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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston
 

Blackjack Taking Shot at TV Land

19 April 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- While poker basks in the glow of fame and fortune generated by multimillion-dollar tournaments and celebrity-fueled televised drama, that other old-fashioned casino game, blackjack, is a relative wallflower.

A who's who of poker, including poker professionals and tournament organizers, hope to change that with the debut of the Ultimate Blackjack Tour, a televised blackjack tournament that looks like a cross between a gambling game, the "Survivor" reality show and the "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" game show.

A group of investors are negotiating with cable networks to debut the show sometime this fall.

The UBT is the brainchild of Russ Hamilton, the 1994 winner of the World Series of Poker and the inventor of so-called elimination blackjack - a 30-hand game format that eliminates players with the lowest chip total after the eighth, 16th and 25th hands.

Heightening the drama are "secret bets" players make to bluff other players into betting more or fewer chips before heading into elimination rounds.

Hamilton helped round up several investors, many of them poker pros, who forked over millions of dollars to film the first 10 episodes at Casino MonteLago at Lake Las Vegas.

Investors say the patent-pending elimination factor is what will transform blackjack tournaments from fairly dull events into made-for-television drama.

The UBT is unrelated to the televised World Series of Blackjack on the GSN network, an event Hamilton says lacks mainstream appeal.

Longer-term, UBT backers expect the show will do for blackjack what the hugely popular World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour televised tournaments have done for poker. Each of the tournament tours have fueled legions of poker amateurs to take their shot at fame by first sharpening their skills in casinos and online poker rooms.

Plans are to launch a companion Web site that would allow players to win seats to the UBT. So-called "satellite tournaments" - qualifying games hosted by online as well as land-based casinos - are a major part of the growth of tournament poker in Las Vegas.

Talks are ongoing with several Las Vegas casinos that could potentially host tour events.

The private Los Angeles-based company, Ultimate Blackjack Tour LLC, also is obtaining a patent in the United States and abroad for the elimination-style format and hopes to eventually become a publicly traded entity.

"The objective is to populate as many casinos as possible," with the format, which could be licensed to casinos, said Sanford Millar, general counsel for the UBT. "It's in everyone's interest to (host) this tour because we believe there will be substantial interest in tournament blackjack as a result."

Skilled blackjack players - including many UBT participants - often are barred from playing at major casinos because of their ability to beat the house.

The UBT shouldn't be an issue for casinos because the house's money isn't at risk.

As of February there were just over 1,450 blackjack tables on the Strip compared with 370 poker tables.

For the 12 months ending in February, blackjack games at Strip casinos won $883.9 million from gamblers, about 10 times more than the $88.5 million collected from poker players, even after revenue from poker tables rose a whopping 51 percent over that period.

Even with the explosive popularity of poker games, "there's a lot more people out there who play blackjack," said Max Rubin, a casino consultant who serves as the show's announcer.