During my younger days, I considered myself to be a fairly avid reader, with the sports page and the tales of Sherlock Holmes among my daily reads.
But as I grew into adulthood, and with it, a career as a casino gambler, I found that my days offered far less free time to sit down with a good book. Advantage-play gamblers squeeze out a living by putting in as much volume as possible, pressing the slightest edges over and over again until variance balances out. That required 12- to 16-hour “work” days, for the most part, leaving little room for relaxation.
At some point, however, my outlook on both playing and reading changed dramatically, and for the better.
About 10 years ago, I was on the verge of getting burnt out on my usual games (double-deck blackjack and Deuces Wild video poker). At that time, Pai Gow Poker was becoming increasingly popular, so I began diving into the intricacies of another skill-based table game. I quickly immersed myself in the world of Pai Gow Poker strategy, and soon enough, I was devoting the bulk of my playing time to the deceptively complex game.
Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for Pai Gow Poker didn’t translate into profit, and I was suddenly suffering a downswing the likes of which I had never experienced. That may have been my fault for embracing a game I hadn’t yet mastered, but even so, I was determined to get my Pai Gow Poker results back into the black.
After a bit of online sleuthing on the subject, I ordered Gambling 102: The Best Strategies for All Casino Games by Michael Shackleford. Shackleford is a well-known mathematician, game theorist, and casino game inventor.
With the publication of Gambling 102 in 2005, Shackleford converted the wealth of knowledge contained on his website into book form. I immediately turned to Chapter 10 for a full tutorial on Pai Gow Poker, studying the odds and probabilities underlying the game’s unusual system of “setting” five-card and two-card hands.
I won’t spoil Shackleford’s work, but suffice it to say, his choice to break strategy charts down into Simple, Intermediate, and Advanced was groundbreaking. I had already stumbled into a decent imitation of the Simple strategy through my own early forays on the Pai Gow Poker tables, but Shackleford showed me a better way to approach the game.
Using the Simple strategy created a house edge of 2.6892%, but by adopting the Intermediate strategy, I could cut that number down to 2.5733%. And after putting in the work necessary to memorize and master Advanced strategy, I faced a house edge of 2.5161%.
Those minuscule reductions may not seem like much, but over the course of a gambler’s fabled “long run,” any chance to shave more than 0.17% off the house’s advantage is a godsend.
I wound up devouring my now-dog-eared copy of Gambling 102 within days, and while I enjoyed Shackleford’s work in its entirety, his section on Pai Gow Poker proved to be essential in my development. It only took a few weeks of practice to put his advanced strategy into action, and a few weeks later, my records for Pai Gow Poker play pushed into the profitable zone.
Reading Gambling 102 was revelatory in many ways, but leaving aside the actual strategic lessons, it taught me the importance of lifelong learning. I may not have the free time I enjoyed as a youth, but by carving out an hour a day to read, I’ve returned to my role as an avid reader.
Soon afterward, I started searching for every gambling book I could get my hands on. Amazon surely helped, but I also enjoyed hunting bargain bins at the bookstore and whatnot, hoping to unearth a hidden gem of gambling knowledge.
I’ll admit, many of the gambling instruction books I came across were malarkey, nothing more than myth and misconception masquerading as strategy. But every so often, I’d crack open a book that spoke to me like Shackleford’s Gambling 102 once did.
Reading a new gambling book every week didn’t just improve my results at the casino; it changed my life as a gambler.
In that spirit, I’d like to run readers through a few of my favorite gambling books, while explaining how the material managed to make me a better player.
Video Poker for the Intelligent Beginner (2008) & Million Dollar Video Poker (2003)
“When I’m in a casino, I’m trying to bring home the bacon.It’s not my job to tell the casino what machines to put on the floor, or what slot club system to run. The casino hires a lot of people to protect what it has and to concoct ways to get more. The casino sets out games on which it has the advantage and invites you to come in and try your luck. If you win, you get to keep the money. If you don’t, which is usually the case, you leave your money behind.” – Bob Dancer
Written by the Prince of Video Poker himself, Bob Dancer’s Video Poker for the Intelligent Beginner attempts to convert his Video Poker for Winners! software into print.
I had previous experience playing around with that software, which allows users to customize video poker simulations using several variants, rules, and pay tables. Tools like the subscription-based Video Poker for Winners have been tremendously helpful during my development as a video poker sharp, so I was happy to see Dancer make that information available to the public.
In case you’re not familiar with Dancer’s story, I’d also recommend his classic Million Dollar Video Poker (2003). While the title sounds a lot like those scammer books I mentioned earlier, Dancer isn’t trying to sell any snake oil when he says he won a million bucks — he has the tax forms to prove it.
