LAS VEGAS—For at least four centuries, game players and gamblers have relied on scientists and mathematicians for advice. Galileo wrote Thoughts on Dice Games because his patron, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, “ordered me to produce” an answer to a question about a dice game. Fermat and Pascal developed the concept of probability theory from correspondence started when the Chevalier de Mere asked them to settle a gambling problem.
Today, the authority on casino games is Michael Shackleford, the Wizard of Odds. His website, WizardOfOdds.com, provides data, advice, calculators, and simulators for players in hundreds of variations of casino games. When the media needs an answer, they ask Mr. Shackleford. He also follows his own advice; he is a successful professional gambler. The casinos respect his knowledge to hire him to consult on game design, payouts, and discerning patterns in their operating results.
Hash Tag in Vegas
Mike was nice enough to have breakfast with me recently in Las Vegas. I wanted to know how he transitioned from “government actuary” to “Wizard of Odds.” I was also curious to learn about the responsibilities, hazards, and joys of being an heir to the long tradition of math geniuses in service of game players and gamblers.
Although Mr. Shackleford is generally accessible to the media, I am lucky to get this block of his time. He told an interviewer for LiveScience.com, “it takes a lot to get me into the car and drive somewhere. It has to be something that is absolutely essential, or I’m combining like three different minor reasons for making the trip.” I learned that first hand when he changed the location of our meeting so he could combine the trip with taking his car for service.
To be safe, I arrived fifteen minutes early. The restaurant was located in a stretch of real estate typical to Las Vegas, with luxury car dealers across from storefronts with banners like “All Shoes $9.99.” Fourteen minutes later, Michael Shackleford walked in the restaurant.
He has salt-and-pepper hair, a sun-creased face, and is tall and fit. He looks like a grown-up California kid (he turns 50 in May) who spends a lot of time outdoors on hobbies like hiking and bicycling. What he does not look like is a man who earned his living in casinos or hunched over a computer. He also loves travelling and has been a devotee of unicycling and juggling. He also collects license plates and math problems. He has a website displaying the math problems. He was kind enough to send me a picture of some of the license plates:
Our forty-five minutes together were a dizzying mix of breakfast foods, stories of software engineering and casino adventures, and barely legible notes that I’m still trying to digest:
giant chunks of corn beef hash
“MGM, 9-6, 99.8% return, .25% comps, favorable points”
“Blackjack too slow”
“Lucky 13 Blackjack, 64 card deck”
Once I pieced it together, with Mike’s patience for my follow-up questions, I learned plenty about life as the Wizard of Odds.
Blackjack and Baby Names
Michael Shackleford was born in Pasadena, California, on May 23, 1965. He grew up in Orange County, where he lived until 1992. He received his B.A. in math and economics form the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1988. From childhood Mike was interested in games, math, and odds. Not surprisingly, when he turned twenty-one, he started playing 21. While he completed his education and worked on the West Coast, he mastered blackjack Basic Strategy and Card Counting, becoming a profitable “red chip” ($5-denomination) player.
Over the next several years, he took a series of actuarial examinations. In 1992, he moved to Baltimore to work as an actuary at the headquarters of the Social Security Administration. His primary responsibility, according to his website, “was estimating short-range costs and benefits of changes in Social Security law.”
The move East put his blackjack hobby on hold. The six- and eight-deck games in Atlantic City were not as favorable as the single- and double-deck games of Las Vegas. In 1997, while still at SSA, Mike demonstrated how his dexterity with complex data and sense of fun were never far apart. With his wife expecting their first child, he wrote a program to sort Social Security card applicants by year of birth, gender, and first name. Years later he wrote on Nameberry.com, “I believe my eyes at that moment were the first to ever see an accurate nationwide sampling of given names. It was too good to keep to myself; I thought the whole country would want to see this.”
He created a simple web page, Mike’s Baby Name Page. The baby name information became a media sensation. The growing popularity of Jose in 1998 (#1 in Texas and California when Shackleford uncovered this data) turned the complexity of America’s changing demography into something everybody could grasp in an instant. Mike’s webpage became SSA Actuarial Note No. 139, “Name Distribution in the Social Security Area.” The Agency’s annual update of the most popular baby names remains a newsworthy event.
Around the same time, he created Mike’s Gambling Page as a hobby. In early 2000, the site began accepting advertising, and soon after, he left SSA to work full time on the website and casino consulting.
WizardOfOdds.com and the Reel Stripping of Las Vegas
When Mike quit his job as an actuary in 2000 – for which he had had to take eleven tests over six years – he had an audacious goal for his website: “to become the most known and trusted name in gambling advice for the whole gamut of casino games.” Fifteen years later, he undoubtedly succeeded.
His 2002 scoop on Las Vegas slot machine returns demonstrated his ability and instincts. Shackleford could obtain and explain complex material. He also had the imagination to anticipate and feed public appetites. Before his work, the size of the “house edge” on slot machines was a black hole. Unlike combinations of dice or cards, casinos can program returns on individual slot machines by changing the reel stripping. Shackleford got access to casino par sheets, went to the casinos, and played the machines long enough to determine the reel-stripping settings.
