Gambling to Pay the Bills

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

"Professional gambler." It's a contradiction in terms on the magnitude of "civil war." There's no such thing, right?

In the long run, according to conventional wisdom, frequent gamblers are losers. The more time these degenerates spend in a casino, the more money they eventually give away. To be a "professional gambler," then, is to be a full-time loser.

The seductive gambling advertisements in the classified section of most major metropolitan newspapers--"I'll show you how to make big money at craps!!!"--are frauds. Your Uncle Murray, who threatens to quit his dry cleaning business (since he claims to win at roulette every time he visits Atlantic City), is a congenital liar. And that friend of a friend of your wife's who has figured out "a system" for picking "hot" slot machines is soon to be admitted to Bellevue. So much for this farfetched career of "professional gambler."

There's no such thing, right?

Meet David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth--authors and, believe it or not, professional gamblers.

Most days you will find them at The Mirage poker room (see Cigar Aficionado, Spring 1996), in their hometown of Las Vegas, playing anything from $40-$80 Stud to $75-$150 Omaha. Some days you might find them in the legal card rooms around Los Angeles, where there's a juicy game of Lowball. On others they might be prospecting the poker games at a new casino in Mississippi or Connecticut. When a profitable promo-tion (blackjack paying 2-1, for example) crops up, they'll be there to take advantage of the casino's generosity. If a sports or horse-racing book posts odds that are dramatically "wrong," they're ready to pounce. And if the progressive meter on a video poker machine has become mathematically attractive, they might even park themselves in front of a glowing screen for a few days. Wherever Sklansky and Malmuth gamble, you can be sure of this: they will be playing with a positive expectation. And, in the long run, they will be winning.

Year in and year out, they will be winning. Their "salary" is in the six figures, and they enjoy many of the perquisites of the good life. Plus, they have no boss to answer to, no business hours they must keep. They don't go to work if they don't feel like it. And they don't have to wear a tie. Their "office" is the casino.

How many Americans long for such a life? How many people dream of making their own rules, getting by on their wits, being free? Here's the truth: like any "glamorous" profession (actor, athlete, magazine publisher), being a professional gambler can be frustrating, heartbreaking and enormously difficult.

But it can be done.

Sklansky and Malmuth--and countless others--are living proof. For the thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of honest working people who wish that they, too, could replace their buttoned-down collar with a comfortable crew neck, stay out late on a Wednesday night, and owe a reasonable explanation to nobody, being a professional gambler remains nothing more than a frequently recurring fantasy.

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."

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.

In Gambling for a Living, Sklansky and Malmuth unmask this supposed money-making windfall. They show that there are 120 ways--five factorial, or (5)(4)(3)(2)(1)--to make a royal flush. Two of these royals are "reversibles." So only one out of 60 royal flushes qualifies for the bonus. Since the probability of hitting a royal flush on a poker machine is about 1 in 40,000, a reversible royal is about a 2.5 million-to-1 shot. Because five quarters are required per play, it thus takes about $3 million worth of quarters, on average, to be inserted into a machine for each reversible royal hit. "Note that $10,000 extra for every $3 million bet is one-third of one percent," they dryly point out. "This is a nice bonus, but nothing to write home about even if you pay no taxes on it."

"It's a shame that most of these books are being widely read," Mason Malmuth says. "Some of the advice these writers dispense is so bad it's laughable. But, on the other hand, it gives David and I a wealth of material to debunk."

Sklansky has plans for a new book that will apply game theory and logic to real-life issues, as was done partially in Poker, Gaming & Life. ("Sometimes I think even Bill Clinton could use an adviser who's well-versed in figuring out gambling problems," Sklansky quips.) Additionally, Sklansky hopes to expand his burgeoning casino consulting business. And Malmuth expects his publishing house to flourish as legal casinos continue to open in nearly every state in America.

But for now they're off to The Mirage to play poker, albeit at different tables, so as not to diminish their winnings. "We've got to put in the hours at the game," Malmuth says. "In some ways it's like punching a time card." Indeed, as readers learn in Gambling for a Living, short-term wins and losses are largely irrelevant. An expert player's expected hourly win rate--figured over hundreds of hours of results--multiplied by his hours played equals weekly (and yearly) profit.

In other words, a man like Malmuth is compelled to spend many hours in the casino. He has to bet and raise and fold. His job depends on it. Such is the life of a professional gambler. *

Contributing editor Michael Konik writes Cigar Aficionado's gambling column. At the Tables With Malmuth

Mason Malmuth agrees to play with me in the $10-$20 Hold'em game at The Mirage. This level of poker, where the pots are normally a couple of hundred dollars, is far smaller than he normally plays, but many fledgling professionals attempt to break in at this level, so the action is lively, if not always expert.

Having Mason Malmuth seated beside you at a poker table is like inviting Butch Harmon to ride along in your golf cart. Even when neither of us is involved in the hand, at my request Malmuth quietly provides a running commentary, turning monotony into a private tutorial. The depth at which he explores the possibilities of a poker hand is frightening. I'm almost too scared to actually play a hand in front of him.

Finally, I'm dealt a powerful starting combination--Ace-King--and raise. Two other players call. After much betting, I win a large pot, with two pair. But winning or losing is immaterial to Malmuth. He's concerned that I may have missed an extra raise on the end, costing myself an additional $20.

After a systematic re-creation of the hand, analyzing all of my alternatives, we both conclude that, yes, in fact, I would have been correct to raise.

"You've got to get all the small edges," Malmuth intones.

Alas, for this gambler, it's back to the books.