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The Good Life

The Gambler's Library

Our list of the game's top tomes
By Michael Kaplan | From Bill Murray, Nov/Dec 2004
The Gambler's Library

Ask Chris Moneymaker to name the poker books he's read, and the 2003 World Series of Poker champion will proudly proclaim that he hasn't examined a single one. Considering the plethora of great gambling books on the market, one can view that response two ways: He's Chris Moneymaker, a guy who won $2.5 million playing poker for a week, so maybe he doesn't need to bone up on the subject. Or maybe if he'd cracked open a couple of the highly regarded books on the game, he'd have become a better player and would have lasted beyond the first day of this year's tournament.

The good news for us non-poker champs is that there is money to be made as long as you know what you're doing. Instead of learning as you're burning thousands of dollars in the process, one can go the smarter and cheaper route by reading books on the subject. Unfortunately, mixed in with the truly great and helpful volumes are ill-advised Baedekers that can actually hurt your game if you follow the authors' advice.

Howard Schwartz, longtime manager of the Gambler's Book Club in Las Vegas, has spent the last couple of decades reading the good, the bad and the ugly. He helped compile the following list of indispensable tomes that should be in every gambler's library. What follows is a shelf's worth of book titles, in no particular order. From poker to blackjack to horse racing, these books offer advice that will leave you smarter, savvier and maybe a little bit richer.

Getting the Best of It by David Sklansky (Two Plus Two, 1989, $29.95). David Sklansky has an annoying habit of coming off as if he's the smartest guy in gambling. But what's even more annoying is that he might be right. In this book, largely compiled of columns he wrote for the now defunct Gambling Times magazine, Sklansky offers advice that goes beyond telling you how to play specific hands in particular games (although there is some of that). The book's bigger strength resides in its showing you how to think. This even applies to non-gambling situations—epitomized by a chapter devoted to the key elements of smart decision making.

Much of the book is counterintuitive, some of it is based on hard-core mathematics (he runs the numbers so you don't have to), and it offers suggestions that sound like common sense—only you won't have thought of them until you read them. The information is so sharp, so right on, so easily adaptable to various propositions that the stock trading firm Susquehanna International Group makes it a must-read for all new employees. "One thing in the book, which applies to sports betting and options trading, concerns having a middle on a sports bet or a hedge on an options trade," says Sklansky. "Because you can only place one winning bet, there is an argument to be made that hedging and middling can cost you money. In terms of middling, let's say you lay 6 and take 8—which means you will either break even or scoop both bets if the favorite wins by exactly 7 points—"but you think the line should be 10. Then you should just make a single bet and lay 6. However, if you have a bankroll problem, and making the two bets allows you to bet more, because you put less money at risk, it might be a good bet. Sometimes making a bad bet is a good idea if it reduces volatility."

The other great overview-of-gambling book is Beyond Counting by James Grosjean (RGE Publishing, 2000). The author is an econometrist who provides strategies for seemingly unbeatable pit games (played straight, they always favor the casino) that can be deployed when the conditions are favorable. Unfortunately, the book is out of print and difficult to find, but worth snapping up if you come across it.

Real World Sports Betting: How Real People Make Real Money in the Global Sports Marketplace by Kevin O'Neill (Strategic Sports Publishing, 2004, $29.95). Go to your local bar, on a Sunday afternoon in the fall, and you can be sure that just about everyone has some kind of action on the day's football games. Just as surely, you can be certain that the weekend gamblers did their wagering without a whole lot of forethought. O'Neill, a handicapper and analyst who publishes a sports gambling newsletter called "The Max," offers approaches that will help you bet smarter. Real World Sports Betting provides tips on how to shop around for the best prices, ways to take advantage of arbitraging and middling opportunities (when you don't have a strong opinion one way or the other), and a guide to creating multilevel criteria for every bet you make.

The ultimate payoff of this book is that it helps you combine handicapping skills with betting skills to become a fully rounded gambler. "My goal," says O'Neill, "is to get readers into the 52 percent winning range. Get a point or two on your side, and you can turn sports betting into a profitable hobby"—rather than the financial sinkhole that it typically is.

