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Shortcut to Gambling Nirvana

Enlighten your path to enlarged winnings at poker, sports, blackjack and golf
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Jay-Z, May/June 2009

(continued from page 1)

Billy Walters is widely acknowledged to be one of the most successful sports bettors of all time. His wagering-derived income has provided a foundation for him to purchase golf courses, real estate and an impressive stock portfolio. But Walters' success with sports is predicated on more than simply picking teams that can cover the spread. He employs a staff of computer analysts, money runners and intuitive handicappers. On game days, Walters considers their suggestions and formulates advantageous wagers. In short, he succeeds by knowing more than the bookies. The likelihood of you or me pulling that off is a long shot. But there are other, easier ways to find an edge.

According to the pseudonymous Steve Fezzik, an insurance executive—turned—professional gambler who wagers $60,000 or so per betting day, a few things can be done to overcome the spreads. For starters, shop for lines as if you're shopping for a parity product and you're only concerned about finding the best price. When betting basketball or football, he says, you begin by figuring out the correct point spread. "In Las Vegas, the sharpest line is usually at South Point Casino; online it's at," advises Fezzik, adding that you use the information to uncover bookmakers offering better than baseline. "If you're betting against a local bookie, he's probably not moving the line very much. Just by knowing what the actual line should be, and making plays that will be in your favor, you're already realizing an advantage."

If you're betting via the Internet, Fezzik says, a good site to check out is "Bodog has two lines: one for recreational players and one for sharp players. The sharp bettor might get 6 on a game"—which is the correct number—"but they'll give 7 to the recreational guy." Similarly, betting an underdog on the first half of a game can be great when the favorite is giving up 1 point. Applied to the entire game, the single point is fairly innocuous, since games rarely finish as draws. "But if you're making a halftime bet, a half-point [which is what you get for half the game] is very meaningful: a lot of halves end in ties."

Even if you know little about sports, consider past performances and current expectations of teams. In other words, says Fezzik, "Once a team goes on a big streak, covering the point spread four or five games in a row, that is when you want to go against them. Usually it means that the oddsmakers started out underrating the team and will eventually come around to overrating them." That is your chance to step in and start taking advantage.

If you happen to be betting in, say, an office pool, where there are no point spreads, where everyone needs to simply pick winners and at the end of the season the person with the most winning teams gets the money, Fezzik suggests going for all the favorites along with a couple of slight underdogs. Why the dogs? "You're not the only one who's figured out that betting favorites is the way to have an advantage, but if you bet all favorites, you will tie with other guys who are doing the exact same thing. By throwing in a few close underdogs, you give yourself a chance to win."


Blackjack is a beatable game. Unlike poker and betting on sports and golf, it's purely mathematical. Play blackjack properly, for a number of hours, and you are favored to win money. But that's not as easy as it sounds. Mastering card counting—a system by which you track the cards that have been dealt and then make statistically advantageous plays based on the cards that remain—is fairly difficult and time-consuming. Furthermore, getting to the point where card-counting becomes so ingrained that it seems completely effortless and natural—and you avoid rousing suspicion at the casino—can be a lifelong endeavor. If you do get caught as a card counter, you'll be barred from playing blackjack, which is no way to enjoy a vacation.

Mathematician and former blackjack pro Olaf Vancura has devised a stripped-down solution, detailed in a book called Knock-Out Blackjack. His system is so mathematically simple that a fifth grader could do it. The most extreme card-counting plays will not be part of your routine (so you'll cut down on profits, but you won't get caught). However, you first need to perfect basic strategy by following the rules on those little laminated cards sold in casino gift shops—or found online at sites such as "People succumb to whims and superstition when they play blackjack," says Vancura, who has a Ph.D. in physics and a number of casino-game patents to his credit. "If you want to play this game successfully, you can't think in terms of patterns"—i.e., because you got dealt two 20s in a row, a third one ought to be coming. He smiles tightly, then says, "We try to make something out of short-term fluctuations that may not be mathematically sound."

Once you're settled in with basic strategy, Vancura's rookie system requires a very straightforward card-counting regimen: 2s through 7s receive a value of plus-1, 8s and 9s are zero, and 10s through aces are minus-1. In a single-deck game, if the count is below plus-2, you bet one unit (say, $25), and if the count goes to 2 or higher you bet two units (say, $50). That is it. For double-deck games you begin the count at negative-4 and raise the bet at plus-1; for six-deck games, the count starts at negative-20 and you begin betting two units when it hits negative-4. To become proficient at counting cards, go through a single deck and apply the above values to the cards as you turn them over. You should end up with a count of plus-4. Once you can do it accurately, in 30 seconds or less, you're ready to hit the tables.

In addition to using the mathematics outlined above, which in itself will put you in good stead, you might want to keep a side count of aces, estimate the number of cards that have already been dealt, and memorize and sometimes implement 20 or so deviations from basic strategy. Because you don't need to execute the mental gymnastics of full-on card counting (especially without the above additives), Vancura's approach allows for low stress and a slight edge over the casino. "Traditional card-counting systems are not fun; they're mentally taxing," says Vancura. "My system is accessible to every guy on the street who's not into studying for days on end before visiting a casino. My guy wants to have fun and play with an advantage."

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