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by Monkeysystem

Monkeysystem has been playing advantage blackjack recreationally for many years.  Early in his career he used High-low and AOII, and then simplified things, switching to Knockout a few years ago and getting better results.  He started playing tournaments in 2004 and has cashed in several, including two of the last three Blackjack Blowout events at St. Ignace, Michigan. In this article, Monkeysystem reviews Kewadin Sault Ste Marieís Blackjack Blowout event held in June, 2010.

The Kewadin chain of casinos in Michiganís Upper Peninsula holds three or four major blackjack tournaments every year. For the last several years, this event has been held at Kewadin at St. Ignace, virtually within sight of the Mackinaw Bridge. However, in June 2010 they held this event at Kewadin at Sault Ste Marie instead. I played in this event, and would like to share my thoughts about this tournament with you.

I had never been to the Kewadin Sault Ste Marie casino before, but I had heard that they offer excellent blackjack and video poker. I also had every reason to believe they would offer a great blackjack tournament, just as the Kewadin St. Ignace casino had been doing for years. The package was exactly the same as it had been at Kewadin St. Ignace in recent years. It was basically the same tournament as at St. Ignace, but with a few notable differences in the format. I hadnít heard much about the hotel accommodations.

The package at the Kewadin Blackjack Blowout tournaments costs $250 for an entry or $400, if two players share a room. If you donít need the room, the entry is $150. Everyone has a chance to rebuy one time, if needed, for $100. There is a side-play requirement. If you have never played in the Blackjack Blowout before, you can get in. However, during the tournament, you have to earn at least 200 points in slot machine play or log four consecutive hours of table play during the tournament or you will not be allowed to play in subsequent tournaments. One caveat is that you can meet these minimums and still be denied entry if there are more applicants than seats. If that happens, they rank the order of the players based on their side playĖ and it has happened in the past. I heard of no instances of any players being denied at Sault Ste Marie, but that doesnít mean it didnít happen. (Itís just I didnít hear of it.)

The prize pool is $30,000, paid to seven finalists. The top prize is $12,000. There were 140 players in the tournament at Sault Ste Marie. That is the usual number at the Blackjack Blowout, though it has been lower at times, based mostly upon the availability of hotel rooms.

The package is nice. It comes with Friday and Saturday night in the hotel. You can stay Sunday night for a reduced rate, and many players got that comped-out by the executive host. If you meet your side play requirement during the tournament, you get a $50 cashback. Each entry gets two $7 and one $14 food coupon, and you get a second $14 food coupon if you stay Sunday night in the hotel. For each night in the hotel, you get tokens for promotional machines that usually pay you a few bucks each day. One player I was with got lucky and hit one of these for $48 one day. My best day was $8 - better than a kick in the head. They also have birthday drawings for prizes, a tournament gift for each player, and a drawing for one player to get a free entry into their next tournament. It was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend!

Like me, most of the St. Ignace regulars I talked with had never been to Sault Ste Marie before, and didnít know their way around the premises. The place is laid out a bit strangely, and it takes a day to learn your way around. I thought it a little amusing to watch intelligent blackjack tournament players wandering around with nonplussed expressions on their faces, lost. There is a second-floor terrace that is actually three stories up because the first floor is two stories high. This terrace provides a great opportunity to people-watch as they wander the shops, bar, and other adjuncts to the casino. It provides access to the convention center, and second-floor access to the hotel (or you can use the elevators). In this upstairs area, as well as downstairs near the hotel, they have sofas and easy chairs all over the place, some with televisions so you can watch your favorite show. I havenít been to very many casinos that offer places to just lounge around without spending money. I like that.

Whereas St. Ignace provides a $10 food coupon to cover Friday night, Sault Ste Marie catered a very nice dinner spread for players to enjoy during registration. Registration was an orderly process, and the dinner was a nice way to reunite with my tournament friends. The tournament gift was a small wallet, though the ladies got one with a calculator inside.

