I have two distinct lives. One in the trenches of low-budget film and television, the other in professional gambling. Because of the feast-or-famine nature of show business I need a reliable income... gambling. So here you will read about both worlds. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Gambling With an Edge - guest Michael Gaughan

The guest on the show this week is Michael Gaughan, owner of the South Point Casino in Las Vegas.
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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Gambling With an Edge - guest Stanford Wong

The guest this week is Stanford Wong, on to discuss his book Sharp Sports Betting.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

Advice to new Advantage Players

Over the course of my career in gambling, when people learn what I do they often say, “Can you teach me to do that?”  Some of them sounded really serious, and I spent quite some time with them only to learn that they really were not serious about learning once they realized that it actually requires effort. After wasting dozens of hours with a few people I developed a new approach.  Now when asked I respond, “Go learn basic strategy perfectly, and come back.” 99% of those people I never hear from again. People who read blackjack books are like people who buy books about diet or exercise. They want to read the book one night, and wake up the next day thin, or fit, or able to win money in casinos. A few people have come back claiming to have learned basic strategy, and I ask them, “When do you split nines?” or the killer, “What do you do with A7?”  Then I get answers like, “I mostly know it.”

This brings me to my son who recently turned 18.  A couple years ago he expressed interest in learning to play.  I told him he had years before he would be able to play, but if he wanted to get started he should read Blackbelt in Blackjack by Arnold Snyder, and then learn basic strategy. I usually recommend Blackbelt, or Knock-Out Blackjack for beginners even though my first book was Playing Blackjack as a Business by Lawrence Revere.  I told him there are also some good trainers for learning basic strategy online; one good one is at He’s had two years with the book, and now at 18 he can legally play at several casinos in California, but of course he hasn’t learned basic strategy yet. I have 2 friends of many years, one taught his son to play, and the other his son-in-law.  Both of these fine young men have made hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, and I swear neither one of them could ace a basic strategy test.  But they both have the benefit of nepotism as will my son.

Here is my advice to my son, as well as anyone else starting out as an advantage player.

1. Your success will be determined by how hard you work, and how many friends you have.

I think these two things are true no matter what your business, but many people fail to realize how important the second thought is.  I can not begin to count the hundreds of thousands of dollars I have made over my career because a friend called me up and said, “There is a really good game at “blank” or “We have this project starting up; do you want to be a part of it?” Just a few months ago I was walking through a casino with Bob Dancer.  We walked past a row of slot machines, and he casually said in passing, “These slots are beatable.”  I haven’t made any money from those slot machines yet, but you get the idea.

2. You must move beyond counting cards as quickly as possible. Counting cards has the smallest edge, and the most heat.  If you scout a casino, and the only option you see is a blackjack count game, you are better off leaving for another casino.

3. Do not listen to people on the internet. Here are some of the things you will read.

Computers are illegal, and if you use one you will end up in jail.  (They are in NV but that doesn’t mean they are everywhere else)

You can’t bet big without a players card.  (Total bullshit.  I do it all the time.)

Casinos don’t cheat because they would lose their license. (Nonsense, a casino in Las Vegas wouldn’t lose their license if they murdered someone.  Maybe someone would get fired.  They don’t cheat because it would be bad for business.  Cheating does go on, rarely, and not as a casino policy but usually by some dealer who has taken it on himself for some twisted reason.)

The world is a dangerous and scary place.  Don’t go to foreign casinos because they cheat, and you could end up in jail or worse. (The world is full of fascinating places and interesting people.  Don’t be afraid to go out and live.  And what can be better than seeing the world and earning money while you do it? Yes, you have to be extra careful in some places, but then that is true in Gary, Indiana or Atlantic City, New Jersey.)

6-5 games are the death of blackjack.  (For many players 6-5 has been a boon.)

4.  Your identity has real value.  Do not give it up for a free buffet, in fact never use a players card without a good reason.  Getting a room comp is NOT a good reason. The only good reason that comes to mind is your ev is coming from something the casino is giving you, like cash, airfare reimbursement in cash, fight tickets that are worth cash, loss rebates in cash. (note a pattern here) If this is the case then that is your ev and you should not play in any way that may get you heat as an advantage player.

