TOURNAMENT BLACKJACK: HOW TO READ YOUR OPPONENTS
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 analyzing your opponents.
Blackjack tournament players are a special breed of card player. We are attracted to this game for the same reasons we are attracted to live blackjack. It is an analytical game that puts a premium on understanding things like probability, expected value, and strategy tables. Look at the difference in behaviors between a blackjack table and, for example, a craps table. Blackjack players are generally studious, deliberate, and quiet whereas craps players shout and make noise that can be heard all the way to the blackjack tables.
Many blackjack tournament players gravitate toward this game because they are put off by the psychological aspects of poker and poker tournaments. They would rather not play poker tournaments, even though poker tournaments provide many more opportunities for good card players to win big prizes. However, if you want to improve your blackjack tournament play, you should accept that the fact that this game also has a psychological dimension.
In blackjack tournaments, bet sizing is the most important strategy consideration. As in other card games, you have an advantage if you act after your opponents. If you act late, you don't really need to consider any psychological characteristics of your opponents - their bet is on the table for you to see. You only need to consider bankrolls and hard odds when sizing your bet.
However, if you act early, you must try to anticipate how your opponents might size their bets as they react to yours. Of crucial importance is the possibility of their making mistakes. You can improve your game if you become an astute observer of your opponents' playing tendencies and how this affects the likelihood of mistakes and the types of mistakes they might make - especially on the last hand.
Bet sizing is the most important strategy consideration, but hit/stand/double decisions are also important. On the final hand of a blackjack tournament round, most opponents double down more frequently than basic strategy recommends. However, some are more likely than others to deviate from basic strategy with a double down. Accurately anticipating what they might do is important here as well.
Texas hold ‘em players try to analyze the aggressiveness of their players, and try to put them on the starting hands they play and fold. They also try to observe "tells" - behaviors that reveal what the opponent is thinking. Blackjack tournament players don't need to delve into this quite as deeply or precisely as poker players do. Unlike poker players, blackjack tournament players place their bets before they see their cards - not after. So their bets are based on an idea of what their strategy is, not on knowing how strong their hands are. So the bet size a blackjack tournament player ponders is not as closely bound to his expectation for success as that of a poker player. Tells can be very unreliable as indicators of an opponent's plans for his bet in a blackjack tournament. Because tells are tied only to plans, and not to expectations for success, the players' reactions to the situation are less visceral. All this makes tournament blackjack less psychological than poker or poker tournaments.
But don't just ignore the psychological aspects of blackjack tournaments completely. They are still important to your success.
I make very general observations of my opponents' tendencies and behaviors, and use these observations to anticipate their bets and double down decisions on the last hand if I have to act before them. There's no need to go into great detail in analyzing an opponent in tournament blackjack. General observations will do. I categorize opponents into four main profiles. I have my own naming system for these to help me remember who is who. You can use a technique that best suits you. I try to name my players as follows:
This is the most common type of casual player. Biggie Bettman thinks this is a blackjack race. Or maybe he is just aggressive or greedy by nature. He might bet small the first few hands, but then proceeds to make aggressive bets too early, getting more and more aggressive as the round progresses. He splits tens more often than needed. He might make a maximum bet early or in the middle of the round for no apparent reason. Biggie incurs too much risk of ruin for the situation and often busts out before the end of the round. He is often into maximum bets several hands before the end. If he is in contention on the last hand, he bets the maximum and reflexively doubles down on hard 17 or below, or splits tens even if it's not strategically wise to do so.
Chip Titehold hopes the other players bust out and leave him the last one standing. Or maybe he is just timid and cheap by nature. He bets the minimum or near it through the early and middle hands of a round. He continues betting small in the middle to late hands, even if he falls so far behind that he should make a move with a big bet. He might make a minimum bet late in the round when the others are betting big, even if he doesn't need to take the low at the time to get the lead. He often waits to make his move until the leaders are already protecting their leads with medium bets. This is useful information in turns in which you act before Chip as the round is drawing to a close. Chip often bets the maximum and doubles down aggressively on the last hand, but might make a mistake in a complex situation by betting too small or failing to double down.