My hotel room was nice and big, though a couple of my friends complained of a mechanical problem with their room, and maintenance never took care of it. One downer about the hotel was when I asked for a one-hour extension of my checkout time, from eleven to noon. I was denied that. Iíve never had that happen to me before, in a casino or anywhere else. Also, the hotel stuck a bill under my door the night before checkout that included charges for all three nights. I called the front desk and they immediately corrected the error.

The casino offers ample full pay jacks-or-better video poker in quarters and dollars, as well as full pay pick Ďem video poker, also in quarters and dollars. The six-deck blackjack games offer surrender, and the dealer stands on soft 17. They have an unusual rule regarding splitting aces. You canít resplit aces, or take hits on the new hands, but you can double down on your ace hands after an initial split. The dealers are evidently trained to call it "buying another card" and they even explain that you can buy the extra card for a minimum bet (essentially, doubling for less if your original bet was higher than minimum). A bit on strategy for this unusual rule later. The pen on these games was only about 65%, however. About the only poker game this casino offers is a 1-2 no limit with a $40 minimum and $200 maximum buy-in.

The tournament format is more favorable to seasoned players than just about any other Iíve played in. Each tournament round is 42 hands except for the rebuy rounds, which are 21 hands. The starting bankroll is 2,000 non-negotiable chips, except for the rebuy rounds in which you start with 1,000. The minimum bet is 50 and the maximum bet is 500. There is a chip count before the seventh-last hand. The preliminary and rebuy rounds are played on Saturday, and the remainder of the tournament was played on Sunday.

The blackjack rules are the same as in the live pits with a few exceptions. Blackjacks pay 2:1. No insurance is offered. Early surrender against aces only is offered, purportedly to compensate for not having insurance. Otherwise, surrender is not offered. The tournament games are dealt from four-deck shoes. One change from St. Ignace is that double down cards are dealt face up. The unusual rule of offering double down of split ace hands is offered in the tournament as well as in the live pit.

In the preliminary rounds, three winners advance from each table of seven (unlike at St. Ignace where they take two). I love three-advance rounds and have had huge success over the years in them. Sault Ste Marie was no exception for me. I believe three-advance rounds are very favorable to skilled players with good math skills because you have multiple middle positions to calculate. Players who canít do figures in their heads accurately and quickly, or who donít understand tournament strategy, make costly mistakes in this format, and good players benefit from that.

In the rebuy rounds they advance two from six plus the two highest non-table-winners. I donít care much for high chip count advancement. Usually, all the high chip count players come from the same table because the dealer busted a lot in the last few hands, especially the last hand. Itís unfair and resembles a lottery. If theyíre going to have a lottery to fill extra seats, they should make it fair to all and have a wild card drawing instead.

In the quarterfinal rounds, they advance two from five or six. About half the tables had five players, and half had six. Table selection was done by players selecting the time slot, table, and seat they wanted right after they won their preliminary or rebuy round. I selected the latest time slot and the middle seat of an empty five-player table. They do a card draw to select the first hand button, so your seat assignment doesnít matter to your chances. I just wanted to be as close as possible to my opponentsí chips so I could more easily count them.

In the semifinal round, one advance from six, plus two high chip count players. This was the worst aspect of the format of this tournament. One advancing from six often means some "luckbox" advances by winning all their big bets and everyone busts out trying to catch up. Putting two high-chip count players into the final table is not a good thing at all and I hope the tournament directors will consider a change to that format. It meant three of the players on one table all went to the final table because the dealer busted over half his hands in the late going. Anyone who played at Sault Ste Marie ought to write a letter to the tournament director because this one rule in the format tarnished an otherwise great tournament. Instead of advancing one player from six at five tables plus two luckboxes to the final, they could advance one player from five at six tables plus one wild card draw. It would be a huge improvement. They only had five tables available, so the semifinal would have to last two rounds. So what? Itís better than having the huge negative factor of the two luckboxes sent to the final by the same busting dealer.

The final table was well played. Everyone took his or her time, especially at the end. I saw very few bonehead bets or playing decisions. The champion came back from behind with two 400-chip 2:1 blackjacks in a row in the last four hands to take a huge lead that no one could catch. Thatís blackjack for you.

By now you may have surmised how I did in this tournament...

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