5. Whether you study history, economics, or advantage play it is not about memorizing names, and dates, and numbers.  It is about learning how to think. I read a post on a blackjack forum.  A dealer was offering the shoe to be cut and exposed a few cards on the back of the shoe.  3 of clubs, 7 of clubs, ace of spades.  The player cut about 1 deck and then waited.  About one deck in he saw his 3 of clubs, bet big, and caught his ace of spades.  Good for him for keeping his eyes open, and taking advantage of a good situation, but what is more important is that you learn to think. When you run into this type of thing ask yourself:

“What caused the dealer to expose those cards?”
“Is it possible I could find more of these opportunities?”
“Are there other dealers who might be prone to this?”
“What if I scouted for dealers to see if I could find this opportunity again?”
“Is it possible that this could apply to other games?”

Actions speak louder than words - and get the money. 99/100 people on the boards will look at the above example and say, "Yeah, that is a big edge, but I'll only see that once every hundred years." (See #3)

6. I think one of the most important things I can tell you is this - right now there are games out there worth $1,000 or $2,000 per hour.  There are many games out there right now worth $500 per hour. They are there. If you go out and dig you will find the gold. (See #1) And when you find it... remember who your friends are.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

New Ideas in Backgammon by Kit Woolsey & Hal Heinrich

Another guest book review by Jake Jacobs

 by Kit Woolsey & Hal Heinrich

Does anyone know what piece of technology revolutionized backgammon? Picture a time so remote that assigning it a date would serve no useful purpose. Imagine a troglodyte, toiling in his lonely cave. Gnawing absently on the shank of a sheep (the tallow waxing his matted beard), he grunts in concentration. He seeks to invent...something. Fire, the wheel, papyrus, or perhaps a Maytag washer. Anything that will change the course of history. Finally, he has it. He holds up a curious object. It is a rectangle of stiff paper, with triangular symbols stamped like mystic runes upon it. Yes, it’s the young Larry Strommen, and he has just invented the position card! (I am not sure that Larry invented the position card, but I buy all mine from Larry, so I thought I would give him a plug.)

I take these cards and record interesting positions. Thousands of them. On the back I record pertinent data: history, players, rollouts. Then, I throw the cards in a huge paper bag, stored under my bed, where they have turned into compost. Friends, like Paul Franks, are always saying to me: “You know what kind of book people want to read? A problem book with lots of positions. I love those. Forget that “Fish” stuff. No one wants to read it. I only read the pages with my name on them, anyway! Take those little cards of yours and do a problem book.” Sorry, Paul. I don’t go into that bag without Kevlar body armor and tranquilizer darts. God knows what sort of dangerous mutant things are growing down there, but most nights I see emergency vehicles, mars lights flashing, zipping around under my bed. (I should switch to O’Doul’s). Fortunately for Paul, someone else went ahead and wrote one.

Hal Heinrich, the World Champ from Calgary, has, instead of positions, collected entire matches. He stores them away in a “data base”, which is the micro-chip equivalent of the paper bag under the bed. By now no one knows what festers there, but reliable rumor has it that seven or eight of the top rated players on FIBS are actually computer viruses spawned in Hal’s cyber-swamp.

Hal collaborates with famed player/author/analyst Kit Woolsey. Kit is one of the finest games players in the world. In addition to his accomplishments in backgammon, he is a world class bridge player (and writer - his MATCHPOINTS is rightly regarded as a classic), and a top blackjack player. In an article on the “ten best gamblers in the world” Kit’s name was second. He is only a mediocre player at “Settlers Of Catan”, but no one is good at everything.

