How to Win Blackjack Tournaments

Blackjack cards on table
Adam Gault/Getty Images

Learning how to win blackjack tournaments may not be as tough as you think. You probably already know how to play blackjack and if you've already played in a blackjack tournament or poker tournament, you have some valuable background information. All you need now is to use some advanced strategy to propel you to the final table, where you have an excellent chance of taking down that nice first-place prize money.

About Tournaments

Most tournaments consist of two or three rounds with a player from each table advancing to the next session. The semi-final round usually has six or seven tables full of earlier round winners, and the chip leader from each table in this round goes to the final table. Most final tables have a cash prize for each player, but make sure you know all the rules and procedures before you begin. Ask for a rule sheet and don’t be afraid to ask the dealer questions like:

  • How many players advance from each table?
  • What are the minimum and maximum bets?
  • How many hands make up the round?
  • What are the standard rules of play?
  • What does blackjack pay?
  • Do you offer insurance?
  • Any other rules for placing wagers

Most of those rules are self-explanatory, but many blackjack tournaments have special rules such as blackjack pays 2 to 1, and players must bet in order. The actual placement of the bet may also be important. Each player may have to slide a wager into the betting circle or announce a bet, so find out first before you trip yourself up. Use blackjack basic strategy, and you'll do best.

With rare exceptions, the chips in use have no cash value, and you’ll probably have to make it to the final table to cash, so set your sites on winning each round. As with poker tournaments, you can’t make the final table if you lose all your chips, so keep your early bets low enough to stay in action. If players start the tournament with $1000 in chips and there are 20 hands per round, your first bet should be between $50 and $100. Raise your bet slightly after winning hands; drop your bet down if the dealer is winning many hands. Wait for hand number 17 to change your strategy.

If you are lucky enough to take a significant chip lead, your best hope is to get to hand 20 with a maximum bet more than the closest player—if the maximum bet is $500, you would need $505 more than the next closest player. If this happens you keep your final bet low enough that even if the other players bet big, they still can’t catch up. Don’t get ahead $1,000 and then give it back before the last hand.

Final Four Hands Strategy in Early Rounds of Play

When you reach hand 17, you need to make a decision about your next wager based on how many chips the other players have. If you are all close to the same amount, go ahead with a bet close to what the other players are making. You have to stay close, but your goal is to be there for the final hand. If you are significantly behind, bet half your stack and save half in case you need to split a pair. If you win, check your competition again and decide if you need to raise your wager going again with up to half your stack. If you lose hand 17, you need to wager the maximum you can on hand 18, even if it is your whole stack.

Assuming you win hand 18, watch what the other players are betting and see if you can wager just enough to stay ahead or even with half or less than half your stack. If you can’t, just bet the maximum amount. On hand 20, if you have the chip lead, see if you can bet the amount that keeps you a maximum bet ahead of your competition. This allows you to win if nobody gets a blackjack or a chance to double down or split.

If you aren’t the chip leader, watch the other bets and see if there is an amount that you can bet and win with that will let you take first place. If there is not, you’ll probably be betting the maximum and crossing your fingers. Keep in mind that if everyone bets all or most of their chips, you may be able to win by keeping chips in reserve and seeing everyone else lose hand 20.

Final Table Strategy

First place pays significantly more than sixth or seventh, so your first rule of blackjack strategy is to not bust out early. Don’t make huge wagers at the last table right off. Wait and see how the other players are betting the first few hands before plunging. If you start with $1000 in chips, go with a $100 bet to start. If you lose, cut back to $50 and see what happens. If you win, bet $100 again or raise your wager to $150 and keep raising as long as you win.

Usually, a player or two at the final table will bet big and bust out, improving your prize money. Let them do so and be happy. However, unlike the earlier rounds when you had to get to the last hand to win, you may want to risk your chips a bit earlier if a player or two happens to have a streak of great luck and is pulling ahead. If this happens, by hand number 10 you have to start making larger wagers—close to a big as your competitors are making.

Final Table Hand Number Ten

If you have the lead or close to it at hand number 10, keep your wagers close to what the other players are making. If you have a significant lead, coast a little and reassess at hand 17. If everyone is close in chips, keep wagering what you were and wait for hand 17.

Final Table Hands 17 to 20

  • Hand 17: If you are leading, keep the pressure on with the same bets you have been making. If you are close to the pack, bet up to one-third of your stack. If you are far behind, bet half your stack.
  • Hand 18: If you are leading, keep the bets coming. If you are close, bet up to half your stack. If you are far behind, bet the max, even if that is more than half your stack.
  • Hand 19: Leading by more than a maximum wager, bet enough to get two wagers ahead plus $5 if possible. Leading by a small amount, watch the other bets closely and try to get ahead by a maximum wager plus $5. Any other position, try to bet up to half your stack. The higher payoff for first justifies busting out here and taking a lower payoff.
  • Hand 20: No matter what position you are in, you obviously want to be the chip leader after this final hand. Set your bet accordingly. If most players are close and you can guarantee yourself a second-place finish with a certain bet, that should be considered. Otherwise, bet the maximum. You should also consider the possibility that all players may lose the final hand. If this happens, will you have enough chips to take first? When there are six or seven players still competing for first or second and each is making the maximum wager, you may have a better chance of making a tiny bet and keeping more in reserve and just hoping the dealer has a killer hand. Do this if there is no way for you to get first, second or third unless the dealer beats everyone.

On the last couple of hands, you may want to double down on a hard hand (even up to hand 20) if it is the only way for you to win. If you have $1000 in chips and two or three players have $2,000, then you are fighting for 4th place and small prize money. At this point, with a $500 maximum bet, you can’t catch up unless you split or double down with a questionable hand and get lucky. Maybe you'd wait on hand 19, but on hand 20 you are out of options. Go for it.

After the final hand, watch the chip payoffs and make sure everyone is paid correctly. You’ll also want to watch the counting of the chips. Mistakes can be made in finding the winner of your blackjack tournament, so keep your eyes open. Then, take your payoff, tip the dealer, and enjoy.