Among the big mistakes that amateur gamblers make is putting too much emphasis on freak events. "People see something happening 10 times and they think it's meaningful, but it's not," says O'Neill, adding that amateur bettors need to maintain patience and pay increased attention to the ever-fluctuating point spreads. "One of the most overrated things is watching games, especially since the average person severely overreacts to each individual play. People get highly emotional with sports as well as with money. Combine those two things and you can have a hard time of it if you're not careful."

Super System II by Doyle Brunson (Cardoza, 2004, $34.95). Before the publication of Doyle Brunson's Super System, back in 1978 (originally titled How I Made Over $1 Million Playing Poker), poker books comprised a sorry genre. They were usually ghostwritten biographies or full-of-hot-air memoirs or instructional books that wouldn't really help you to get the money.

Brunson's title was different. It was the first truly intellectual guide to poker, written by real, highly successful players (a different collaborator, handpicked by Brunson, oversaw each chapter). The players/authors gave away actual secrets and valuable information for anyone with the discipline to absorb the material and follow its advice. Lucky for the authors, of course, that was a small percentage of readers. And an even smaller number would be willing to play for the sky-high stakes that the authors consider routine. Nevertheless, there are few top players who did not learn a lot from the original Super System.

Now Brunson's done it again. For the sequel, the great poker player has chosen a mostly fresh roster of authors (partly to avoid cannibalizing his first book). His son Todd handles Seven-Card Stud high/low 8 or better, the limit Texas Hold'em chapter is written by Jennifer Harman (she's been successful in playing that game for very high stakes), and former World Series champ Bobby Baldwin contributes the chapter on Omaha 8 or better. But the most intriguing chapter in Super System II was written by Daniel Negreanu, who won the Toyota Player of the Year award at this year's World Series. It centers around Triple Draw (a poker variation in which you get dealt five cards, draw three times and go for the lowest possible hand). "We disagreed on certain points," says Brunson. "If you have 2-3-4-7-Jack, and your opponent in front of you draws, I said you should draw. Daniel thought you should stay pat. It turns out that, under those conditions, Jack wins 52 percent of the time." Brunson hesitates for a beat, then adds, "Triple Draw is a game that people play the worst. After reading this book I think they will play it a lot better."

While both Super System books are eye-opening, regardless of the stakes you play for, there is one particularly good volume focusing on smaller stakes: the appropriately titled Small Stakes Hold'em by Ed Miller, David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth (Two Plus Two, 2004).

Comp City: A Guide to Free Las Vegas Vacations by Max Rubin (Huntington Press, 2003, $19.95). Even losing players can get an edge if they know how to play the casinos. Such is the thrust of Comp City, which clues you in on the ways in which casinos evaluate comps, how you can look like a higher roller than you really are, and a take-no-prisoners gambit for getting a totally free vacation that won't require you to gamble a dime (just don't expect to get invited back). Some of the advice requires degrees of ballsiness that most of us simply don't have, but most of it is totally useful and aboveboard—such as when Rubin recommends that you sit at a busy table, which will allow you to play fewer hands per hour and lose less money over the long term (which, unless you're counting cards or pulling a sophisticated advantage play, you will). Once you're playing, you make your biggest bets when the pit boss is paying attention.

One thing that Rubin emphasizes is that you should always come off as a major-league loser—one way is to discreetly sweep chips from the table and place them in your pocket. "The casino will typically comp you 10 percent of a big loss," says Rubin. "If you lose, or appear to lose, $10,000 in a short period of time, most casinos will give you at least $1,000 worth of comps right up front, no matter what else happens during the course of your stay. Win or lose, always ask for as much as you can possibly get in terms of comps. If they say no, ask what you need to do to get what you want."

Blackjack Attack: Playing the Pros' Way by Don Schlesinger (RGE Publishing, 2004, $39.99). The subtitle is not hyperbole. Schlesinger had been a feature columnist for a digest-sized publication called Blackjack Forum (which was practically a trade magazine for card counters) and a winning player for the last 25 years. The Forum is gone, but Schlesinger's columns, and a whole lot more, live on in this book. Absolutely not for those who are unversed in counting, Blackjack Attack serves as an advanced course. (Neophytes should turn to Blackbelt in Blackjack by Arnold Snyder [Cardoza, 2004] or Professional Blackjack by Stanford Wong [Pi Yee Press, 1994]). In Schlesinger's book, subjects discussed in great detail include the mathematically perfect time to walk away from a table, risks of ruin (i.e. going broke) under specific conditions, and a streamlined list of exceptions to the rules of standard card counting.