Together they have done a series of annotated matches for book and computer. Their latest effort, NEW IDEAS IN BACKGAMMON, arose from their research. The other great technical advance in backgammon, almost as incredible as the position card, is JellyFish. JF’s creator, Fredrick Dahl, has provided Hal and Kit with a version of Jelly that rolls out entire matches. The program flags plays whenever it “thinks” the player has made a play significantly worse than the one Jelly prefers. When Hal and Kit found that they, too, missed Jelly’s recommended play, they decided the position merited study. After elaborate screening, including submitting several hundred plays to a panel of experts, they collected the 104 problem positions treated in their new book. The positions are grouped into seven chapters, each problem in the chapter relating to that chapter’s theme.

The format is simple, with all the best features of a problem book, and a few new, good features all its own. Each position is pictured, then Kit devotes a page or two to describing the candidate plays, and discusses their possible strengths and weaknesses. Then, the best play is shown in diagram, with a follow-up discussion of why that play wins out. In an appendix, the rollout results are given for all plays, along with an indication of which plays the panel chose, and what play was done over the board.

The problems are tough. Here are problems 81 and 82 from the chapter “Scrambling Home”. They have something in common. Can you guess what?

I warned you they were hard. The common element is the importance of the five point. If you want to take another minute to rethink your plays, go ahead before I give the best plays, and summarize the explanations.
Only one of the panelists chose to hit by switching points in problem 81. Good, because switching is very wrong. Most found individual solutions to the problem of builder deployment. Three found the best possible deployment of builders: put two men right on the five point with 7-5 . Kit’s explanation is that this is not a priming position, it is an attacking position. Build the five, then go after Black’s blot.

Almost to a man, the panel selected 13-7, 4-2 in problem 82. Only the original player tried the craven 15-13 , 7-3. The best play is 15-11 . One panelist actually chose that. Kit’s explanation is that without the five point, the bar point is not effective. The five can’t be built this turn, so the best alternative is the play that exerts the most “control” over the five point. Building the eleven point does that.

I like to imagine these problems arising in a consulting chouette. I think I might, depending on current climate conditions, choose to make the five point in problem 81. I further think I might convince my chouettemates to go with that play. I would not have chosen to make the eleven point in response to problem 82, and I am damn sure I could never convince my mates in any chouette to go along with it, even if I had access to NEW IDEAS and could read them the proof of its rightness.

Is this solution right? I think so. The authors devote the introduction to a detailed explanation of their rollout methods. They succeeded in convincing me that most of the plays in the book are probably right, and right by a lot. They concede that there may be a few that slipped through the cracks, but in all likelyhood, this book’s recommended plays are as accurate as the recommendations of any problem book published.

There are two other matters that do trouble me. First, although cube locations appear with the diagrams, we are told to ignore the cube. This does not mean that the plays given are the best play at double match point, it means that we have to ignore a factor that may override all other considerations. Also, no match score is ever given.

The difference in expected value between the “best” play, 21-15 , 8-2x , and the chosen play, 21-9 , is .110. This is a HUGE amount. Pointing wins nearly twice as many gammons. What if the score happened to be 7-8 to 9, post-Crawford? Now, the player’s original choice of making the 9 point would be correct, as it wins about 5% more games than its aggressive counterpart. For that matter, does the expected value correspond with the depicted cube location in all cases? We are not told. JellyFish rollouts provide data for all four possible locations of the cube, but the book provides only one set for each problem, and never specifies just which of the four it is.

The second flaw has to do with Kit’s analysis. Most writers attack a problem with math, or logic, or rollout data. Their aim is to show that a particular move is right. Kit’s approach has always been to explain the approach that should allow YOU to arrive at the correct answer. Generally he arrives at his answers through “induction”, building argument upon argument till he has constructed a solid case. This time, he has to use “deduction”. He is looking at JellyFish’s answer, and finding ways of dismissing the alternate plays, until only Jelly’s choice remains. If he had tried to go both ways, first building his case, then,when his choice differed from Jelly’s (and according to the introduction that should have been at least half the time), explained why he had fallen into error, the book would be even stronger.

