Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007 | 7:23 a.m.
Casinos that conduct satellite tournaments for entries into the World Series of Blackjack:
Satellite formats vary by casino. At the Las Vegas Hilton, satellites carried a buy-in of either $1,025 or $2,550. This year's World Series of Blackjack field was limited to 40 players, with a prize pool of $1 million.
Before embarking on a career in the highly competitive and risk-oriented world of television production, Kevin Belinkoff was a gambler of a different sort.
Belinkoff, now vice president of programming for cable channel GSN, would make frequent trips to Las Vegas from his home in Southern California, using his winnings in blackjack, poker and sports betting to support himself.
His experience at the tables and betting windows gave him an edge when GSN - once known as the stamping ground for reruns of "Tic-Tac-Dough" and myriad incarnations of "Password" - initiated a push into original programming a few years ago.
Included among the new shows were serious gambling ventures featuring blackjack and poker competitions.
Talk about an advantage play.
"As we made the transition from the Game Show Network, which we don't call it anymore, to GSN and started doing gaming shows, it was a natural for me because of my background as a player," Belinkoff said last week at the Las Vegas Hilton, where he was coordinating the taping of the fourth World Series of Blackjack.
"We chose not to do poker at first but to do a blackjack show. I had experience as a blackjack player and as a tournament player. I knew what a great game it was and how it could translate well to television."
The fourth World Series of Blackjack, taped in a four-day session at the Hilton Theater - the regular home of Barry Manilow - is scheduled to air in a series of hourlong episodes beginning July 9 on GSN (Cox cable channel 344).
The tournament carries a $1 million prize pool, with $500,000 going to the winner.
Throughout its run, the World Series of Blackjack has been a closed event. Although it is regulated by state gaming officials and overseen by Hilton executives, the results are not publicly released and the number of entrants is limited.
A field of 40 players competed this year, including invited celebrity guests and those who qualified through satellite tournaments held at the Hilton and a handful of other casinos nationwide.
As the event matures, qualifiers who played their way in make up a larger percentage of the field, Belinkoff said.
"The prize money has gone from $250,000 in the first year to a million dollars," Belinkoff said. "We went from strictly an invitational event, where we brought in 25 players we identified either through their blackjack skills or their personalities that we wanted to put on TV, to now, where the majority of players qualify to be here.
"As we put together the first World Series of Blackjack, I had no idea there were so many tournament blackjack players and such skilled tournament blackjack players."
While sheer luck is a factor, blackjack tournament experts are clear mathematical favorites against novices or players taking random shots.
Watching the tournament from a TV production truck parked outside the Hilton, Belinkoff barked out comments on the players' strategy as staff members took notes.
One player, becoming desperately low on chips, had to make a move and bet big. Instead, he pushed out a near-minimum bet. Belinkoff pointed out the error.
Another player doubled down on a favorable hand, which was a good move. Unfortunately, she doubled down "for less," or for fewer chips than the original wager, which was a bad move.
Watch for sportscaster Matt Vasgersian, World Series of Blackjack host, to incorporate Belinkoff's observations when the show airs.
Although invited celebrities will continue to have a place in the field (this year's included Penn Jillette, Shannon Elizabeth, Orel Hershiser and Caroline Rhea), Belinkoff expects satellite tournaments to play a more prominent role in forthcoming editions of the World Series.
Satellites with buy-ins of $1,025 and $2,550 at the Hilton generated 15 entrants into the World Series field, and a long line of people hoping for more satellites had to be turned away.
"We have enough confidence in the game itself and the skill of the players to open it up to anyone who wants to try to prove their worth," Belinkoff said. "That idea is something we're really going to embrace and continue to build on."