Just prior to departing for Las Vegas, I receive the following e-mail: Bring some money for betting at craps! I'll let you bet with my money if you don't want to risk your own, but if you use my money then everything you win or lose belongs to me. You are more likely to win than to lose when I am shooting.
If you understand anything about craps, your reaction to a suggestion like this should be something along the lines of yeah, right. We all know that, long-term, nobody beats craps unless he's cheating. It's a pit game, run by the casinos, designed to provide excitement for gamblers just as surely as it is devised to take away their money. Dissect the odds and you will see they are hopelessly tilted against you. You'll lose way less if you devote your time to playing basic-strategy blackjack.
What made this e-mail interesting was its source: Stanford Wong. The pseudonymous Wong (he's not Chinese, but he did go to Stanford) is one of the most respected guys in gambling. He's had success at card counting and sports betting, he's written numerous books on both subjects, and he is known for being completely levelheaded and on the square. His name is even part of the advantage player's lexicon. Among card counters, there is a term called Wonging, which is the act of wandering from blackjack table to blackjack table, counting cards and looking for a high count, and jumping in to start betting. Gambling at a casino game that he cannot possibly beat is anathema to Wong. Such a prospect would repulse him and might very well leave him feeling physically ill.
So, what's with the e-mail? Through a series of coincidences, Wong claims to have stumbled across gambling's equivalent of Sasquatch: craps players who have actually devised ways to beat the game. Initially skeptical, Wong is now a true believer. For anyone who knows anything about Wong, that is heady stuff. He has discovered a way to influence the dice—nobody can totally control those bouncing squares—to limit the number of 7s that he hits (which, for pass-line players, is a losing roll, once a dice thrower has established his point). "People toss basketballs well enough to go through hoops, people get ringers with horseshoes, and they throw darts precisely enough to hit a tiny bull's-eye," reasons Wong, making all of this sound perfectly simple and rational. "Why shouldn't you be able to throw the dice in an advantageous way?"
To find out, the ever-curious Wong took a couple of dice-throwing classes. One was with Beau Parker, who calls himself the Dice Coach. The other was with an outfit known as Golden Touch Craps. In both instances, Wong spent hours being tutored on the fine points of setting dice (to increase the likelihood of certain numbers coming up once the dice hit the felt), holding dice (gently) and throwing dice (so they pretty much leave your fingers of their own volition). "The classes are great," Wong says. "But you have to practice, practice, practice. You want the dice to travel with an axis of rotation parallel to the table. Then, when the dice hit the felt, they will hit on a corner. It's very similar to learning to hit a golf ball. But I'm a lousy golfer."
Wong overcame his lack of natural athleticism by endlessly shooting dice onto his bed's mattress, getting the throwing motion down and thus gaining a sense of how it should feel when the dice leave his fingers. Over a five-month period, he estimates that he threw 5,000 practice rolls. In the process, Wong became pretty stoked about the whole thing. He related as much to friends in the gambling world and colleagues at his book publishing company, Pi Yee Press. "They all thought it was total nonsense," remembers Wong. "Their attitude was the same that mine had been a month earlier. But they were sitting around and doing no research and relying on their past perceptions. I, on the other hand, watched people and learned that some of them can have an influence over dice."
When enough friends and acquaintances doubted the viability of it, Wong decided to put his money where his mouth is. He bet several of them that it is possible to consistently throw better than random. In 500 rolls, if you were to simply toss dice without a plan or training, statistically you should hit 83.33 sevens. Based on the way things were going for him, Wong believed that he could get that number down to 76, thus giving him a 1 to 3 percent advantage over the casino. To keep the bet fair, and to make it suitably alluring, he wagered that he could roll 500 times and hit fewer than 80 sevens (it was an over/under bet with $2,800 riding on every point). Mathematically, by the way, his 1 to 3 percent advantage is the same as what card counters and sports bettors require for steady profits, and most of Wong's gambling friends thought it sounded too good to be true.
He lined up a bunch of wagers and coerced his talented buddy Little Joe Green to handle some of the rolling chores (the deal was that Wong would not have to do all the rolling himself), and wound up winning $15,400 from a group of shocked bettors. "I thought it was a bunch of malarkey," says a guy who goes by the single name of Fezzik and happens to be one of the top sports handicappers in Las Vegas. "But I never got caught up on whether or not Wong could do it. It was always more an issue of whether or not I could do it. Now, after watching him, I'm convinced that I can. At the end of football season, I am going to be actively looking for a craps table that I can rent and learn on."
