Poker has been a mainstay of cable television since the late 1990's. With the World Poker Tour in 2003, however, the game exploded into a worldwide phenomenon drawing millions of new players to the game. Now, with the aide of many of the greats of the poker world beside him, 2005 World Champion Ken Einiger wants to do the same for the game of blackjack with the Ultimate Blackjack Tour.
The Ultimate Blackjack Tour, the creation of former poker World Champion Russ Hamilton (who is also a formidable blackjack champion as well), is the attempt to create the same buzz around blackjack that has come to poker. The inaugural season of the UBT premiered on September 16th on CBS, demonstrating the "elimination blackjack" approach that might make the new tour highly successful and should draw many regular people to the appeal of blackjack (and potentially earn their way to playing on the UBT). Einiger, as a World Champion blackjack player, is one of the players participating, along with poker champions Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, Annie Duke and Antonio Esfandiari.
When I sat down on the phone to talk to Ken earlier this week, he was excited by the debut of the Ultimate Blackjack Tour. He also told me, as we went along, that the poker pros weren't taking the challenge of blackjack lightly!
PN: Ken, how were the ratings from the first episode of the Ultimate Blackjack Tour?
KE: The broadcast pulled down a .9 in the ratings for the afternoon (writer's note: this translates to approximately 1 million viewers), which thrilled CBS. We were expecting to draw around a .6 because, in many markets, the show didn't come on at 2PM Eastern. It was preempted in some markets to later in the afternoon because of college football. So, with the show being seen in different times in different locations, the .9 we got was way above our expectations.
PN: What is the Ultimate Blackjack Tour looking to do for the game?
KE: To be honest, we're looking to get the same exposure for blackjack that the World Poker Tour brought for poker. We're looking to take viewers to locations that they might not normally see, like they do with the locations on the WPT, and show fans the lifestyle of tournament blackjack players along with the demonstration of their skills during the tournament broadcasts.
PN: The blackjack being played on the Ultimate Blackjack Tour is quite different from what I have seen with other blackjack programs…
KE: Oh, yeah…
PN: Because every other blackjack tournament I have seen, the players make small bets until the very end and then try to make moves. The UBT's format completely changes that…
KE: It definitely does. The "elimination blackjack" format was patented by Russ Hamilton, the founder of the UBT, and we think it really does make blackjack much more exciting. With players being eliminated in Rounds 8, 16 and 25, the players can't afford to sit back and make minimum bets the entire tournament. They have to stay out of that low stack position, which is what determines who is eliminated. Add into that the "Secret Bet" option that a player can use at any time and it becomes a very exciting form of play for blackjack.
I know what you're talking about from what you've seen with previous blackjack tournaments, though. In my book, "Play To Win", I demonstrate how to play both the "normal" blackjack tournament and how to play the elimination blackjack format. There's a lot more strategy than people think and, in the book, I demonstrate money management and how position comes into play, much like poker. It should prepare players to be able to take on the challenge of blackjack in either tournament style.
PN: The one thing I noticed as well about the UBT was the excitement level of both the audience and the players. Is this something inherent to blackjack?
KE: (Laughs) Well, we certainly have some characters in blackjack! In poker it seems that everyone is quiet and serious. In blackjack, however, the players that are there, such as "Hollywood" Dave (Stann, another prominent blackjack professional), are quite demonstrative. People love to pick out the personalities they like or dislike and cheer for or root against them. It really comes across well during the UBT broadcasts.
PN: How important was it for CBS to give a two year commitment to the program?
KE: It was very important that CBS did this for the UBT. It's almost unheard of for a major television network to give such a commitment to a new program, so when CBS did that, it allowed us to have another "bargaining chip", so to speak, when it came to signing up casinos to participate in the UBT schedule.
PN: From what I understand, the UBT is already getting the second season going, isn't it?
KE: You're correct. The second season of the UBT will be starting on September 27th. We have our first tournament in Aruba, then we'll move on to St. Kitts. By the end of the second season, we'll hit casinos in Paris, Australia and, of course, the United States with Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
PN: While the first season was an invitational event of sorts, the second season is encouraging anyone to come, right?
KE: Oh, definitely. Players can buy into the events for $2500 or they can win their seats online. We have licensed the "elimination blackjack" format to Ultimate Bet and there is also a way to win your way in on the UBT website. Tournaments will be running all the time at these sites, so people can come and earn their way to playing on the UBT.
PN: Were you surprised at how the poker players did in the UBT tournaments?
KE: Not really. We brought the poker professionals in to give the UBT some credibility and they are a very sharp group. Both Phil Hellmuth and Annie Duke were very excited to be asked to play and they took it very seriously. Annie even asked me for tips to improve her play! We thought they wouldn't take it as seriously, but it was totally the opposite, they wanted to be good players. I guess it was just that natural competitive spirit that came out in them, whether playing poker or playing blackjack.
I want to thank Ken for taking the time to talk with us and telling us more on the Ultimate Blackjack Tour. The UBT will be broadcast for the next nine Saturdays (be sure to check local listings for exact times) and will feature the best of the poker world, including Antonio Esfandiari, David "The DevilFish" Ulliot, Hellmuth and Duke battling against the best of the blackjack world, including Ken, the mysterious James Grosjean (who is always in disguise because casinos won't let him play blackjack if they recognize him) and Stann.
If you want to earn your way onto the Ultimate Blackjack Tour, tournaments are running now on the UBT's website, and also can be found at Ultimate Bet. To learn more about one of the best blackjack masters in the world in Ken Einiger, be sure to visit his website at worldblackjackchampion.com.