Frank Floor Talk: Book Review — Gambling 102

January 23, 2024 8:00 AM
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports
January 23, 2024 8:00 AM
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports

Gambling 102
by Michael Shackleford – “The Wizard of Odds”

181 pp., 2023, Huntington Press, $19.95

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“If you don’t know the difference between blackjack and baccarat, the information here will probably be too advanced. If you’re already a skilled advantage player in a range of games, you probably already know most of what’s presented. I wrote this book for those of you who are somewhere in the middle.” I couldn’t agree more with Shackleford’s introduction to this third edition of his “Gambling 102” book. Therefore, I believe that most folks “working” in our industry are the perfect target audience and they should buy this book.

There are some good things here even for seasoned table game operators. However, if you are in another department, this is one of the best starter books you’ll find to help understand what’s going on at the tables in the “green felt jungle”. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist using that 1963 book title. In case you haven’t read it, it is awful, but it is part of our lore. I’ll review it for laughs next month.)

In his first edition, Shackleford explained the blackjack math that results in casino edges as low as 0.53% using just basic strategy. But this third edition covers details of basic strategies against multiple-deck games and spends more time examining the impact of good and bad blackjack rules. This is incredibly relevant today, since many casinos have imposed new rules that weren’t even contemplated in 2005 when his first book was published.

“Blackjack, if played properly, is one of the best bets in the casino,” he says, adding, “Just a basic strategy player can often get back more in comps than he gives to the casino via its thin house advantage.” Perhaps that weak excuse is why a number of casinos (specifically the larger corporate players) have added rules that a blackjack pays 6-5 instead of 3-2. As the “Wizard” points out, this simple change has a 1.36% negative impact. For an excellent player, that could be up to a 200% disadvantage. I’ll join Shackleford in urging players to avoid any game with that rule. Even worse is a 1-1 blackjack payoff. You’ll probably never see that on a live table, but Shackleford notes that electronic tables games often cite “blackjack pays 2-for-1; that’s the same thing as 1-to-1 (even money).”

He also notes the importance of “rule shopping” in roulette in Chapter 12. Single-Zero roulette holds 2.70% on all bets. Double-Zero has a house edge of 5.26% while the Triple-Zero version jumps to 7.69%. Shopping for a Single-Zero game today is like trying to find a Taylor Swift concert ticket. But Double-Zero games are still plentiful. Unfortunately, the Triple-Zero version is spreading like a virus, and you’ll generally find them in the same places that have been infected with 6-5 Blackjack.

Shackleford also does a great job covering the basics of 13 other popular table games from Big Six to Sic Bo and throws in some interesting material on Video Poker and Sports Betting. If you are a hard-core player of carnival games, I might recommend “The Ultimate Report” by James Grosjean instead. But for most readers, Shackleford’s version is simpler and easier to understand.

Likewise, there are dozens of books and websites today on Sports Betting. Shackleford does not claim any special expertise in this area, but rather examines the math of historical trends, uncovering some surprises. One example is that NFL “road underdogs” do +2.57% against the spread. Who knew? There are plenty of other gems in this section on MLB, the NBA and betting strategies.

Shackleford is an “advantage player”. Often that group is at complete odds with casino operators. Therefore, it is interesting that “The Ten Commandments of Gambling” he created in Chapter One would probably be endorsed by any casino employee. Who can disagree with “X. Thou Shalt Tip” or “IV. Thou Shall Not Overbet Thy Bankroll”? The other eight are just as good, and I wish the world would follow them a bit more often.

I can’t even argue with his admonishment to readers not to play traditional slots, “Due to a high house edge and a fast rate of play, in most situations,” he argues, “slot machines are the quickest way to lose your money in the casinos”. Being a mathematician, he correctly acknowledges that, except for video poker, table games offer much better odds. However, I feel he, like many others, fails to appreciate that there is an “entertainment factor” that isn’t as strong on the tables where skill, or lack of it, is always on display.

You can argue that point, but the numbers are convincing. The Nevada Gaming Control Board statistics for the 12 months ending on November 30, 2023: table games generated $5.174 billion in revenue when slots did $10.229B. The gap is far larger outside of Nevada, where slot revenue often exceeds table win by a factor of 4, 5, or 6 to one. So, while table games are the better bet, slots win the popularity contest every time.

I really like this book and highly recommend it. Despite the fact that “advantage players” like Shackleford are often the scourge of operators, I am one that admires their hard work finding the best ways to play the games and taking legal advantage of the rules. In my opinion, they help us become stronger operators, make us follow procedures and develop better rules.

But also given my operator’s perspective, I’m not a fan of “Vulturing Slots” that are discussed in Chapters 13-15 (it was barely mentioned in the first two editions). Some of the best slot mechanics ever invented are “persistence” bonusing and “must-hit-by” progressives. Shackleford calls these machines “variable state” or “accumulation” slots. This is where a slot machine encourages a player to stay longer by offering a growing prize. The “vultures” will look for games that “regular” players have built up, and then move in.

While there is a legitimate view that an abandoned machine in a positive state is fair game for anyone, I know that these vulture players never, ever contributed anything to growing a low progressive meter or getting the machine into the desirable bonus state. In my idealized perfect world, I’d like those players who built the bonus to win the bonus. However, I cannot fault “Gambling 102” for correctly noting that your chances of winning are better if you seek these idle machines.

I’ll admit that my opinion is also colored by the many instances all operators have experienced of bullying players who intimidate other players to leave their game prematurely by being loud, obnoxious, smoking cigars, flatulating, burping, and so on. Shackleford has probably not encountered as many of these abusive players as I have, but to me they are like the person who cuts in the front of a long line, or pickpockets the crowd. I don’t believe that many advantage players fall in this category, but those that do give a bad name to others who are simply looking for a decent edge against the house.

The rest of this book is golden. The chapters are short, and the entire book is a quick read that will improve your playing and management perspective. My first and second editions have quite a bit of wear on them from frequent referencing. This third edition should be on your shelf to do the same. It is available almost everywhere at $19.95, including the publisher’s website.