Good morning, roulette fans! Recently, I was fortunate enough to interview advantage player, gambling intellectual and all-round betting genius, Michael Shackleford – better known for his web-persona ‘The Wizard of Odds.’
Click the vid below for our full interview, in which the Wizard spills the beans on international casinos, explores the profitability of advantage play and reveals his choicest cuts of wisdom for strategic gamblers.
Thanks again for agreeing to talk to us, Michael; it was a real pleasure!
Roulette.co.uk Meets the Wizard of Odds: Full Interview
About Michael Shackleford
Michael Shakleford (The Wizard of Odds) is recognized as a leading authority on the mathematics of casino games. Through his website, thewizardofodds.com, he shares optimised betting strategies with gamblers around the world.
Michael’s lifelong passion for gambling began when he read John Scarne’s seminal Guide to Casino Gambling at a young age. He ‘prepared’ himself for professional gambling before turning 21 by developing modest ‘advantage plays.’ One of his best plays involved setting up a basketball on his drive and betting friends even money that they couldn’t score with a free-throw.
Before becoming the Wizard, Michael worked as an ‘actuary’ for the United States government, meaning he performed risk assessment on economic policies. This professional background has informed his intelligent approach to betting.
In 1997, Michael launched his first website, but it was not until 2002 that his ‘Wizard of Odds’ website and persona burst onto the scene. In this year, Michael published a groundbreaking study that ranked the payout percentages of Las Vegas slot machines. This act secured his reputation.
In addition to running his website, Michael currently analyses new games for software developers (including Playtech) and prestigious land-based casinos, such as the Hilton. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Casino Math at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Joey: Okay so this is Joseph Attard interviewing Michael Shackleford for Roulette.co.uk, hello Michael.
The Wizard Of Odds: Hello.
Joey: Michael is perhaps better known for his moniker the Wizard of Odds. So we’re going to have a little chat and I hope it’s going to be very enlightening. Thank you very much for agreeing to do this by the way Michael.
The Wizard Of Odds: You’re welcome, thank you for having me.
Joey: Do you like Michael or Mike by the way?
The Wizard Of Odds: Mike.
Joey: Great, okay so first question. Since launching your first website in 1997 you’ve gone on to become a serious authority on gambling systems, betting optimisation and advantage play. Could you tell us about that journey to becoming the Wizard of Odds?
The Wizard Of Odds: Well thanks for the compliment. It’s a long story but here’s the executive summary. I’m an accredited actuary, which means I’m licensed to crunch a lot of statistics and I used to do this for the government when I lived in Baltimore, Maryland. During this time just as a fun project I created a website about gambling, as you said around 1997. This was because I was just surfing the web and felt that there were no good gambling websites out there, just a bunch of banner farms. So I thought you know in one day I could create the best website on gambling out there because I already knew so much about gambling. So I did, and you know I added to it from time to time with new games and it quickly developed a good following.
Somehow peopled found it even though I never spent a penny on advertising and people offered to pay me to analyse new games and eventually I started taking advertising on the site. And it was doing so well that I felt that if I quit my government job I could do much better just running my website. So in the year 2000 I did. I’m one of the few people to voluntarily leave a government job without retiring and have devoted myself to my websites ever since.
Joey: Well that is the ultimate on-line success story, the idea of abandoning a government job to run a personal website to something much bigger that’s fantastic.
The Wizard Of Odds: Yes that’s the American dream!
Joey: Indeed, well it’s the everywhere dream I think. So next question. On your website you describe your brand philosophy in regards to gambling as the Wizard of Odds. “If you’re going to gamble you should have the best information possible so you can have the best chance of winning and can minimise your losses if you do lose” -that’s a direct quote from your site. Would you mind expanding on this basic brand philosophy for us?
The Wizard Of Odds: Well I recognise that people like gambling. And you know I’m not trying to shake people and say don’t gamble at all unless you have an advantage. I’m realistic: people enjoy gambling.