He published the returns in Anthony Curtis’ Las Vegas Advisor, and in detail on WizardOfOdds.com. (To no one’s surprise, the MacCarran Airport slots studied had the stingiest returns, just eighty-five cents for each dollar played, though thousands of bored travelers would have guessed even lower.) No one had seen this information before. Once available, everyone wanted to know it and quickly understood it. It was like the baby-name list, for slot players.
Over a decade later, those rotten airport slots still get plenty of action. The casino at the top of his nickel-slot survey, the Palms, splashed his conclusion on billboards for years.
The publicity from the slot machine study cemented WizardOfOdds.com’s growing reputation as the best place to learn to play casino games. In the years since, Mr. Shackleford has earned the right to be considered a gambling authority. His accessibility and adroitness with the media has multiplied exposure for his site, especially when a casino issue – or simply a question of long odds – enters the news cycle.
Here are just a few examples of the hundreds of media requests Mike has fielded:
• A blackjack player at the Tropicana in Atlantic City won 40 consecutive hands – 1 in 47 quadrillion.
• A craps shooter at the Borgata held the dice without “sevening out” for 154 rolls – 1 in 3.5 billion.
• The distribution of Powerball winners among big cities and small towns – random.
The website now has detailed rules and optimal strategy pages for approximately 200 games. For blackjack players, the site covers 40 variations. An additional series of game calculators allows players to calculate odds, returns, and strategy for any casino variations later introduced.
WizardOfOdds.com—now owned by LatestCasinoBonuses.com—is so thorough on casino game strategy that it has a page devoted to Faro. The page notes Faro was played in Reno as recently as 1985, but its height of popularity was in the Old West, when you could run into Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday dealing the game.
All this advice is not static. When Mike returned home after our breakfast, he continued work for a page on “Lucky 13s Blackjack.” Lucky 13s is a variation of the game offered at Grosvenor Casinos in England and on Royal Caribbean cruise ships. The game uses a 64-card deck (a standard deck plus four 11s, 12s, and 13s). Following optimal strategy (on a multicolored chart), the house edge is 1.32%. If you are at a Grosvenor property or on Royal Caribbean, should you make the Protection side bet, paying 5-to-1 (with a multiplier increasing the payout to as much as 200-to-1) for busting on your first two cards? If you do, you are ceding the house an edge of 8.45%.
How does the Wizard of Odds find time to play games on his own account? What does he play? The first question opens the traditional paradox of the expert advisor: If the advice is so good, shouldn’t he be using it instead of teaching it? As a further complication, Mike is ridiculously efficient about spending his time. In the LiveScience.com interview, he admitted, “I may or may not go someplace if it entails having to make a left turn. But I would go there if it was just making a right turn. And I will plan my whole day so that I make a right turn instead of a left turn.”
Blackjack was his introduction to profitable casino play. On WizardOfOdds.com, the blackjack pages, along with “video poker … and craps get the best traffic because they are the most popular games.” He earned fame and respect within the blackjack community by winning the 2011 Blackjack Cup. Still, he has played relatively little blackjack since moving to Las Vegas in 2001. He told me blackjack was “too slow of a way to make money. By then I was making good money from my web site and consulting, especially in comparison to what I could make at the tables.”
With opportunities to play casino games plentiful, the situation has to be pretty enticing to attract and hold Michael Shackleford’s attention. He found some good opportunities grinding out small edges in video poker but “most casinos put me on their DNI [Do Not Invite] list, making me ineligible to get mailers and comps.” Consulting work also paid better and he could work at home instead of smoky casinos.
One of his favorite games to analyze and play in a casino has been Pai Gow Tiles. It is a complicated game with rules like Pai Gow (with a touch of Baccarat) and game equipment like Mah Jong or Dominoes. The game plays slow, 30 hands per hour, and 40% of hands end in a “push.” Nevertheless, it is attractive to Mr. Shackleford for several reasons. First, it has rarely been analyzed, so it provided him a new and challenging puzzle for developing optimal strategy. (Based on his analysis, a player plays nearly even with the house and occasionally has a small edge.) Second, he gets a kick out of being one of the relatively few non-Asians at the table. Third, the game is fun when played at a casino with friends, giving him a break from his mostly solitary pursuits in gambling.
As a bettor, Shackleford has focused over the last several years on sports betting, specifically NFL games. “I love the exotic Super Bowl bets.” Regarding its seasonality, he does not feel let down when the season ends. “It’s mostly a relief when the Super Bowl is over. And when the next season starts again, I’m fresh and ready.” WizardOfOdds.com is loaded with data to educate sports bettors.
He will bet other sports if he finds the right opportunity. The profusion of online sports books must be a giant amusement park to Michael Shackleford. Sports books for years have offered wagers in which, for a little extra (typically 10 basis points to move the spread 1/2 point), players could bet a different point spread. He told me about one situation where he was so successful that the site – and every other Internet casino – stopped offering the bet.