The above complaints aside, this book more than lives up to its billing. I would not recommend it to beginners. Kit’s style is clear enough that they will easily grasp his arguments, but beginners need to ground themselves thoroughly in the basics, to master and memorize the rules. This book will fill their heads with exceptions. For everyone else, from advanced intermediate to expert, the book is a must read. The more expert you are, or hope to be, the more certain it is that you need a copy of this one on your shelf.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Gambling With an Edge - guest Shirley Dancer

The guest on the show this week is Shirley Dancer, Bob Dancer's wife.  She discusses what it is like to be married to a professional gambler.
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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Gambling With an Edge - guest BJ Traveller

The guest on the show this week is BJ Traveller.  BJT is Chinese and has played blackjack in 66 casinos around the world, and written 10 books about his exploits.  You can read my print interview with him here under the interviews link.
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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Backgammon Boot Camp - Book Review

Today we have a guest book review by backgammon expert Jake Jacobs.

Ship me off to the front lines; I’m a graduate of Backgammon Boot Camp! Before proceeding with a review of Walter Trice’s new book disclosure is in order. Approximately nine years ago this month Walter and I began a collaboration that resulted the following year in Can A Fish Taste Twice As Good? (Still available from Flint area backgammon suppliers everywhere!) Co authorship is not always synonymous with friendship; Gilbert and Sullivan didn’t speak to each other during the later years of their collaboration. Walter and I though have remained friends, so I am predisposed to look favorably on his efforts. That would have presented a dilemma had Walter’s book proved mediocre, but fortunately it is excellent, so I don’t need to find diplomatic ways of burying it with faint praise.
Backgammon Boot Camp was set up on the Internet, specifically on Gammon Village, a site where Walter and I were featured columnists. I don’t know if Walter ever poked his head in the door of my cyber cubicle to scan the articles I had posted on the walls, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I had not read his. Gammon Village Editor Michael Strato proposed that Walter do a regular column for beginners, hence “Boot Camp.” Early on I read one, deduced that the columns would be pitched to entry level readers, and never went back. My embarrassment is not because, as an erstwhile collaborator, I owe Walter the courtesy of reading his output. (We had no such agreement, spoken or unspoken.) My embarrassment is because I owed it to myself to read him. Why? Because reading fine writing is a pleasure in itself, regardless of content, and Walter is a fine writer. His clarity is such that he can unravel the eleven dimensions of String Theory for a seven-year old, or even teach your grandmother to program a VCR, and he is so precise that if a comma is out of place you may be sure it was moved by the maid while dusting.
Luckily, thanks to Jeremy Bagai, I’ve gotten a second chance. Jeremy (smart enough to have followed Walter’s chronicle from the beginning) has launched a new backgammon publishing venture, the Fortuitous Press. Jeremy edited Walter’s sixty Boot Camp columns into a fifty-seven chapter book. (The book is a very attractive paperback running nearly three-hundred and fifty pages, which makes its $40 price tag a bargain.)
The first ten chapters are indeed basic, but with Sergeant Trice putting the recruits through their paces, by Chapter Eleven they are ready for slightlymore advanced material. Here is Position 2-1 from Page 78, the first position presented in Chapter Eleven.
I would have gotten this wrong. My impulse was to enter on the twenty-point and hit White on the three; maximum builders remain aimed at the gap in the prime, and most of White’s entering sixes are awkward. The right play is to enter on the twenty-two, and quietly bring down a builder to the eight-point. Perhaps that was obvious to you from the beginning, but fear not, Walter will find something to test you.
How about this? Position 7-26 (Page 290) is one of a series Walter has taken from Bill Robertie’s 1981 classic Lee Genud versus Joe Dwek. In the actual match Joe Dwek opted for 18/16*, 6/1*, a play Walter describes as: “a rather suave bit of ‘70s/early-‘80s purity.” He adds that: “the play may look weird to a modern player, but it really isn’t so bad!” I don’t know whether to feel weird, or rather suave, as this would have been my choice. But I am a weirdly suave player who learned the game during that era. Let Walter explain the best play: “Position 7-26 shows off the normal correctness of the primitive approach. Hit blots. Make points. 18/16* hits a blot. 7/2 makes a point. Any questions?”
Got that, recruit? If not, drop and give me fifty!