The book is loaded with mathematical charts and tables, a chapter on team play, and the results of countless computer simulations that augment and challenge long-standing card-counting theories. "I have a whole chapter on score," says Schlesinger, "which is a way of comparing the attractiveness of games with a dollar-and-cents value. It helps you to determine the most advantageous game"—based on such elements as betting limits, the degree to which you can vary your bet, and the number of decks in the shoe. "My preference is a six-deck Las Vegas Strip game with the most favorable rules—dealer stands on 17s, player can double-down after splits, can re-split aces and can later surrender. Those rules make it so that the basic strategy player [who isn't counting but is making the optimal decision in each situation] can bring the house advantage down to only .26 percent. For a card counter, who can achieve a relatively large [betting] spread, that sort of game can offer some of the best profit potential out there."

Betting Thoroughbreds: A Professional's Guide for the Horseplayer by Steven Davidowitz (Plume, 1997, $18). Considering that the erudite Davidowitz gambles on a sport in which the pari-mutuel system pits him against other players (rather than against the house), you have to wonder why he'd write a book that tells his competitors what he does. "By opening research and consolidating your ideas, you find better examples and reinforce a lot of principles of what you do," says Davidowitz, who coined the oft-used phrase track bias (which refers to the ways in which track conditions influence how certain horses run). "There is also the feedback you get from others—notations, letters, criticism—and what it does to help you move forward. When you feel you understand an aspect of the game in a way that no one else does, you have a responsibility to write about it." And write he does. The book is broken up into 28 concise, well-organized chapters, in which Davidowitz uses personal experience to convey his strategies for becoming a winning horseplayer. "Without being a jerk about this, my book covers the game as it really is and provides tools that you can use in order to become a stronger horseplayer," says Davidowitz. "But you've got to do some research and try it out. I emphasize that the individual has to evaluate himself, in terms of his specific skills, to go after a winning approach.

"Let's say you are a highly visual person, then go to the paddock and look at the horses and jockeys. If you are a problem solver, get into the trainer patterns and past performances, so you can see how the inlay of a race will work out. Even though the [house take] is severe in racing, you are betting against everyone else, not against the house. Since everyone else can be wrong, you can sometimes get 25-to-1 on horses that should be 3-to-1, because the horse has won only one race—but it was on this track, with this jockey, with this trainer. When the public is wrong, you can get great value."

Fast Company by Jon Bradshaw (Trafalgar Square Books, 2003, $14.95). Visit the home of top sports bettor Billy Baxter, and a first edition of this book rests on a small shelf behind his desk. Poker legend Puggy Pearson has got a copy as well. These guys may not be huge readers—unless it's the facial tics of opponents across a poker table—but they know the real thing when they see it. And this is that. First published in 1975, the book chronicles the late Bradshaw's immersion into the world of gambling back when it was still pretty much of a closed society. He eats steak with Minnesota Fats, sweats Johnny Moss at the Dunes poker room in Vegas, makes a painful visit to Titanic Thompson while the notoriously cheating con man lingers at death's door. But the book never gets sentimental or puffy, and the Thompson chapter serves as a pretty good cautionary tale about how a money-chasing, never-say-die professional gambler can easily end up: broke, broken, ill of health and compulsively trying to hustle low-stakes action.

On the more upbeat side, Fast Company captures top players in their flashiest, winningest moments. And, through the course of it, Bradshaw actually shows how these guys get the money. One of the more telling moments comes when Pearson is on the golf course and getting clobbered—until he raises the stakes high enough to take his superior opponent out of his comfort zone and fleeces the guy. Bradshaw was an excellent journalist who briefly focused his talents on gamblers, and we're all the better for it.

A more contemporary, less literary book of this type—it's all Q&As with the likes of poker player Chip Reese, card counter Tommy Highland and backgammon hustler Mike Svabodny—is Gambling Wizards: Conversations With the World's Greatest Gamblers by Richard Munchkin (Huntington Press, 2002).

Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist and the author of The Best Time to do Everything (Bloomsbury, 2005).

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