“That’s fine,” he said, “for a small number of points, for the sports books. However, if you sell too many, then it becomes a good value for the player. They should be increasing the price on an exponential basis, but most places incorrectly do it on a geometric basis.”
Mike had an account at one online sports book offering NBA games in which he could “buy up to 5 extra points and lay 210, instead of the standard 110. I calculated at the time that a fair price to buy 5 extra points was 233. So, I was getting a 3.3% on every bet. It may not sound like much, but I was betting every game, and both sides on most of them.”
For most of the basketball season, he bet $2,000 per side per game. He rarely had a losing day. This was not a feat of inside information or experience scouting and handicapping the NBA. It came from recognizing and exploiting the opportunity the site provided. He made no attempt to disguise his strategy or identity.
“I was a friend with the son of one of the site’s owners. He said to me, ‘you’re winning a lot in basketball.’ I told him how I was doing it, that they weren’t charging enough to buy points.” Near the end of that season, the sports book discontinued the practice of letting players buy points to move the line. Almost immediately, all the sites stopped taking that kind of bet.
Mike started his gaming consulting business even before he moved to Las Vegas. The number of game designers has multiplied over the last few decades. The number of casinos, especially online, has also exploded. (Only a small amount of his consulting has been for land-based casinos.)
A main area of his consulting has concerned game design and testing. According to a Daily Mail article about the expansion of “fruit machines” in Great Britain, “Shackleford has designed more slot machines than anyone else on the planet.” Casinos want more (and novel) games to attract player interest, but they are also careful bordering on paranoid about making a mistake and giving players an advantage.
“It’s hard to get a new game on the floor,” he explained. “The clients can be picky. They always want to see more math.”
Nevertheless, like the rules he looks for as an advantage player, the casinos occasionally slip up. When that happens, they hire Mr. Shackleford to figure it out and explain it to them. He discovered that one client, an Internet casino, offered a pay table that inadvertently gave a player a 20% advantage. And this was in Keno, a game on which casinos usually can’t lose money.
Usually, the result is less obvious and requires analyzing mountains of data. He described one casino that had a bad month in table games and asked him if, based on the results, they were doing something wrong. He reviewed results from every shift, then every pit, then every table, and then from every player. His conclusion: “Bad luck. One player got lucky in blackjack.” The casino was deciding whether to bar the player. Mike said it should be doing the opposite, because encouraging him to play more was its best chance to win back that money.
That’s Why They Call It Gambling
Mike’s demeanor makes his success, as a player, player resource, go-to expert by the media, and gaming consultant seem – if not easy – logical. Perhaps I should have expected this from a famously methodical analyst of games.
Beating casinos (or joining them) is riskier business than even Michael Shackleford can make it appear. In May 2014, despite nearly fifteen years as a successful operator of WizardOfOdds.com, his financial foundation was in jeopardy, simply because of the caprice of a business labeled “gambling.” He was denied the safeguards of U.S. banks because of their reluctance to handle transactions connected to the activity. Never mind that WizardOfOdds.com contained no gambling, casinos paying the site for ads legally offered those games in their markets, and he disclosed his foreign bank accounts to the U.S. government.
Instead of having advertisers pay an account at, say, Bank of America, he had to accept the money initially at a Cyprus bank. A run on Cyprus banks in early 2014 cost him €82,000. He had to eat the loss and continue transacting with another Cypriot bank, which apparently decided it could simply ignore his requests to withdraw money. On May 14, 2014, he disclosed on his site, “If the Bank of Cyprus doesn’t make good on my withdrawal soon I will have to seriously consider selling my house and/or my sites.”
Three weeks later, the bank honored his withdrawal, but the exposure put his websites on the market. In September 2014, he sold WizardOfOdds.com and three related sites for $2.35 million. The buyer, LatestCasinoBonuses.com, wisely locked Shackleford up to work on the sites for three years. Based on his initial experience with the new owners, he has declared that he hopes to stay on even longer.
He also finds himself in the crossfire of the continuing war between casinos and players. As a player, casinos have discouraged or limited his play because they don’t like winning players. Because he advises casinos, some players consider him a defector..
“It’s a cat-and-mouse game between casinos and players. I look at it like the wolf and the sheepdog in the Looney Tunes cartoons. We can be friends but once we punch our time cards and the whistle blows, we work against each other. When it blows again and we punch out, we go back to being friends.”
That kind of equanimity isn’t taught as part of any statistical analysis. As an extra tool at Mr. Shackleford’s disposal, however, it helps explain his long and continued success.
Michael Craig is an author, journalist, and lawyer. He has written four books, including The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time. Follow him on Twitter (@MikeCraigIsAmok) and Facebook. This article is part of his collaboration with PokerStars and PokerStars Casino on the lives and games of smart, interesting risk takers.