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CBS Hopes Ultimate Blackjack Tour Doubles Down on Poker Ratings

7 September 2006

When the Ultimate Blackjack Tour (UBT) hits the airwaves next weekend there's a good chance poker fans will see one or two familiar faces.



The show, which premieres at 2 p.m. EST on Sept. 16 on CBS, pits some of the world's best poker players against elite blackjack players for a $1 million prize pool.



Roughly 100 blackjack players and 10 of poker's biggest names were invited to play in the first season. Each match is an elimination blackjack tournament, with the lowest stack at the table eliminated after hands number eight, 16 and 25. The chip leader after 30 hands is the winner.



While the game is 21 and the blackjack players outnumber poker players by a 10:1 ratio, the UBT is actively promoting itself by touting poker's biggest names. The UBT Web site features 13 players, with 10 tournament poker players (including World Series of Poker Main Event champions Phil Hellmuth and Johnny Chan) and just three tournament blackjack players.



The most accomplished blackjack player featured is 2005 World Series of Blackjack champion Ken Einiger.



Despite the established fame of the poker players on the tour, poker pro Robert Williamson III believes that some of the blackjack players will end up being at least as captivating as poker players have become.



"Poker players go from boring all the way to eccentric," says Williamson, who participated in the first season. "The top blackjack players in the world? They have us hands down beat on the eccentric side."



Several professional blackjack players tried to hide their identities from casinos by changing their appearance and playing tournament matches in costume. Some even played under pseudonyms to avoid being banned by casinos.



"These are people that are used to role playing," Williamson says. "They are definitely colorful characters."



With the blackjack experts already holding the lead in eccentricity, Williamson admits that the poker players are at a slight disadvantage when it comes to tournament play as well, as most of the blackjack players are expert card counters.



"I think at the highest levels, you definitely have to give (the blackjack experts) a little bit of an edge as long as they're not using automatic shufflers between each hand, which they did not in Season 1."



While not a card counting expert ("I was really good at counting to 21," Williamson quips), he is a tournament strategy expert, with one World Series of Poker bracelet and nearly $2 million in poker tournament earnings. That experience helped shape his strategy for the Ultimate Blackjack Tour.



"Elimination blackjack is much more like poker than normal blackjack," Williamson says. "I'm not a card counter, I'm not a shuffle tracker, I'm not any of the things that you can be and actually beat a casino playing blackjack. But I use tournament strategy to my advantage."



Betting strategy is of paramount importance in an elimination blackjack format, as each player wants to avoid holding the short stack after an elimination hand. To add a wrinkle to that strategy, the UBT incorporates "secret bets," giving each player the opportunity to conceal their wager once in each match.



The elimination-style format is also similar to tournament poker in that an average player can get lucky and defeat a much more skilled opponent. For that reason, Williamson believes that tournament blackjack will find a niche on television similar to tournament poker.



"With the infrastructure of players in America and across the world that already play blackjack, it's going to be fueled just like poker was," Williamson says. "It's easy to learn basic strategy playing 21, so enough people can catch onto that side of the game that they can be somewhat competitive and there's enough luck on any given day where they can come out on top against the experts."







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Best of Aaron Todd
Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.

Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.