Televised Blackjack and Efforts to Rival Poker

Blackjack is known and loved all over the world. For some blackjack is a living, a profession, but for many it is just another casino game, one to play during a trip to Atlantic City or Las Vegas, but not one to take home with them. Considering the massive success of poker, and the fact that there are many very popular televised poker games and tournaments around, it is easy to see why many thought the same would happen with blackjack. After all, not only is blackjack now online, but it remains one of the most popular games on the casino floor. Despite this, and despite the many efforts to get blackjack onto your television sets, it just hasn’t taken off as people thought it would.

These are some of the biggest tournaments, tours and more that have been televised but failed to get off the ground.

The World Series of Blackjack

Most people are familiar with the World Series of Poker, an annual poker tournament held in Las Vegas where for a buy-in of $10.000, players from around the world can compete for a grand prize that often exceeds $5 million. But what many might not know is that for a limited time there was also a World Series of Blackjack tournament.

Blackjack is a game of skill and strategy, and one that many players would argue involves just as much skill and strategy as poker. The setup is a little different of course, and the players compete against the dealer and not other players, as is the case with poker, but the World Series of Blackjack accounted for this and worked a way around it.

The World Series of Blackjack was first hosted in 2004 and it ran for four consecutive years. The last year it was played was in 2007, but it may make a return at some point. Unlike the World Series of Poker, the World Series of Blackjack is an invitational, which means that not everyone can play. Many of the spots in the tournament were given by invitation only, but there were also a number of satellite sit and god in which players could win their spot.

The fields were fairly modest, but filled with superstars of gambling and of the world of entertainment. In the final World Series of Blackjack, for instance, there were only forty players, but these included legends on the fields of baseball and football, and Vegas superstar Penn Jillette. The grand prize for the 2007 World Series of Blackjack was $1 million, so although it didn’t rival the World Series of Poker in prize money, but when you take into account that there are more than twenty times as fewer players it makes the World Series of Blackjack appear much more lucrative.

In this tournament each player is given $100k in chips to begin with (although this amount was different in season 1 as opposed to season 4) and if they lose all of these chips then they are eliminated. There are no re-buys. They are allowed to a bet a minimum of $1k and a maximum of $50k, although this increases as the tournament goes on, and the winner is the person who has the most chips left after 25 hands. The setup is very different to poker but serves to create a very competitive game. If the leader is walking away with it, then this means that second or third place may need to risk all to catch him, knowing if they lose then they won’t finish in the money, but if they win then they can contend for the top prize. There is very little scope for safe play, particularly for those who want the big bucks, and there is certainly no way players can sit and clock-watch, waiting for others to be knocked out before them so that they can climb the pay ladder, as often happens in big poker tournaments.

There were two knockout rounds, during which the player with the lowest chips was eliminated and the minimum bets increased. World Series of Blackjack players have included blackjack professionals David Matthews and Brian Zembic, poker players Tiffany Michelle and Russ Hamilton and some other names well known in the world of gambling and card games. Winners of the competition included Mike Aponte, who won the first World Series of Blackjack, and Alice Walker, who won the final World Series of Blackjack.

As for the rules of the World Series of Blackjack, they were not too dissimilar to what you will find in Las Vegas casinos. There were 6 decks and players were allowed to split, double-down and insure. Double-down is allowed on any cards and surrounding is also allowed. One of the tweaks put in place for the World Series of Blackjack is the Burger King Power Chip, which is given to each player. This allows players to switch one of their cards with the next card that would be dealt, effectively re-dealing and giving them a second chance.

The World Series of Blackjack was popular amongst the blackjack faithful, but didn’t get as much exposure as the World Series of Poker did, which was perhaps the reason that it ended after just four seasons. The large prize money and the fact that is doesn’t have the buy-ins that the World Series of Poker has also meant that the holders had to dig their hands into their own pocket to fund it, which casino owners and tournament organisers are not wont to do.

Still, it might make a return and it seems we’re just waiting on blackjack to get another boost in popularity before the TV networks beg to host the World Series of Blackjack.

Celebrity Blackjack

Celebrity Blackjack was a television show, developed by Pariah Entertainment Group and broadcast on the Game Show Network. The show ran for two seasons and covered 19 episodes. Celebrity Blackjack was hosted by Alex Borstein, best known as the voice of Lois Griffin on Family Guy, and sportscaster Matthew Vasgersian, and the premise of the show was to pit celebrities against each other in a high-stakes blackjack tournament.

