Russ Hamilton has been interested in gambling since he was 5 years old. Introduced to poker by his father, Russ Hamilton was fascinated by the game and found that he had a knack for it. By the time he reached high school, he was already making a nice chunk of change by organizing card games with his classmates and running football pools. In short, he was hooked for life.
The next step was to attend college, so Russ Hamilton set out to get a degree in electrical engineering. One day, while talking to a professor, it dawned on Russ Hamilton that he was making more money gambling than he would ever rake together in the "real world." Once this epiphany soaked in, Russ dropped out of college and started living the life of a professional gambler.
By the age of 36, he had gone as far as he could go in the Detroit gambling scene, so he decided to head for the greener pastures of Las Vegas. His initial plan was to retire early on his winnings, buy a bar, and then spend his leisure time betting on sports and playing poker.
But fate had other plans for Russ Hamilton, at least for a little while. He ended up joining a tournament blackjack team which included Anthony Curtis, Stanford Wong, Fred David, Blair Rodman and others. He traveled the globe and enjoyed a great deal of success, but then he found himself getting banned from tournaments due to his unusual level of skill. With the blackjack games drying up, he was left with no choice but to return to poker.
To keep himself motivated, Russ set the goal of winning the World Series of Poker. And a few years later, in 1994, he found himself competing against Hugh Vincent in heads-up play at the Main Event. With a King and eight in his hand, Russ went all-in after the flop gave him a pair of eights. Both men ended up with a pair of eights, but Russ' King kicker proved the difference maker and enabled him to pick up a coveted WSOP bracelet.
After his win, Russ focused more on cash games (although he did finish 4th in the 1996 WSOP). While he didn't become a fixture on the tournament circuit, those in the know pointed to Russ as one of the best poker players in the world.
About a decade later, Russ was invited to play in the second World Series of Blackjack, which was to be televised on GSN. According to Russ, "I thought, wow, I'm gonna be on TV, and I got excited. After I watched it, though, I thought, that was the most boring thing I've ever seen in my life."
Russ continued to think about the tournament, and he became convinced that blackjack could be a hit on television if done properly.
"I thought, there has to be a way to make blackjack good for TV. There just has to." said Russ. "People will love blackjack tournaments if you make them exciting for TV."
Russ Hamilton decided that the increase in poker's popularity could be directly tied to television finding ways to increase the sense of drama. For example, the idea of showing the player's hole cards gave the audience information that the other players at a table did not possess and served to heighten the suspense.
Russ was also excited by the potential of television blackjack. From his years as a professional gambler, he knew that far more people played blackjack than poker, so the potential for viewers and new players was much greater.
After consulting with friends, Russ devised the Elimination Blackjack format. At the end of hands 8, 16 and 25, the player with the lowest chip total would be eliminated. This encouraged aggressive play and made things more exciting for the audience. It also guaranteed that the winner would be determined by a heads-up contest, which has always seemed to be one of the more popular aspects of the WSOP.
He also came up with the idea of the secret bet to further enhance suspense. And just like in poker, it was decided that the dealer's hole card would be revealed to the audience via a small camera under the table.
But Hamilton wasn't through coming up with ideas. He also believed that the audience would respond if big-name poker players like Phil Hellmuth, Freddy Deeb and Johnny Chan were to participate. They were invited to try the Elimination Blackjack format, and most absolutely loved it. Since they would be competing against respected, but less well-known, blackjack players, it would result in a major popularity boost for all involved.
The next step for Russ was to contact Jon Moonves, a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer and old friend. After a pitch meeting, Hamilton had found himself a partner. At this point, the Ultimate Blackjack Tour was officially born.
"The Ultimate Blackjack Tour is the best gambling show anyone's ever seen on television," said Hamilton. "It's better than any of the poker shows. Blackjack's gonna explode. In fact, it's going to be even bigger than poker."
A bold claim, to be sure. But if anyone can pull it off, it's Russ Hamilton. After all, he's been defying, and beating, the odds his whole life.
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