So for example if somebody likes to play Craps I want to tell them if you’re going to play Craps here’s how you should play it. You know make the line bets, take the odds avoid all the sucker bets in the middle of the table, you know if somebody like a sucker game like say the Big Six Wheel, I’m going to say well if you must play this here’s the best bet on the table. But hopefully they would notice better bets on my website.
Joey: And of course Roulette’s definitely not a sucker game of course?
The Wizard Of Odds: Well in your country Roulette is not a bad bet especially on the even money bets. The house advantage is only 1.35% you know yes you could do better in Baccarat or Black Jack, but it’s a lot better than our awful Roulette at 5.26%. And yes you know and furthermore I’m all in favour about knowing what you do about anything. I think knowledge is a good thing and if you like gambling you should understand gambling. If you like fishing you should understand fishing you know. And just I’m a big fan of learning in general.
Joey: Of course, absolutely. And mention of the envy of you guys across the pond in terms of our roulette wheels, we encounter that a lot when we speak to our users on-line! Okay, in your opinion, is it fair to say that most gamblers don’t really understand the odds attached to the games they play and if they did do you think they would continue to gamble?
The Wizard Of Odds: Yes I absolutely think that most gamblers have no idea what they’re doing. Every time I play at the Casino I get into arguments with other players. For example in Black Jack let’s say I have a Black Jack and the dealer’s showing ace and the dealer asks for do you want even money? I always say no unless I’m counting, and if I say no all the other players call me an idiot. And in any other game, say Ultimate Texas Hold Em, I refuse all the side bets and I get called an idiot. So I absolutely think that the vast majority of gamblers are clueless, and you know, I strongly feel that gamblers should know what they’re talking about. So I have a very low opinion of American gamblers and I can’t really speak that much for outside the world.
But what if gamblers knew more? That’s a good question. Would it take the fun out of the game? I remember one time I was at my brother’s wedding and I was playing Black Jack with my uncle and I kept trying to teach him the odds favour doing this and doing that. He was just playing awful in Black Jack. And he said, “Mike if I played by the book it would take all the fun out of it.” And for people like maybe it would. But I’m a scientific, ‘by the book kind of guy’ and I can’t help but play the right way. But gambling is also supposed to be for fun. My philosophy is I can only lead a horse to water, but I can’t make him drink. So my website is the water, and it’s up to the world if they want to drink from it or not, I don’t really care.
Joey: Fair enough, it’s interesting actually you’re talking about the different kinds of utilities people derive from gambling. I mean some would argue that when you’re gamble you’re effectively paying for entertainment. So my bank roll is just a kind of time limit on the amount of time I get to spend playing. So there’s no right way to gamble per se, it’s just whatever derives the most entertainment within my means. But you would say that the aim is to win, it’s all about beating the house deriving the most, I don’t know, winnings from a particular kind of Black Jack or Baccarat or whatever. With you is it principally about winning?
The Wizard Of Odds: 99.9% of gamblers out there are recreational gamblers that have a negative expectation. And my website is targeted towards them. I also have some stuff targeted at the 0.1% advantage players and I do talk about advantage plays from time to time and I always get clobbered in the forums for it because every advantage player that already knew what I was talking about gets angry at me. But let’s not go in that…
Joey: That particular direction.
The Wizard Of Odds: Down that topic. You know for recreational gamblers they absolutely should think of it as a form of entertainment for which they should expect to pay. However I’m all in favour of paying as little as possible for something. For example if a gallon of gas costs $3 at one station and $4 right across the street, I’d rather pay the three bucks.
Much like in Black Jack you know some games have a house advantage of 0.3%, and some games have a house advantage of 25. You know I’d much rather play the 0.3%. And I’d rather not lose money to mistakes. I am all about saving money wherever I can.
Joey: Fantastic. Despite helping thousands of gamblers optimise their play on a variety of games, you clearly state that aside from a few exceptions, there is no way to beat the house. Could you name a few of these exceptions where you can beat the house?
The Wizard Of Odds: Yes. For example Video Poker. Here in Las Vegas it’s not hard to find a Video Poker machine that pays over a 100% with correct strategy, however you can only bet small amounts – maybe up to a dollar. It’s going to be a real thin advantage and not worth anyone’s time. However if you consider all the other angles like the points and three play comps, a negative game can turn positive.
