Card counters have been asking me lately if I think casino blackjack might ever attain the popularity that poker is enjoying, thanks in large part to the Travel Channel and the World Poker Tour. My answer is NO. At the pro level, blackjack and poker do have some similarities. Both games, for instance, require an ability to bluff. But in poker, your opponents expect this type of deception, practice it themselves, and admire those who can pull it off. In blackjack, on the other hand, the casino is the opponent, and casinos just aren’t so sporting about being bluffed out of a lot of money.
Nevertheless, some TV stations have begun experimenting with televising blackjack tournaments. The Game Show Network came up with “The World Series of Blackjack.” Entry into the tournament was by invitation only, with most of the invitees being noted blackjack authors and world-class professional players. I was among the fortunate few to have an invitation extended to me, with no buy-in required on my part. Unfortunately, like many other invited pros, I had to turn down the invitation. The risk of showing my face on national TV and getting barred from every casino where I play was simply not worth the potential reward.
Therein lies one of the biggest differences between blackjack and poker. Both games are about making money, but poker is also about fame. A poker player who earns fame will engender fear in his opponents. In poker, this is good. On the other hand, the last thing any pro blackjack player wants is to engender fear in his opponents, the casinos. For a blackjack pro, fear can lead to only one thing: dismissal from the tables. One pro player who accepted the invitation was James Grosjean. Though he is not widely known to the general public, Grosjean is a legend among pro gamblers. An amusing incident occurred at Grosjean’s table. One of the narrators was Max Rubin, author of Comp City. As a former pro player, Max truly understands both blackjack and tournament strategies, and he probably knew most of the players in the event personally.
At one point, as Grosjean was deciding how much to bet, Max remarked that correct tournament strategy would call for a small bet. Grosjean pushed out a big bet. Max made a funny comment about deferring to Grosjean’s judgment since Grosjean was a Harvard grad, while he (Max) had only gone to UNLV.
In fact, Grosjean is so smart, and his bet was so inexplicable in terms of normal tournament strategy, that I immediately suspected he might be playing at a level above the norm. So I asked him about it. He explained the logic of his bet to me, and it was, in fact, a superior way to play the hand.
What really cracked me up, however, was that over the next few days, the message boards on the blackjack web sites were buzzing with posts from amateur players who had watched the show, criticizing Grosjean’s “erroneous” bet! He couldn’t even defend himself without publicly revealing to casinos as well as to players secrets that were unknown to the masses, including most pros.
Max later told me that the World Series of Blackjack was such a big hit that the Game Show Network was planning a follow-up series of tournaments, and was negotiating with a major Las Vegas casino to host the event. One minor glitch — the casino was insisting that no professional blackjack players be allowed to compete, as they did not want these types of players on their property! How popular would the World Series of Poker be if professional poker players were barred from play? Can you even imagine the outcry from the literally tens of thousands of viewers who have, in the past two years, become practically addicted to watching all the games? And, viewers aside, what would be the point? Playing blackjack at a professional level is, and will always remain, an “underground” activity. It’s a David versus Goliath endeavor that appeals to players who get a thrill out of legally relieving giant corporations of a lot of their money. But you’re never going to see this on TV with announcers dissecting and analyzing the strategies. It would be an awfully cool show — but it’s not going to happen. If you want to watch BJ pros in action, you’re going to have to spot us at the XYZ.