In that book, Dancer brings readers on his real-life journey from video poker’s lowest stakes to becoming a bona fide “whale” within the industry. Dancer and his wife patiently grinded the best machines in Las Vegas with a $6,000 starting bankroll, using Players Club points and comps to subsidize their sessions while chasing those elusive royal flush hand pays.
Eventually, through a combination of perfect strategy and sound game selection, Dancer and his wife scored several royal flushes on high-stakes machines. His crowning achievement was a $400,000 jackpot while playing for $100 per hand, and like they say, the rest was history. The Dancer team combined to bring home more than $1 million in video poker winnings within just six months, cementing his status as the industry’s leading authority on advantage play.
While Million Dollar Video Poker offers more of a storytelling vibe, with Dancer clearly relishing in recounting his glory days, Video Poker for the Intelligent Beginner attempts to give readers the same foundational knowledge. Dancer doesn’t limit his teachings to basic strategy charts, either, so you’ll learn all about the benefits of joining the “slot club” or similar promotions, scouting locations to find full-pay machines, and the importance of prudent bankroll management.
It’s the latter that really helped me as a video poker player because anybody with a working brain can memorize basic strategy charts. As I learned from Dancer, what separates the most successful players from the rest is supplementary skills. Knowing when casinos are running generous promotions, where the elusive full-pay Deuces Wild machines can still be found, and how to capitalize fully on casino comps make all the difference when attempting to beat a negative expectation game.
Beyond Counting: Exploiting Casino Games from Blackjack to Video Poker (2000) & Exhibit CAA: Beyond Counting (2007)
“Mike and I split up and scout the blackjack pit from opposite sides. If nothing pans out, we might be headed to O’Shea’s in a minute. But not just yet. Is that security guard looking at me? Sometimes an errant look is enough to tell you it’s on. It looks like it’s on, but how can it be? I’m not playing. The pit doesn’t even know I’m here. I’ve never played much at the Imperial Palace. I don’t exist. But anything can happen in Vegas.” – James Grosjean
For those of us who rely on advantage-play techniques like card counting and hole carding, the most difficult part of the proceedings can often be the game within the game.
While you’re working diligently to track exposed cards, maintain a running count, and modulate your betting patterns to avoid detection, the house is always on the lookout. Between the fabled “eye in the sky” keeping a constant watch and attentive dealers or pit bosses tracking your every move, advantage-play blackjack is easier said than done. Get caught, and you could be declined service in the future, or even taken outside if you’re playing in a seedier establishment.
But as any gambling veteran will tell you, the casinos technically can’t kick you out for counting cards. While it’s strictly frowned upon, you’ll find no laws on the books which explicitly ban blackjack advantage-play.
In fact, a closer look at the legal landscape reveals the exact opposite, with a landmark court case providing clear precedent that casinos have no legal recourse against talented players.
Back in 2000, a young blackjack sharp by the name of James Grosjean was cleaning the casinos’ clock with regularity. Along with standard card counting, Grosjean had pioneered an innovative advantage-play method known today as “hole carding.”
Essentially, Grosjean sought to capitalize on lazy dealers who didn’t protect their hole card during the deal. Armed with the invaluable knowledge of what the dealer held, Grosjean was able to make advanced plays that gave him an undeniable edge.
He compiled his findings on hole carding, along with other moves like shuffle tracking, within Beyond Counting: Exploiting Casino Games from Blackjack to Video Poker (2000). The book has since been elevated to the status of “Advantage-Play Bible,” enabling readers to even the score.
Of course, his exploits at the blackjack table quickly put Grosjean in the casinos’ crosshairs. His name was included in the infamous “Griffin Book,” a publication put out annually by the Las Vegas-based security firm Griffin Investigations. Casinos used the Griffin Book to target suspected card counters and advantage-play specialists, and soon enough Grosjean was being manhandled by security staff at the Caesars Palace.
After being detained, interrogated, and roughed up in the back room, Grosjean suffered a similarly disturbing experience at the Imperial Palace just a few weeks later. In that case, he hadn’t even played a hand before security personnel intervened and prohibited him from entering the premises.
Grosjean sued both casinos for violating his rights, arguing that the lack of legal language addressing card counting and advantage play protected him. The casinos countered by alleging full-out cheating, accusing Grosjean and his playing partner of bending and marking cards.
Five years later, with the two lawsuits having been combined, a jury rendered a $50,000 judgment against Caesars Palace and $400,000 more against the Imperial Palace. Griffin Investigations was also ordered to pay Grosjean more than $100,000, a ruling which plunged the anti-advantage-play company into bankruptcy.
In one fell swoop, Grosjean successfully defended the right of advantage-play specialists to use their skills against the casino. Two massive companies attempted to subvert that right, only to have juries and judges confirm that casinos aren’t immune to losses.
In 2006, Grosjean became the youngest player inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame. One year later, he published a sequel entitled Exhibit CAA: Beyond Counting. The title refers to a key piece of evidence used in the case, and among his nearly 700-page magnum opus, Grosjean leads readers on a journey into the murky world of casino security.