The dice-throwing exhibition reached a peak when some of the gamblers began betting on Wong (that is, against the casino and against their initial beliefs) in order to recoup their losses on the original over/under wager. Wong says he insisted to those who were going against him that they were making bad bets, and he expresses no surprise at having won. Fezzik says he knew he was in trouble when, after they made their initial bet, Wong immediately wanted to increase the stakes by 10 times (and change the cap for Fezzik from $10,000 to $100,000). "I didn't hide my skill from the other guys," says Wong. "But I did hide the details. I got to choose the casino"—Wong prefers old felts, which tend to be less springy than the newer ones—"and I scheduled the challenge for a time when I knew that Little Joe would be in town."
One person who would not be the least bit surprised about Stanford Wong's and Little Joe's abilities to defy expectations is Frank Scoblete. A teacher at Golden Touch and author of The Craps Underground: The Inside Story of How Dice Controllers Are Winning Millions From Casinos, Scoblete has been winning at craps since the late 1980s. His first encounter with a legitimate dice influencer—that is, someone who beats craps without cheating or sliding dice—is a guy Scoblete calls The Captain. He was a New York-based real estate tycoon with a penchant for gambling who traveled to Atlantic City in the late 1970s. "He observed craps and slowly worked on a method for getting an edge on the game by controlling the dice," says Scoblete. "He became very good, but the best I ever saw was a woman who called herself The Arm. She took the dice in her hand, circled them over the felt, and threw in such a way that her dice died at the wall. She and The Captain had a six-month-long stretch in which they won over $1.5 million at the Tropicana in Atlantic City."
Team play among the dice-throwing elite is common, and Scoblete will often go out with 11 other accomplished dice throwers. Four will be selected to shoot and eight will stand in backup position, betting but ready to slip in should one of the original throwers go sour. "You can shoot anywhere from two to four hours at a time," says Scoblete. "But you always hope that the first guy to pick up the dice rolls for an hour and a half. Then we all make some money and call it a night."
Back in Vegas, the hope is that Wong can have that quick moneymaking run before we call it a night. The idea is for him to show me that his approach to the game really works, and if I win some money in the process, all the better. (Yes, I decided to bet with my own money rather than his.)
We begin inauspiciously at the Fremont, a mid-level joint downtown. Wong, lanky and gray-haired, looking like the world's biggest tourist in khaki shorts and a floppy hat, approaches the stickman at a Fremont craps table and asks whether the all-but-shiny felt is new.
The stickman answers in the negative, but after a series of lousy rolls, Wong has good reason to believe that the guy is either lying or misinformed. We pack up, cash out depleted chip stacks, and head across the street to Binion's Horseshoe, where there is no mistaking at least one felt as anything but old and worn out—which, of course, means it won't be so springy.
This proves to be a pretty sweet setup for Wong. Over the next two hours, he throws long strings of numbers without crapping out—which does not go unnoticed by patrons around the table, who have a habit of ratcheting up their bets every time the dice come to Wong. An older dude with sharp features and nasty-looking eyes sprays chips across the felt and points to Wong, continually insisting, "That guy is the best shooter in this joint."
Slowly but surely, money lost at the Fremont is more than compensated for at the Horseshoe. By the time Wong steps back from the table, I've made a few hundred painless dollars. (Wong's done better because he's bet more.) He palms his chips and suddenly the crowd around the table disintegrates as Wong takes his money and dice skills across the street to a pub in the Palace Station Hotel & Casino.
Over a sushi dinner, he explains that he stopped shooting at the Horseshoe because his arm began to tire. But, he says, the physical act of throwing dice is only half the equation. The other part of it is about getting your bets down, managing your bankroll and wagering with intelligence (that is, staying away from sucker bets, such as the one in which you predict a particular number will come up on a single roll). "Getting an edge is one thing," explains Wong. "Using the information is something else. You can have an edge on some bets, but if you make enough bad bets"—anything beyond a pass-line wager, taking odds, betting on particular numbers being hit before a 7 comes up—"overall you will make no money. Also, because the dice move around the table, you can lose money on other people while waiting for the dice to come back to you."
