BLACKJACK TOURAMENT STRATEGIES: FINAL TABLES
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 many tournaments. In this article Monkeysystem shares some tips for final table strategy.
Final table strategy in blackjack tournaments differs from elimination table strategy in a number of important ways. In this article, after defining some terms, I will examine two important considerations in final tables and their implications for strategy: prize distribution, and using "The Twist."
DEFINITION OF TERMS
Benchmarking: Sizing a bet to achieve specific goals against one opponent - usually the player acting first and/or the chip leader.
Rank: A situation created by a bet that gives a player a high probability of finishing ahead of a specified opponent. Ex: Player A's bet gave him a rank against Player B.
The Twist: A bet designed to induce opponents into acting against each other instead of against you, increasing your probability of success.
Twist Factor: The relative power of a bet to influence opponents to act against each other instead of against you.
It seems there are as many approaches to final table strategy as there are players. Different players have different goals in a tournament. The main reason for this is that tournaments differ from each other in the prize payouts. Some tournaments are top-heavy, whereas others distribute the prize money more evenly to the finalists. The pay schedule can and should affect your approach to strategy on a final table, both in early-to-middle hands as well as late hands, the second-last hand, and the last hand. If your approach to early and middle hands is to stick with minimum bets, then prize distribution shouldn't affect your betting strategy until the late hands. However, if you take a more situational approach to early and middle hands, consider the effects of the prize distribution on your strategy.
What kind of betting strategies would you use in the final table of a tournament with a pay schedule of decreasing prizes? That depends on your goals.
Many players have told me it is first-place or bust in any tournament. These players take a ‘go-for-broke' approach to betting strategy on final tables. They like the idea of the prestige, and enhancement to their reputation that comes from taking down first place.
Others want to maximize their expected value (EV). This kind of player would like to get into first place but can be averse to taking big risks with his chips. I've even talked to a player or two who told me that they'd be happy as long as they don't finish in last place. Playing experience has shown me that many players seem content to jockey for position somewhere in the middle, and bet as if they want to finish ahead of at least one other middle-of-the-road player.
Here's an example in a tournament I played with a top-heavy prize distribution. In this tournament, the first-place prize was guaranteed and the remaining money in the prize pool was distributed in decreasing percentages that were established in the rules. Tournaments with a guaranteed first prize can generally be expected to be more top-heavy than tournaments without them:
1st - $15,000 = 54.2%
2nd - $4610 = 16.7%
3rd - $3458 = 12.5%
4th - $2305 = 8.3%
5th - $1614 = 5.8%
6th - $692 = 2.5%
Note that over half of the prize money is in first place. Also note that 81.8% of the remaining prize money is in 2nd through 4th places.
Experience shows that if one player at this final table were to build a seemingly insurmountable chip stack, many remaining players would become quite conservative in their betting instead of trying to chase him. They would be playing to avoid 5th and 6th places.
Most of these players seem to try to win what I'll call a "rank" against one or two other players. A rank is defined here as a finishing position higher than one or two specific opponents. If Player A is trying to achieve a rank against Player B, that means he is trying to finish with a higher chip total and thus more prize money than Player B. This is a bit different than setting himself a goal of finishing in, say, 3rd place.
If instead there were no clear chip leader, most players would bet more aggressively, trying to get the chip lead. The go-for-broke players would be aggressive anyway.
If you're an EV player, what strategy would you want to use in the early to middle hands of a final table with the prize distribution in Table 1? Some players are more conservative than others in early to middle hands; others adjust their strategy for the situation. I believe that an EV player who adjusts his early to middle hand betting for given situations might bet as if he were going for broke in this tournament. Why? Because most of the prize money is in first place. Risking enough to possibly achieve first place could very well also give you the best EV. Such a player should consider using the same overall strategy in this final table as he would in a one-advance elimination round.
An important consideration when choosing your final table strategy is to realize that your opponents will approach their betting with varying goals. This is easier if you've observed these players' behavior in past tournaments.
If you are an EV player, try to identify the go-for-broke players at your table. If there are only one or two, you might try the conservative approach, hoping that the go-for-broke players bust out and thin the field. If there are lots of go-for-broke types, you might consider higher bets, to avoid being left in the dust if the dealer dumps.
If you are the go-for-broke type, realize that you may not need to take as many risks in a table with lots of conservative players as you would if it were packed with players who use the same approach as you.
Shooting for a final chip position that is among the rankings that hold a large portion of the prize pool is a reasonable strategy for the EV player. With that in mind, consider a tournament with the following prize distribution. This tournament guarantees a minimum total prize pool and distributes the prizes as decreasing percentages of the prize pool:
1st - $12,000 = 40%
2nd - $7500 = 25%
3rd - $4500 = 15%
4th - $2250 = 7.5%
5th - $1500 = 5%
6th - $1250 = 4.17%
7th - $1000 = 3.33%
The first-place prize is significantly less than half the total prize pool. Each prize under first place is well over half that of the prize immediately above it, with the exception of third and fourth place. These factors make this a relatively evenly distributed prize pool (at least in blackjack tournaments we see these days.)
But an EV player is advised to notice something else about this prize distribution. 65% - nearly two-thirds - of the prize money is awarded to the top two finishers. 80% of the prize money is awarded to the top three finishers. The EV player might want to consider betting in the early, middle, and even the late rounds as if this were a two or three-advance elimination table. Then in the second-last and last hands, see if you can climb higher in the standings with reasonable risk.
In a previous article in BJI (BJI # 181), I gave a strategy for turning opponents against each other that I called the "twist" and provided a few thoughts on how to use it in a final table scenario. The twist can be even more important in a final table than in an elimination table. In a nutshell, the twist is a bet that forces your opponents as much as possible to bet against each other and not just against you.
Unlike in most elimination tables, the chip leader can...
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