I’m no Grosjean by any stretch, but I do try my best to use every advantage at my disposal while playing blackjack. As a result, I’ve endured the same long stares and scrutiny by suspicious staff, and for a while, I actually grew a bit paranoid. Casinos don’t want regular winners, and that’s putting it mildly, so reading Grosjean’s account definitely helped ease my mind.
His insights into the way casino security staff approaches advantage players have proven to be invaluable for myself and thousands of blackjack sharps worldwide.
The Frugal Gamble (1998) & Frugal Video Poker (2006)
“Cashback is always positive. Playing a game is not always positive; you lose probably two times out of three on the actual game, but cashback is always a plus figure. Even when we were playing quarters, we always looked for promotions. There are a lot of cash promotions – like a bonus for card of the day. For cashback, we would look for double points. We have always been heavy on the promotions.” – Jean Scott
I touched on the importance of subsidizing losses during the section on Bob Dancer, but it bears repeating: every comp you earn equates to a winning hand.
And nobody hammers that lesson home quite like Jean Scott, the self-proclaimed “Queen of Comps.” As the author of the renowned Frugal Gambler series, Scott has been teaching her tricks of the trade for two decades and counting.
Her first book was The Frugal Gambler (1998), and it serves as the perfect introductory text to Scott’s admittedly extreme approach to cutting costs at the casino. She leaves no stone unturned in her search for savings, joining every Players Club in Las Vegas, using comps and credits to pay for meals, and avoiding unnecessary tipping situations like the valet in lieu of self-parking.
Scott’s journey to being crowned the Queen of Comps began with her and her husband grinding blackjack as semi-regular visitors to Las Vegas. The pair applied basic strategy and attempted to count cards, while combining their advantage play with sensible financial management.
But when casinos began shifting the focus of comp promotions from table games to machines, the Scotts transitioned to video poker. By joining junkets — or group tours hosted by casinos hoping to get new gamblers in the door — Scott sought out the most lucrative promotions around.
According to her, Scott has been able to enjoy manicures and massages at the spa, free flights, and rooms, discounted tickets to top line shows, permanent buffet vouchers, and even gift cards to hand out at the holidays, all by participating in Players Club promotions. Obviously, these kinds of comps are reserved for high-volume players, but even if you’re not putting in the same hours as Scott, her underlying premise still holds up.
For those of us who take gambling seriously, facing the reality of a negative expectation game can be difficult to swallow. We try our best to reduce the house’s edge whenever possible, either through sound strategy, game selection, or advantage play.
In the end, however, the casino still holds an edge on all but a select few games, which puts high-volume players in a bit of a bind. When the devil known as a downswing rears its ugly head, even the most proficient players on the planet can quickly find themselves sinking into financial quicksand.
That’s where the trade secrets published by Scott come into play. If you can squeeze every penny out of a casino promotion, you’re effectively mitigating losses incurred at the table.
Using a few of Scott’s tried-and-true techniques, I’ve managed to turn disastrous sessions on the tables into break-even propositions. Losing $1,000 in a weekend can cripple your bankroll beyond repair, but just think about all of the ways you can help to offset that expense.
Scoring two buffet tickets at $49 each provides nearly $100 in savings right off the bat — not to mention some great grub to boot. When the casino invites you back next month — which they surely will after tracking a four-figure loss — requesting the best room available brings back $200 more in rebates. Tracking all of the coffees and clothes you purchased with Players Club points puts another $100 back into your pocket. And adding in a $100 free play voucher good on your next visit cuts that original $1,000 loss in half.
In many respects, a successful gambler in the modern age must devote the same level of legwork to these cost-cutting techniques that they do studying strategy.
As you’ll discover by reading Scott’s sequel Frugal Video Poker (2006), she came up grinding those full-pay Deuces Wild video poker machines. As one of the only positive expectation games on the casino floor — with a 100.76% payback percentage, or a 0.76% edge for the player, when using perfect strategy — full-pay Deuces Wild was a veritable gold mine for savvy players.
I say was because the casinos have sharply curtailed their use of full-pay Deuces Wild games. You can still find a few floating around Sin City, but the glory days are certainly long gone.
Considering the removal of full-pay Deuces Wild, the shift from 3:2 payouts on blackjack to 6:5, and the reduced Odds bets offered in craps, the casinos are making it harder to turn a profit. By utilizing Scott’s advice in the Frugal Gambler series, you can fight back against this tougher casino climate.
Reading can be a joy or a chore, depending on your love for the written word. I don’t expect everybody to read a gambling book every week, but even if you crack one open every so often, the theory of lifelong learning still applies. No matter your game of choice, your preferred stakes, or even your skill level, the best gambling books give every player a leg up in the lifelong struggle to beat the house.