There were five celebrities playing in the first season and four in the second. These namse included Superman actor Dean Cain, American Pie and Thirteen Ghosts actress Shannon Elizabeth, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch star Caroline Rhea, Seinfeld funny man Jason Alexander, and game show host Jeff Probst. The tournament was played over 21 hands of blackjack, with minimum bets of $1.000 and maximum bets of $25.000, an amount that increased as the tournament ran deep. Many of the standard rules of Classic Blackjack applied, with double-down and splits allowed, but there were also some tweaks made in an attempt to appeal more to the television audience and to add some extra risk and excitement.

One of these tweaks involved the use of jokers, four of which were added to the 6 decks. If a player was dealt a joker as one of their first two starting cards then they were allowed to swap that card for any one of the other cards in play on the table, including those held by the dealer. The second season used 6 jokers, but the same rules applied.

Celebrity Blackjack featured preliminary rounds and a final round, with all of the players playing on the same table together. The winner of the first season was Caroline Rhea, and the winner of the second season was Jason Alexander, who donated their winnings to the Much Love Anima Rescue and Project ALS, and to the Oakwood School Capital Campaign respectively. The purse for these tournaments were $100k and $300k, a substantial amount, but the show clearly didn’t get the attention that it warranted as it was soon taken off air.

Episodes of Celebrity Blackjack can still be found online, but the original episodes ran from 2004 to 2005 and it doesn’t show any sign of returning.

Ultimate Blackjack Tour

One of the most successful attempts to get blackjack on television was the Ultimate Blackjack Tour, which first aired in 2006 and ran for two seasons. The Ultimate Blackjack Tour was a syndicated show, which means that it was open to be purchased and deployed by many networks. It was an elimination tournament that showcased qualifying games every week, with the winner of each week progressing through to a grand final.

The Ultimate Blackjack Tour not only gave celebrities the chance to get themselves some extra exposure and to show off their card skills, but it also pitted blackjack professionals against each other. The Ultimate Blackjack Tour was also popular with poker players, ever keen to compete against other card playing professionals, especially when there is a lot of money involved. Some of the biggest names to play in the Ultimate Blackjack Tour were actually poker stars, including the legend that is Johnny Chan, a man who has been playing poker professionally for over twenty years and has ten World Series of Poker bracelets to his name, and Phil “Unabomber” Laak, a well known face in WSOP, WPT and EPT events. Blackjack players who signed up for the Ultimate Blackjack Tour included Monica Reeves, James Grosjean and Mike Aponte.

After weekly wins by Angie Hardy, Dave Stann and Darrell Arnold, who proved to be very knowledgeable and skilful players, it was David Matthews who took down the first season, also beating actress and poker player Jennifer Tilly and The “Devilfish” David Ulliott, to claim the biggest share of the big $1 million prize.

The second season attracted bigger names than the first as everyone tried to outdo David Matthew’s fine performance. This time poker loud-mouth James Nguyen was also on the roster and did well in his preliminary, finishing a close runner-up to the weekly winner Cosimo Tripodl. Poker high-roller Antonio Esfandiari, who also played in the first season, struggled to make it through the preliminaries for the second season running, as did Jennifer Tilly, whilst David Matthews, who took the big money first time around, was was eliminated early on. Phil Helmuth, known as the “Poker Brat” for his outspoken antics at the table, also fell at the first hurdle, along with Johnny Chan and Freddie Deeb.

The Ultimate Blackjack Tour was popular with blackjack professionals, as you would expect, and the commentary and hand analysis helped to introduce others to the game and to improve their strategy, but the game didn’t last for very long and there has been little talk of further seasons.

The World Blackjack Tour

Although not as popular as the The Ultimate Blackjack Tour, or the World Series of Blackjack, another attempt to bring blackjack into the television mainstream was the World Blackjack Tour. It was broadcast in the same year as the The Ultimate Blackjack Tour, and was hosted by the Hilton hotel in Las Vegas.

The game tried to put an emphasis on countries, meaning it was less about individuals. It pitted 5 nationalities against each other over the course of 21 hands. The show was hosed by blackjack professional Ben Mezrich and there was a grand prize of $10.000 paid out to the winner.

Entrants included the United States, Canada and Greece, but it was Mexico who walked away with the $10.000 in prize money thanks to Sergio Segura. Canada finished in second, represented by Henry Tran who scooped $5.000 for his troubles, and Rena Sines rounded off the top three for Greece, collecting $2.000. Ken Einiger disappointed many of the natives when he represented the United States and finished out of the prize money in last place, one place behind Kami Lis of Poland, who also went home with nothing.

There were plans to take the World Blackjack Tour around the world and to make it into a big tournament and one where dozens of players from dozens of countries would compete to be the biggest and the best in the game, but ultimately it failed to achieve the popularity that it had expected and hoped to achieve and the first season of the World Blackjack Tour was also the last season. It remains to be seen whether it will take flight again, but considering that it has been 8 years it remains very unlikely that it will happen.