed to stop play and buy himself precious seconds to finish betting. It resulted in his being forced to sit out rounds and lose the tournament. But he did the one thing he could, desperate though it may have been, to win it.
More optimally, though, Yama uses his knowledge of odds and plays, intuition and chip counting skills (so he knows where he stands in relation to the other players) to outwit opponents. “For me, there is nothing better than craps or roulette tournaments,” says Yama. “Everybody relates to the same outcome. So there’s less luck involved. It’s almost all about money management and strategizing.”
For Yama, roulette is relatively easy. He simply watches the bets being made, figures who he needs to beat and keeps an eye on who he needs to protect himself against. Then he adjusts his wagers accordingly. Others, of course, can do the same thing. Craps, though, with its myriad bets and subtle permutations, presents a way bigger challenge. “I correlate or go against the others, basing my decisions on potential rolls of the dice,” he explains. “I calculate how to beat everybody with the most efficient series of bets. I know the math cold.”
When Yama needs to get ahead, he begins by looking at the 5. “It’s usually the one number that people don’t bet on. They like 6 and 8 because those supposedly give the best odds—but it’s minimal. Plus, 5 is not on the field, and people like to play the field. If the 5 doesn’t work, I often go for the 7 to hit [which ends the roll and results in everyone losing—except the person who bet for it to fall]. Most gamblers do not like to wager on the dark side, but I don’t care. I concentrate my bets on whatever will get me there most efficiently.”
Sometimes, when an opponent gets lucky and Yama needs to catch up, he’ll jeopardize all of his chips on a single roll, taking the kind of outsized risk that few of his fellow competitors would dare. They’re probably having too much fun to risk such a swift bust-out. “Usually, I am playing a different game than the others at the table,” says Yama, speaking in a frank, flat tone. “For me, it’s a game of skill. I think I have played maybe 40 craps tournaments and came first or second in 10 of them. Craps is a crapshoot for most people, but not for me.”
Discuss gambling tournaments with enthusiasts and casino folk, and they emphasize the camaraderie of hanging out with others who enjoy competing at the same game you do, cocktail parties that casinos put on for invited guests and the opportunity to win relatively large sums with little or no money at risk. Anthony Curtis, publisher of Las Vegas Advisor and formerly a professional tournament player of some repute, remembers dating cocktail waitresses he met on the job and says that he’s established relationships that last to this day. “It’s great value for people who want to visit Las Vegas, get lots of action and not put a whole lot at risk,” says Curtis. “These are great for people who want to get a gambling fix with a set loss, which is your buy-in. You get a shot at a big upside, it’s competitive and you can be a thinking player who levels the field for yourself.”
That said, things can get intense and go horribly unexpected, especially when large sums of money hang in the balance. Though casinos have gotten into the habit of putting on winner-takes-all tournaments, Bellagio’s Seidenberg says that there is usually enough cooperation for final-table participants to devise their own chops—that is, a reasonable way to split the winnings so that none of them go home empty handed. But it doesn’t always go so smoothly.
He saw a fistfight once. It broke out during a baccarat tournament when one player tossed a card with a bit too much velocity and it hit another player whom he had been razzing. And he remembers an invitational blackjack tournament that had a bit of a surprise ending. It took place at Bellagio and offered a winner-take-all $500,000 prize. When it came down to six players at a final table, five of them agreed to split the money. But the sixth guy wanted nothing to do with it. “He came to win $500,000, he felt hot, and he wanted to win it all,” remembers Seidenberg. “The other guys were fine with that. They figured they would have more money to split between them. They didn’t think he had a shot. But they made a mistake. Instead of teaming up and isolating him, they created their own split.” They made it so that the winner got the bulk of the money and the next four finishers shared the rest. As a result, continues Seidenberg, “They wound up playing against each other. It got to the point where, on the final hand, this guy needed a blackjack to win it all—and he got it. His wife flipped out and this guy took the whole $500,000.”
While casinos have yet to sanction fistfights or one player against the rest of the table formats, they are getting creative with payout strategies. The Cosmopolitan is in the process of launching a multitiered $1 million slots tournament and one lucky player there has already rolled out of the casino in a new Tesla. MGM Grand has been putting on backgammon tournaments, which can be extremely alluring for those who know how to play optimally. At Bellagio, there is a tournament in which the winner gets to play a single hand of blackjack with a $500,000 prize at stake. “We’ve run it four times,” says Seidenberg. “Twice the player won, and twice the house won. So it has gone pretty much the way that it should.”
While it’s hard to argue with a shot at half-a-million dollars, getting to that point requires nosebleed gambling. Yama figures that you would be looking at 10 hours of play with an average wager of $2,500. No matter how slow you play, you’ll be processing a seven-figure sum.
Of course there are much more reasonable opportunities with prize pools in the $10,000 or $20,000 range and modest thresholds of play demanded to get in. “No matter what the game is, no matter what the payout is, if the casino comps you in based on your normal play, you have a chance of winning and you would be crazy to not take advantage of it,” says Curtis. “Just study up on tournaments and learn to do a few things that will make you better than the average player.” In the same breath, though, he has a warning for the Ralph Kramden-esque greed-monster in all of us: “If you plan on raising your play in order to qualify for a certain tournament, you need to be honest with yourself about how much of an edge you can generate and what it’s really worth.”
Despite the stakes and swings, though, such a move can clearly be profitable. Right? “Sometimes, for some people, it is,” Curtis concludes dryly. “But you need to do your own reckoning on that one.”
Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.