Position 7-15 (Page 276), White on roll leading 15-14 to 25. Should White double? After you’ve tortured yourself calculating the match equities to determine whether or not White’s lead makes a difference I’ll ‘fess up: the question was deliberately misleading. Not only should White double, White is almost too good! I would have snatched this cube. (Joe Dwek correctly passed.)
By now it should be apparent: this is a book for players of all levels.
I have been giving you content up to now, denying you (for the most part) Walter’s analysis. Here is a longer quote, the opening to the chapter entitled “How To Win Four Points.”
It is no secret you can win four points in a single game of a backgammon match. Nonetheless, many players seem to forget this at key moments in their matches! The procedure has two parts: first you double, then you win a gammon. Both steps are essential, and they must be carried out in the right order. It does no good (less good at any rate) to get a powerful game with gammon chances when all you do with it is to collect one point!
 In the chapter Walter discusses proper play when you need all four points in a four-point match. Understanding of the paragraph above (and those of you who don’t understand it don’t know who you are) will add the equivalent of fifty to one hundred rating points to your match play. That much from five sentences; figure for yourself what you can gain by reading this book!
Having given Walter his due praise, I’ll mention a few items he should take up with his maid. First, Position 6-3 (Page 231) in the box listing the ranking of plays according to Snowie, he seems to have rolled out the best play against one of the worst. There are various explanations possible, but since he does not even mention the candidate that he apparently rolled out an explanation ought to be supplied. Next, Position 7-12 (pages 273 and 274). Walter faults Dwek’s pass. I would too, since based upon the score and color scheme it is Dwek doubling!
There is also a Final Exam, and the maid’s duster must have been in a flurry back there. After each question Walter supplies the number of the chapter you should consult if you are not sure of the answer. Questions 2-4 all claim to be drawn from Chapter Ten. I did find the answer to Question 4 in Chapter Eleven (though annoyingly, the question is a fill-in-the-blank, and there seems to be no actual sentence that matches exactly what Walter calls for). I know I could find the proper chapter to answer Question 3, but I stopped looking. It was Question 2 that drove me nuts! “What are the three ways to win a game of backgammon?” Sounds like a bit of baseball trivia: how many ways are there to get to first base? There are about twenty-seven, as I recall: base hit, base on balls, hit by pitch, dropped third strike, Abner Doubleday’s birthday, catch her under the mistletoe, France invades Luxembourg … But the three ways to win a backgammon game? I can think of these: bearing off your last checker, opponent drops your double, opponent concedes, opponent’s flag falls in a clocked match, opponent picks up the board and hurls it through the window of Jay’s Bar & Grill out into the middle of State Street! Actually, that last one won’t apply again until 2006 (at the discretion of the Illinois State Parole Board). Walter doesn’t discuss most of those. Three ways? Maybe it is something really obvious, like: plain game, gammon, and backgammon, but good grief!
There is one more tiny error. Walter compares backgammon to Roller Derby, which he describes as “defunct.” Not in Tucson, Walter! (And if Tucson has discovered Roller Derby, let’s hope backgammon isn’t far behind!) Why is backgammon like Roller Derby? Because both are races, where, if one is ahead, one strives to break contact, but if one is behind, one tries to mix it up. How apt! And the next time you run with an opening 65, and Mary Hickey body checks you into a wall, you’ll know who to blame!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Backgammon Million

Back in 2007 there was a million dollar tournament held at the Atlantis Casino in the Bahamas.  It was a big deal, and it is happening again.  This time the tournament will be held at the Playboy club in London.  The dates are November 25 through November 29, 2012.  There will be a bracket of 128 for the main event, and a high roller event with a bracket of 32.  They expect the total prize pool to be $1.7 million, and the tournament will be televised.  I'm not sure how that is going to work since watching people play backgammon doesn't seem like the most dramatic TV, but who knows? London is one of my favorite cities so this just may bring me out of backgammon retirement.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

When to quit

My local paper has a poker column on Sundays, and today's column was about when a poker player should quit playing.  This is a question I see discussed a lot on blackjack forums, and is something I am often asked about by civilians.  The correct answer is going to depend on several factors, but first a couple stories.