Max Baysik thinks he can win a blackjack tournament by being the best blackjack player and hoping for some luck. You may observe he is counting cards if he raises his bets and makes index deviations in the bottom half of the shoe. Not all Max Baysiks count cards, however. Profile this player cautiously, because it may be hard to tell the difference between him and a skilled tournament player. You may not be able to identify Max Baysik until the final few hands, when he continues to stick with basic strategy instead of deviating from it as the tournament situation demands. If the count is negative in these last few hands, he might hesitate to increase his bets to catch up or protect a lead. Max Baysik has likely heard that he needs to bet the maximum on the last hand and will do so, even if the tournament situation dictates something else. On the last hand Max is unlikely to double down or split tens aggressively as needed.
As you might have guessed by his name, Ace Sharpe is a knowledgeable, skilled tournament player. Most of these players know or at least know of each other. Ace can be hard to identify during a tournament round, because these players don't all use the same betting strategies in the early to middle hands of a round. About the only way you can identify Ace is to notice he is doing things the way you would do them in his situation. I know of some Aces who count cards in tournaments. I don't count cards during tournaments, but I still respect and fear these players. If you have profiled a player as Ace Sharpe, memorize that player's face. Better still, introduce yourself after play ends. During the tournament round, focus like a laser beam on Ace's chip stack, and make it your goal to have more. On the last hand, assume that Ace will do whatever it takes to give himself the best chance to win the table. Also on the last hand, you can rest assured that Ace has accurately profiled you!
How can we use this information about our opponents to improve our tournament play? I'll use a common situation as an example.
Acting Early, Small Lead on the Last Hand
Let's say you're acting early and have a fairly small lead on the last hand on a table in which one will advance and only two of you are still in contention. You have two choices. You can either take the high (you win if both win their hands), or take the low (you win if both lose their hands). Some players will take the low in this situation no matter what kind of opponent they face, playing an optimal strategy. In game theory optimal strategy assumes the opponent will respond in the manner that gives them the best chance to advance and you seek to minimize that best chance. You would use an optimal strategy against Ace Sharpe, and take the low by holding back one more chip than Ace has in his bankroll. This gives you about a 56% probability of advancing.1
Is taking the low in this situation the best bet to make if your opponent happens to be Biggie Bettman or Max Baysik? What if the opponent is Chip Titehold?
If you take the high by betting the maximum, this would be an exploitative strategy. In game theory, exploitative strategies maximize our potential for success by taking advantage of an observed or anticipated leak in an opponent's game. However, exploitative strategies always run the risk of counter-exploitation. This is the psychological stuff I discussed earlier that some blackjack tournament players find distasteful and which is why they don't like poker.
In our situation with the small lead acting first, the exploitative strategy for your bet would be to bet the maximum, hoping that your opponent will also bet the maximum. If your opponent also bets the maximum you have a correlation (win if both win and win if both lose). If your opponent is Biggie Bettman, who doubles down even when it's not best, your probability to advance is about 70%. If your opponent is Max Baysik, who often doesn't double down even when he needs to, your probability to advance approaches 80%. These percentages are estimates -- no two exploitable players are alike and their play in these situations differs from each other.
If Chip Titehold is your opponent on this last hand, I would not recommend leading off with the high bet. Of course, never lead off with the high bet in this situation if your opponent is Ace Sharpe. This is because of the counter-exploitation you expose yourself to. The counter-exploitation in this situation is to hold back one more chip than you held back. This would give your opponent the low with the opportunity to double down aggressively to take the high if you are dealt a strong hand. Played correctly by your opponent, this counter-exploitation would actually make you the 45% underdog. Chip Titehold likely will not play this situation accurately, but he will play it accurately enough to make you a slight underdog. Even if Chip barely bets enough to overtake your push and cannot double down to cover you, you are still only about a 50-50 coin flip to advance.
When considering these situations I like to estimate the possibilities of human behavior in four categories that can be interpreted mathematically using fuzzy logic. I covered fuzzy logic in an article in this newsletter several years ago (BJI #85). The four categories are...
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