The Ultimate?

Apr 24, 2006 1:49 AM

As televised poker tournaments continue to ride the crest of a wave of popularity, the backers of new blackjack game show are hoping they can tap into the public’s fascination with on-air gambling.

Led by entertainment attorney Jon Moonves and producer Houston Curtis, a team of producers and investors have created the "Ultimate Blackjack Tour," a tournament-style version of the classic game, which features a format that combines elements of reality TV and casino gaming.

But in an unusual move, the backers of UBT — along with Russ Hamilton, the 1994 winner of the World Series of Poker — decided to bypass the usual development process to get their game on the air.

Instead, they decided to shell out more than seven figures (on speculation!) to produce an entire 10-episode series, which was filmed at the Montelago Casino at Lake Las Vegas.

In a nutshell, the 30-hand "elimination blackjack" format dumps players at various levels of play. A secret bet provision ups the drama in the game, which is won not by beating the house, but by collecting more chips than other players.

"We’ve given away over $1.2 million in prize money during the first season," Curtis said. "It’s got the drama of a reality show with the thrill of high-stakes casino gaming."

Curtis added that the major difference between UBT and other blackjack spin-offs is the format’s forced-elimination rules. Three times during each game, a player is forced out, a la "Survivor," if they have the least number of chips on the table.

Pitch meetings on the project have just begun with Blackjack Entertainment — the company behind the show — taking meetings with cable and broadcast networks, as well as syndicators. The show is expected to debut in the fall.

A few outlets, including GSN, have already attempted blackjack shows in the wake of TV’s poker craze. Moonves, a partner at the firm of Del, Shaw, Moonves, Tanaka and Finkelstein, said his group decided it needed to show networks a finished product in order to demonstrate how their idea was different from other skeins.

"We knew if we talked about a gaming show, people would have in their mind shows that already exists," he said. "We knew ours would be a bigger show, with bigger production values, and the best way to show that was to do it rather than describe it."

A number of high-profile poker and blackjack players took part in the first round of episodes, including the so-called "MIT Mike" profiled in the bestseller "Bringing Down the House." Poker champs Phil Hellmuth and Antonio Esfandiari also competed, as did World Series of Poker bracelet winner and actress Jennifer Tilly.

Many of the players compete in disguise and/or under assumed names since they’ve been banned from casinos for card counting, Moonves said.

In addition to launching a national media campaign on behalf of the game, a tie-in web site is planned that will allow players to win seats to the UBT.

Moonves said he and his partners don’t consider the spec financing of the project much of a risk. "We’re going to get this on the air. We’re confident of that," he said.