With elimination hook, blackjack is busting out again with CBS tour

ON GAMBLING

May 16, 2006|By BILL ORDINE

Before the expression "all in" became a cultural cliche and before poker stars like Chris "Jesus" Ferguson and Doyle Brunson became more recognizable than say, most major league baseball players, there was a time when another card game was king in the casinos.

The game was blackjack and it had its own aura of romance and intrigue with so-called card counters, skilled card sharks who had a mathematical edge over the house, playing David to the casino's Goliath.

However, when poker made the leap to television and created a whole new class of pop culture celebrities, blackjack was left far behind. And when occasionally tried on cable TV, blackjack tournaments have been tedious and even silly.

Paradoxically, it turns out that a former poker champion, Russ Hamilton, may have come up with a concept - periodic player eliminations - that may update the old game of "21" for TV and perhaps inspire a rejuvenation in casinos.

With Hamilton's subtle modification the key ingredient, CBS has agreed to air two seasons of the Ultimate Blackjack Tour debuting Sept. 16. The show's 2 p.m. time slot will immediately put it up against major competition in college football. CBS Sports has committed to 11 episodes this year and a second season, planned for 18 episodes, in spring 2007.

The blackjack series follows another CBS venture into gambling-related programming, the Intercontinental Poker Championship that begins airing June 17.

In blackjack, the player plays against the dealer. The object is to form a hand that gets closest to 21 without going over. Face cards count as 10, aces as one or 11, and all other cards count as their face value. In tournaments, the players also compete against each other to accumulate the most chips.

Hamilton's variation on traditional blackjack tournaments, which frequently feature 30 hands, is meant to create tension throughout the game by eliminating players who have the smallest chip stack after the eighth, 16th and 25th hands. Without that type of pressure, competitors have traditionally played extremely conservatively until the final rounds of play, making for dull TV.

"We didn't want to change the rules of blackjack, but we knew we had to tweak it," said Hamilton, whose enterprise is being financed by a consortium of backers. "The elimination element is the key. It forces players to start strategizing from the beginning."

To further heighten the drama, Hamilton's version allows players to make one "secret bet," which can bluff other players into making ill-advised bets themselves, and the TV audience will be able to see the dealer's hole card in the same way viewers are privy to poker players' hole cards.

Hamilton won the World Series of Poker main event in 1994 and last year was an elimination victim of Severn accountant Steve Dannenmann, who finished second to win $4.25 million.

While there's no telling whether Hamilton's turn on blackjack will approximate the popularity of Texas Hold 'em, the plans are grandiose.

The UBT's first season will feature famous names from the card-playing world: poker's Phil Hellmuth, Annie Duke and Johnny Chan, as well as lesser-known blackjack stars such as Kenny Einiger. With Hamilton's production company putting up the first-season prize money, the winnings will be modest by big league poker standards, about $100,000 to be split among the top finishers in most of the episodes.

But as the first televised season airs, Hamilton hopes to have casinos around the country holding his version of blackjack tournaments, which will serve as qualifiers for TV final tables in the second season. Should that happen, average players will be creating prize pools with their own cash and the top awards could become enormous.

A Web site has been created to introduce the concept to the public, www.playUBT.com, and eventually visitors to the Web site will be able to play in free tournaments to qualify for TV final tables in the second season.

"After the first TV season, we'll see some new players who will start becoming stars in this game and they'll be the ones getting endorsements like poker players do now," Hamilton said. "We'll have average players coming out of the woodwork and they'll be the new celebrities."

In UBT games, card-counting skills will not be helpful. Understanding blackjack basic strategy - a preset formula of when to stand, take another card, double the bet or split the original two cards - will be advantageous.

However, the elimination factor and the urgent need for chips may occasionally necessitate unorthodox tactics, such as doubling the bet on a natural blackjack, a move that at the very least would draw some odd glances in a normal game of casino blackjack.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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