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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 2)

Sklansky and Malmuth met in 1984, when Malmuth, then a probability theory expert for the Northrop Corp., wandered into the Bicycle Club card casino, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. "I wanted to not have a job," Malmuth confesses. "Vegas sounded good, but I needed to learn how to play the games." He went to the Bicycle Club to get lessons, specifically from a certain David Sklansky who had a reputation as a world-class poker player. In exchange for 10 percent of Malmuth's winnings, up to $100,000, Sklansky agreed to tutor his student in the ways of the poker table, revealing what were then little-known secrets that give the accomplished player a demonstrable edge.

Many of Sklansky's lectures were about Hold'em, a "new" form of poker that, since 1976, had quickly supplanted Seven Card Stud as the most popular game in Las Vegas. (Indeed, a no-limit version of Hold'em was--and still is--the game of choice to decide the world champion at the World Series of Poker, held at Binion's Horseshoe.) The game had yet to be legalized in California, but since Mason Malmuth wanted to conquer Las Vegas, Hold'em was what Sklansky taught him.

Malmuth, who holds a master's degree in mathematics from Virginia Tech, took copious notes, as though the casinos were just another classroom in his predominately academic life. After months of tutelage, he compiled his notes into a personal portfolio. Though this type of distillation would normally be coveted by hundreds of players, professional and otherwise, Malmuth kept the document private, sharing it with only his closest friends.

In 1988, shortly after Hold'em became legal in California, Sklansky, noting the demand for his winning insights, proposed publishing Malmuth's notes as a book. Malmuth initially demurred, arguing that the information was too powerful, that it would give what amounted to a higher education to a student body of functionally illiterate gamblers. Sklansky convinced his partner that an authoritative book would encourage people to play poker, that this indirect promotion would be good for the poker industry in general, and, in the final accounting, would be good for expert players.

Malmuth's notes of his private lessons became Hold'em Poker for Advanced Players. It was an immediate success. Anyone serious about playing the game well had to read the book. To this day that remains the case. Ten years after its initial edition, the book sells more copies every year than the year previous.

In 1989, Malmuth and Sklansky repeated the process with Seven Card Stud for Advanced Players. It, too, quickly became essential reading. For while other books showed gamblers how to lose less, Sklansky and Malmuth showed gamblers how to win. Playing poker without having learned their powerful concepts was akin to entering the priesthood without having read the Bible.

In 1989, they agreed to unify their disparate titles--they have written about a dozen books between them--under the banner of their own publishing company, named 2+2=4, as a nod to the importance math equations have played in their lives. The company (which can be reached at 702/896-1326) is now owned solely by Malmuth; Sklansky receives 50 percent of the royalties from any book he authors or co-authors. Since its inception, 2+2 has issued a book by either or both annually. And while some sell better than others, each volume has one defining virtue: the information is unassailably, logically, mathematically correct.

Now this may not seem particularly revolutionary. Books by "experts" are supposed to be pillars of veracity. But the subject of gambling tends to attract an army of literary flakes and charlatans, who prey upon the pipe dreams of uninformed losers who want someone--anyone, especially if he sounds like he knows something--to give them the Rosetta stone that will unlock the casino's impenetrable vaults. The best-selling gambling books in America dispense seemingly sage advice on how to beat unbeatable games, how to use "money management" to overcome the House advantage, and, in the most fanciful tomes, how to discover "secrets," "tricks" and "formulas" to "break the bank."

In other words, many popular gambling books have little practical use, save for wrapping fish.

Here's an example: some gambling authors--not to men-tion many casinos--urge customers to play 25-cent video poker machines that pay a $10,000 bonus for reversible royal flushes (royal flushes in sequence), claiming that when added to the usual $1,000 payoff this pot sweetner makes the machines, which typically return about 95 percent without the bonus, profitable.

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