The strange thing about advantage rolling—especially strange for a veteran card counter like Wong—is that the casinos don't seem to mind. While Wong was hitting his numbers, the croupier smiled, joked with the gamblers and divvied out chips. Even Beau Parker, who teaches dice throwing and tutored Wong in the game's fine points, makes no effort to conceal the fact that he is an advantage player when it comes to craps. It's the sort of thing that a card counter could never dream of doing.
One reason why savvy craps players don't get hustled away from the tables is because casinos doubt that precision dice throwing is truly effective. Another is that casinos apparently make plenty of money from bad bettors and ongoing action generated by the good shooters.
Even if one accepts the premise that precision dice throwing is possible, it is certainly difficult to master, and most people won't put in the necessary practice time required to do it well. Frank Scoblete acknowledges that only 50 or so people in the world can consistently make money at craps. Considering that 1,500 or so people have been trained in the art of dice throwing, the statement is telling.
Nevertheless, gamblers keep coming to classes like the one that Beau "Dice Coach" Parker holds at home in his Las Vegas living room, where a regulation-size craps table is the centerpiece. Parker, a well-to-do former contractor, has white hair and an effusive personality. His style is such that he couldn't be low-profile if he wanted to be, and the man clearly thrives on the attention he gets from teaching. He plays craps five days a week, averages around 10 sessions per week, and claims to win 70 to 80 percent of the time.
After giving me a quick tutorial on throwing, Parker says, "The object is to have the dice roll off your fingers and land as flat as possible on the felt. You hit the wall with both dice, and they should come to rest in a reasonably tight area. You want to be parallel to the surface and land the dice four to six inches from the back wall. You want to have a nice clear runway so that no chips get in the way of your dice."
While Parker talks, his buddy Pablo, a Webmaster for the Dice Coach's online site, starts rolling. It's a beautiful thing to watch him in action. As with Wong, the dice leave his hand in tandem, fly through the air alongside each other, hit the felt almost simultaneously and enjoy a delicate bounce and roll. It's a little like watching a Major League Baseball pitcher warming up. Pablo manages to hit 21 numbers before throwing a 7. "Do that every time," says Parker, "and you will be in very good financial shape."
After a cup of coffee and a bit more chatting and shooting, it's agreed that we will head downtown, meet Wong at the Las Vegas Club, and play some craps. It's not quite 1 o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon, so the casino is fairly empty when the four of us wander over to a table (trying to look like a quartet of strangers). Pablo takes his favorite position at the head of the table. Parker settles in at the right of the stickman. Wong stands to the stickman's left, the same position that served him well the night before. I stand next to Wong.
Pablo's first to get the dice, and he enjoys a profitable roll. Not quite hitting the 21 mark that he made earlier in the day, but it's perfectly respectable. Two players stand between him and Beau Parker, who heads to the bathroom as one of them gets the dice and promptly sevens out prior to Parker returning to the table. His friend passes up the opportunity to throw, and the dice move on to Wong. Ten minutes into his roll, he's doing very well, helping everyone at the table make money. Twenty minutes after that, Wong is still throwing dice, the pit boss has broken out into a sweat, and a baby-faced croupier gets befuddled by a complex skein of pressed bets and payouts as action around the table becomes increasingly frenetic. After 40 more minutes, a seasoned croupier is brought in and the table roars with the sound of men earning free money. Ultimately, the dice get thrown for some 70 minutes before a 7 is hit.
Wong's hour-plus stretch sets a personal record, earning him a couple thousand, making me $1,000 richer, and doing pretty well by both Pablo and Parker. Parker claims to be tired, happy with the money he's made thus far, and not enthusiastic about continuing to play craps today. I'm disappointed by his decision. Wong views it as a smart move, since it makes Beau Parker look like a lucky guy rather than a skilled dice thrower.
It's the sort of anonymity that Wong himself craves. While he quickly acknowledges that plenty of luck is required for even the most gifted dice tosser to enjoy a 70-minute streak, he's also convinced that the skill component was integral. And he's just as sure that these are the halcyon days for those who can influence the behavior of dice. "I can see there coming a time when casinos will turn increasingly paranoid about skillful shooters," says Wong, who's already preparing for that day by looking anonymous, making less than mathematically perfect wagers, and buying in for only $100 at a time. "I put the entire amount in action and press my bets. But if I were to buy in for $1,000, I would draw attention. I want to be the smallest flea on an elephant. I want to throw dice and be ignored."
Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist. He is the author of The Best Time to Do Everything (Bloomsbury, 2005).