I also believe there’s a lot of opportunity in sports betting. You know a very good poker player can make money at that, card counting is a proven advantage. You know if the dealer’s exposing a whole card in any game that can be an advantage, there’s just a long, long list of advantage plays out there. So you know being an advantage player is not necessarily easy but it’s still definitely do-able.
Joey: Can you offer a bit of clarity to that comment that poker players and card counters can do well in sports betting? Why are there transferable skills in different spheres of gambling like is somebody who is a great card counter also likely to be really good Poker player?
The Wizard Of Odds: Not necessarily. For example I consider myself a good Black Jack player, but a lousy Poker player.
The Wizard Of Odds: Some people are good at both, you know different kinds of advantage play require different kinds of skill set. For example Video Poker that is going to be suitable for somebody who is very mathematical and analytical and has a good memory, and the kind of person that needs to proven that there’s an advantage here and here’s how to get it.
Other kinds of advantage players are people that don’t necessarily need to know exactly what the advantage is but just be able to spot a good opportunity when they see it and take advantage of it. For example if they spot a dealer call carding, meaning exposing a card the player’s not supposed to see. That can have a very strong advantage, but what if the dealer doesn’t do it every single time? Then you have to kind of go and feel is this a good play or not?
So I know lots and lots of advantage players and most of them are really good at what they do and lousy at other kinds of advantage plays. So if someone is thinking about becoming an advantage player there’s a whole host of ways it can be done, and I don’t think that someone should try to learn all of them, but consider what is my skill set and od something that best suits that.
Joey: Great. So in addition to your activities as the Wizard you are also or have been a professional actuary. For those of us who don’t know could you explain what this entails, and how it subsequently formed your interest in gambling?
The Wizard Of Odds: Well actuaries are statisticians that work in a business environment, lots of them work for insurance companies. For example whenever you ask for a quote on any kind of insurance its ultimately going to be the actuaries that look at the facts of your life and decide what would be a reasonable price to quote you. For example life insurance is a very simple example. You could look at ones, just ones gender and age and get a good idea of how much longer they’re going to live and the probability of reaching any given age. You can get an even better estimate if you make that person undergo a physical, whether or not they’re a smoker. So yes that’s the kind of thing that actuaries do.
I worked for the social security administration to determine how much any given change in legislation would cost or save the government. My areas of expertise were on the taxation and social security benefits and what’s called the ‘earnings test,’ which at the time I worked there you could still worked and collected social security they would cut your benefits and there was a strong movement to repeal that. I did a lot of work on the short and long term effects of that. So yes, basically a glorified bean counter.
Joey: That’s very modest of you I’m sure.
The Wizard Of Odds: And I think you asked the process of becoming one.
The Wizard Of Odds: Here in the US when I did it there were ten different tests you had to go through to become an associate and an additional five to become a fellow. So through the 90s I worked on these tests and I passed them all in about five years. And I stopped at the associate level. And to this day I keep my licence going. You know I’m not sure why but I spend about $700 a year to keep that licence active.
The Wizard Of Odds: Yes.
Joey: Has that been a plus investment for you?
The Wizard Of Odds: Well you know maybe it’s good for me to say I’m an actuary as opposed to saying I was a former actuary. And sometimes I get invited to speak at actuarial conferences and I worked so hard on these tests that I hate to just throw it away now.
Joey: Absolutely. I think to understand about that is how your background as an actuary has formed your interest in gambling?
The Wizard Of Odds: You know I just have that gambling gene, some people just like gambling and some don’t and I do. And I’m not the only one in my family, it’s said that my great grandfather was a big gambler. And I view gambling like a math problem. So from the time I was eight I was reading, I was checking out library books on gambling, like Scarnie’s book and reading everything I could about it.
When I got to be about eighteen I knew about card counting and started preparing for that in advance of turning twenty one to get ready to do it in the casinos in Vegas. So yes I like math, I like computers and I like gambling so it’s a very good fir that all of those things merge when it comes to analysing casino games.
