Ultimate Blackjack Tour

In May 2006, CBS Sports announced plans to launch a new program to complement its lineup of fall sports broadcasts, the Ultimate Blackjack Tour (UBT). The show would feature a new form of card tournament, known as “Elimination Blackjack,” and allow non-professionals to pit their skills against the best Blackjack players in the world.

The televised tournament and its rules were the brainchild of gaming expert Russ Hamilton, a former Blackjack pro turned Texas Hold’Em specialist, who had gone on to win the main event at the World Series of Poker in 1994. Hamilton reasoned that traditional Blackjack was too slow and deliberate for television, so he added a couple of new wrinkles to make it ready for prime time.

One of those was the introduction of three “Elimination Hands” into a standard 30-hand Blackjack tournament format. The player with the lowest chip total after deals #8, #16, and #25 would have to leave the table and be eliminated from the competition. This injected some much-needed drama and additional risk into the game.

Another innovation was the creation of a “Secret Bet” to add a little mystery. Each round, players would have the opportunity to conceal one of their wagers from the eyes of the other players. This would bring the potential for “bluffing” into the game, another dramatic element.

CBS Sports recruited World Blackjack Champion Ken Einiger and poker luminaries Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, and Annie Duke to appear on the show. The prize pool was funded at over $1 million. Noting that Blackjack was already significantly more popular than poker in the United States and worldwide, 11-time WSOP winner Hellmuth predicted, “The UBT is going to be huge.”

To recruit non-professionals to play in the tournament, satellite tournaments were held at various locations across the country and online, awarding the winners seats at the televised main events. The UBT camera crew traveled the world, stopping in such major cities and resort destinations as Las Vegas and Atlantic City, Paris and Aruba, to film background footage for the series. They also installed a hidden camera in the tournament table at CBS Television City so that TV audiences at home could peek at the dealer’s hidden “hole” card.

So confident were CBS producers of success, the network announced a two-season commitment to broadcasting the Ultimate Blackjack Tour. On September 16, 2006, the new show debuted to a nationwide audience, hosted by Max Rubin and Mati Moralejo. Sideline commentary was provided by reporters Shandi Finnessey and Nikki Ziering.

Season One consisted of 10 episodes: seven weekly events to determine who would sit at the final table for the “Tournament of Champions” in episode 9, plus a “Ladies’ Night” for female players only between elimination rounds five and six. At the conclusion of the season, one special match was played, the “UBT Legends Tournament” with nothing but professional card players.

After a heated battle, the Week 2 winner, American professional Blackjack player and author David Matthews, beat Week 5’s champ, Adriana Jade, to claim victory in Season One. In Week 10, Matthews took on the top pros—Stanford Wong, James Grosjean, “MIT” Mike Aponte, Ken Einiger, Anthony Curtis, and Ken Smith—but lost the finale to Einiger.

In the fall of 2007, CBS kept its promise to air Season Two and followed a worldwide tour schedule, which was open to the public. But faced with sagging ratings, the series was shortened to just seven episodes, including seven weekly tournaments and a final “All-Stars Tournament” for invited pros only.

In Week 4, “Hollywood” Dave Stann beat Poker pro Annie Duke to become the first Season One winner to reprise victory in Season Two. Adriana Jade became the UBT’s second repeat champion by winning her table again in Week 5 over Ken Einiger—proving that the best players really are the best, not just lucky.

In the very last event of the UBT’s brief life, Phil Hellmuth beat a field that included Einiger, Stann, Duke, René Angélil, Freddy Deeb, and Robert Williamson III. Duke would later say of the show, “It was a blast to play and equally exciting to watch.”