When Atlantic City first opened there was a period of time where the blackjack game offered an advantage off the top for a basic strategy player.  Many professionals were there playing including Alan Woods who is profiled in Gambling Wizards. One day Alan reached some arbitrary winning number, like he was up $30,000 or $50,000 for the day, and he decided to quit playing.  What made this unusual is that he was in the middle of a shoe with a high count, meaning he had a bigger than normal advantage.  Other card counters teased Alan for years about quitting in the middle of a positive shoe.  They looked at this as some kind of voodoo since professionals should look at all gambling as one long session, and your results over a given day, or week don't matter.  You have to think about it in terms of your result over a year, or many years. Alan's justification was that  leaving a positive shoe was no big deal since positive shoes were everywhere.  He has reached a personal goal that made him happy, and playing out the rest of the shoe for another hundred or two in ev. was not worth the emotional risk of losing back several thousand.  It's not a choice I would have made, but I understand his reasoning.

Story 2: I went on a trip with a friend, and we hit a casino at noon for a very good game which we played for 8 hours.  The shift was changing, and we drove to another casino, found another very good game and played another straight 8 hours.  At the end of swing shift he said, "You know, there is an even better game on graveyard." I had to decline.  16 straight hours was my limit.  I felt like Alan; there is always a good game somewhere, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  You have to decide what kind of life you want to live. I didn't quit because I had won a certain amount of money, I quit because I was tired.

Story 3: I leave on a trip from Wednesday to Sunday.  I call my wife on Friday and say we're up 20k so far.  She says, "Quit playing.  Come home."  Now that is voodoo, and she knows when she says it that it will never happen, but it has become kind of a running gag between us. Similarly, if I call on Sunday morning and say I am losing she will say, "Don't come home."

These are the reasons I will end a play.

  1. The conditions have deteriorated such that I think the game is no longer worth playing, 
  2. I get fatigued and feel my ability to play well is diminished.
  3. I feel like there is heat on the play that may cause me to be barred or the casino may figure out what I am doing.
  4. I am close to triggering a CTR.  (Not because I am worried about CTRs but because it would mean having to give the casino my ID.)
  5. I winning an amount that I think is a choke-point for that casino. Every casino has an amount that if a player gets that much ahead the casino manager has to be called, and management starts freaking out. At the Wynn that amount might be $100k whereas at Harrahs it might be $20k.  I don't want to win over that number.
  6. I am still alert but I have put in enough hours and want to eat or sleep.
If you are not playing with an advantage, say you just like to go to your local casino or Vegas to gamble. Then you should realize that the less you play the better it is for you.  Look for reasons not to play. I read some craps system that advised waiting for a shooter on the craps table to make at least 5 rolls before you start betting on him.  Well this is great because those 5 rolls with no bets are saving you money. If you must gamble with a disadvantage then have a set amount you are willing to lose and don't go below it.  Come up with rules to sit out hands at blackjack, like - I always sit out a hand after being dealt 16. The more rules you have not to make a bet the better it will be for you.

One more story - On a recent trip I was playing with a partner.  We played for 2 days, did very well, and won what I think was a significant amount at that particular casino.  The third day we both had late flights, and had to decide whether to play the third morning.  I decided not to play, and let my partner play it alone. I thought it would look odd for both of us to show up again on the same table 3 days in a row.  I thought it would be better for both of us in the long run, and it gave me time to go scout another casino before my flight. He played and picked up an extra thousand or two in ev. but I'm happy with our decision.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Gambling With an Edge - guest Eliot Jacobson

Eliot is a Ph.D. mathematician and former advantage player. Now Eliot works as a consultant designing casino games, auditing Internet casinos, and advising on game security. On the show Mike and Bob ask Eliot about switching sides, and the latest advantage plays, among other topics.
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