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Gambling to Pay the Bills

Two Mathematicians Write the Book on How to Beat the Casinos and Kiss Your Boss Goodbye
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

(continued from page 1)

These daydreamers, as well as anyone else curious about how a professional gambler plies his trade, should read Sklansky and Malmuth's new book, Gambling for a Living (How to Make $100,000 a Year). Although the title sounds reminiscent of a late-night infomercial, the book is the straight dope. Instead of ridiculous theories, the authors advance irrefutable facts, showing which casino games are beatable, which are not, and why. They are realists, not fabulists. Their prose does not shimmer with the gloss of fantasy; it's dry, clear and honest. And it's true.

Gambling for a Living is not a particularly entertaining book, merely a powerful one. Which is what the authors intended. "We're so boring we're interesting," Sklansky, 49, says over dinner at a Las Vegas casino. "Winning at gambling isn't about discovering some earth-shattering secret. It's about finding a whole bunch of small edges. We've uncovered all the edges."

His partner, Malmuth, 46, adds, "Gambling correctly is often boring. And most people don't come to a casino to be bored. But we're two trained mathematicians and statisticians, with a pretty deep understanding of probability and logic. Making the right decision and winning the money is what excites us."

A native of Teaneck, New Jersey, Sklansky is a former num-bers prodigy who scored 800 on the math S.A.T., attended The Wharton School of business for a year, and dropped out to become a professional gambler.

Of the two partners, Sklansky is the more flamboyant, a self-described anti-authoritarian with a knack for "outside the lines" thinking. Generally considered one of the best poker players in the world, he's prone to grandiloquent pronouncements and a conviction in his infallibility that might seem arrogant in anyone less bright. In a home video entitled "Sklansky: The Video" and brilliant books like Getting the Best of It and Poker, Gaming & Life, his unqualified certainty is enormously appealing.

Mason Malmuth, originally from Coral Gables, Florida, is "the sane one," keeping regular hours and dependably chronicling and organizing the innovative ramblings of his rebellious partner. While Sklansky contributes up to 70 percent of the duo's ideas, Malmuth writes up to 70 percent of the prose, expressing sometimes difficult concepts in his studious, methodical fashion. In penetrating books like Gambling Theory and Other Topics and Blackjack Essays, Malmuth provides the kind of complex, detailed analysis most popular gambling authors wouldn't attempt, much less understand.

Clearly, the pair mesh well, producing a body of work that serious players find indispensable. For years Sklansky and Malmuth have been teaching players how to be better gamblers, whether at the poker table, the blackjack pits or the race track. While both writers like to explore the theoretical underpinnings of casino games--indeed, Sklansky's Theory of Poker is the definitive work on the subject--their methods, tested in real-world conditions, produce profits, not just bright ideas. "It's almost inconceivable to give great advice and not be a winning player," Malmuth says. "We're essentially professional gamblers who happen to do some writing."

Many old-timers, wily gamblers who rely on instinct and guile, initially scoffed at the professorial pair, dismissing them as two brainy windbags. Most of those early critics are broke today. "They just didn't keep up with the newest thinking," Malmuth says.

Since Sklansky and Malmuth began producing their revela-tory books over a decade ago, the general level of expertise around American poker and blackjack tables has risen exponentially. Doesn't this increased sophistication make earning a living as a professional gambler that much harder? "I generally assume every player plays badly until proven otherwise," Sklansky says. "And about one out of 20 times I'm proven wrong. But it's true: people don't want to embarrass themselves in front of me or Mason. They have incentive to play their best, as if the teacher was looking over their shoulder."

Malmuth concurs: "I've noticed I do better the first day or two in a new casino, before I'm recognized. We figure it's a small cost of having a successful publishing business."

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