Previous articles covered how I got started with blackjack, how I learned the basic playing strategy and card counting, my playing experience in Atlantic City after the first casino opened, and my first barring. This article describes how I got involved in blackjack tournaments, and how I learned tournament playing and betting strategies.

From the late 1970s through the early 2000s, I was happily using my card counting skills in casinos in Mississippi, Atlantic City, and Las Vegas to win money. I had heard about blackjack tournaments but since I didn’t know much about them I never got interested in being a participant in one. That changed after I met Ken Smith.

For those who don’t know, Ken is one of the foremost authorities on tournament blackjack playing strategies. When casinos in Mississippi started to offer weekly mini-tournaments, Ken won practically all of them. He entered many major blackjack tournaments including several televised ones (World Series of Blackjack, Las Vegas Hilton’s Million Dollar Tournament, Ultimate Blackjack Tournament, and Legends of Blackjack Tournament). Ken has won several of these major tournaments, and probably the most memorable occurred when he beat “Hollywood” Dave Stann in the final hand of the Ultimate Blackjack Tournament’s premier episode (Ken won $50,000).

Ken spent quite a lot of time with me explaining the tournament strategies that he developed and used to gain the advantage over other tournament players. I was so impressed with his knowledge and skills that I asked him to write articles on tournament strategy for my Blackjack Insider Newsletter (BJI), which he did. The articles were so valuable and popular with my subscribers that I (along with my partner in the BJI) decided to publish the articles as an eBook. (For details on the eBooks, click here.)

I read all of Ken’s articles and practiced his strategies at home. I also observed him play in blackjack tournaments and saw first-hand how he used his strategies to beat his opponents and advance to subsequent rounds. That’s when I decided to start entering blackjack tournaments.

(Note: Just before meeting Ken, I purchased and read the only book that had information on blackjack tournaments, Stanford Wong’s Casino Tournament Strategy. I later discovered from my friend Anthony Curtis that Wong had developed a computer model to analyze end strategies for blackjack tournaments and he gave the information to a team of players that he had formed, which included Curtis. The team had three successful years playing in tournaments in Vegas, Reno, Tahoe, Atlantic City, Aruba and elsewhere. After the team dissolved, Wong published the tournament strategies they used in Casino Tournament Strategy. I learned a lot from Wong’s book, and in my opinion, Ken Smith took Wong’s strategies to the next level.)

Just as I had done when I first learned card counting, I started entering tournaments for small stakes to gain experience. Most of them were the weekly mini-tournaments held in Las Vegas. (Several casinos offered them; the one I played the most was held at Sunset Station.) As I continued to play these tournaments using the Ken Smith tournament strategies, I was advancing to the final rounds more often. I won several of these mini-tournaments (first place was usually $500 to $2,000) and that boosted my confidence level.



I finally decided to enter some of the major tournaments. Most of them were held in Las Vegas and during this time I met a cadre of other skilled tournament players who were entering all the major tournaments in Las Vegas and elsewhere. These players would travel (often together) to cities across the US that held major blackjack tournaments. This skilled group of tournament players became good friends and I was happy and glad to have met many of them. (The list of skilled tournament players that I met is very long; here is just a sampling: Joe Pane, who once came to my house in Nevada and gave me a lesson on elimination blackjack tournament strategy, “Hollywood” Dave Stan, David Mathews, Sammy Vaughn, Norm Sylliaasen, Kenny Einiger, Rick Jensen, and others.) Many of these tournament pros also contributed articles on tournament blackjack strategy for my Blackjack Insider Newsletter. Meeting these skilled tournament players and getting to know them was one of the highlights of my blackjack playing career.

During the time I was actively playing in tournaments, I competed in three major ones (World Series of Blackjack, Ultimate Blackjack Tournament, and the Las Vegas Million Dollar Tournament). I wasn’t able to advance to the final table in any of them because at this level the competition was tough. However, I managed to win several medium-sized blackjack tournaments, two of them in Las Vegas and another in Laughlin.

The experience I gained from playing in these tournaments, my many discussions with tournament pros and reading all of their tournament strategies that they contributed to my Blackjack Insider Newsletter, were priceless during my journey to become a skillful blackjack tournament player. In a nutshell, these are the skills that I had to learn, and what you need to learn if you want to be a successful tournament player:


  • Determining the equity of the tournament
  • Reading and understanding the playing rules of blackjack for the tournament
  • Importance of betting position
  • Keeping track of the chip count of your opponents
  • Knowing when to go for the High or the Low and when to correlate your bets
  • Knowing when to deviate from basic strategy
  • Mentally determining the outcome of your opponents’ final chip count after the cards are dealt on the last hand
  • Knowing when to bet aggressively and when to bet passively
  • Learning how to accurately play the last five hands in a tournament after all the players’ chips are counted and announced

If the above is Greek to you, don’t fret because you’ll find plenty of advice in Chapter 15 of my Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Guide. I strongly encourage you to take the time and read it as well as the strategies in Ken Smith’s tournament books. As I’ve said and written many times, my biggest nightmare was having Ken Smith sit down at my table as an opponent in a blackjack tournament. You can also add “anyone that has read his tournament strategies books.”

About the Author

Henry Tamburin is one of world’s most respected blackjack experts and a world-class player. He is the author of the Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Guide, and Blackjack: Take The Money and Run. He edited the monthly Blackjack Insider Newsletter, and was a featured blackjack columnist for Casino Player magazine, Midwest Gaming and Travel magazine, Gaming South magazine, Southern Gaming magazine, New England Gaming News, Jackpot, Bingo Bugle, and Casino City Times.