Joey: It’s funny you talked about having the casino gene. I recently chatted to an expert from the UK on, he’s a psychologist, you might have heard of him he’s called Dr Mark Griffiths?
The Wizard Of Odds: I can’t say that I have.
Joey: Well he’s quite a big authority over here in addiction. He’s not anti-gambling in the least by his own admissions, but he’s interested in the psychology of gambling and he actually cited the gene which does seem to have some kind of effect on compulsive action which can in turn an impact on ones interest in gambling. So perhaps there is a biological element behind it all.
The Wizard Of Odds: I think that there is.
Joey: Would you say you possibly have that gene?
The Wizard Of Odds: Yes. Absolutely, I was just born liking to gamble and from the youngest age I would look for a good shot wherever I could. One of my best advantage plays ever is we had a basketball hoop on our driveway. I would bet anybody even money that they couldn’t make a simple free throw. Keep in mind I’m gambling with kids not MBA players. And I knew that when I said this to the hot shot athletes, their ego would be challenged and they would take that bet. And I knew that none of them could do 50% so it was a great bet in my opinion. Did I always get paid? No, but on a mathematical basis I did very well with it.
Joey: Okay great. Well that’s a little insight into the history of your interest there. Okay so next question, we talked on this really briefly earlier, but I’d like to have a chat about transferrable skills from gambling. Now you mentioned that certain skills are transferrable between games and certain skills aren’t. But in your view do you think that there are skills that can be obtained from gambling or that are shared by experienced gamblers that can be useful in non-gambling pursuits, say some professional contexts? Obviously you use your experienced in your line of work, in your capacity as a very good gambler, is it possible that potherb people might be able to do the same thing?
The Wizard Of Odds: Well unfortunately I don’t think that professional gambler is the best thing to put on a resume.
Joey: Well yes, it works for trading apparently.
The Wizard Of Odds: Excuse me?
Joey: It works for trading apparently. Some people have actually been employed as traders because they’re really good at video poker.
The Wizard Of Odds: Well good point, good point. You know I think if somebody could convince a potential employer how difficult it is to be a good Video Poker player – how it requires very fast dexterity, a good memory, dedication and analysis – they might have a chance. I think it’s hard to be an advantage player, and depending upon what type you are it requires a very specific skill set. Are there many jobs out there in the workplace for advantage players? No it’s something you just got to do on your own.
However I think that anybody who would make a good professional gambler probably would be good at something else in the general economy. But you just have to take that on a case by case basis.
Joey: There’s some hope then I guess. Going on from that, is it really possible to make a living as a gambler in 99% of cases, even with advantage players? Because I remember reading about a world memory champion who visited Vegas and who surreptitiously engaged in a lot of card counting, but he only made about $16,000 over the course of about six months. I mean that’s the kind of thing that, it’s certainly not the kind of high flying lifestyle that a lot of people picture when they think of professional gambling. Is it really possible to make a living out of gambling?
The Wizard Of Odds: I believe that if somebody tries hard enough and is very dedicated to what they do, yes. But it’s not easy and it takes money to even get started. Especially things like card counting and Video Poker, it takes a lot of money to make a little money at first. I think that most people that try to be advantage player eventually fail. Most of them over bet their bank roll and bust out. Some of them are also compulsive gamblers and if they can’t find a positive play they’ll do a negative play and that will burn them out. And there’s a lot of people that are truly recreational gamblers that get lucky and then think they’re an advantage player.
So I think that the number of legitimate advantage players is not that high to be perfectly honest with you. I think the ratio of people who think they’re advantage players to real advantage players is like 10/1.
Joey: Given that the house always has a significant advantage against players, do you think it’s important to educate gamblers about odds and optimisation strategies so as to better level the playing field? Is that part of your objective?
The Wizard Of Odds: Yes my objective is to teach players about gambling. And somebody wants to know how to play any given game as bets as possible that’s why I’m here. You know if ran for example a website about fishing I would try to teach people how to catch as many fish as possible, I’m just all about excellence and learning and doing the best job that you can.
Joey: Great okay, so you’re based in the United States but presumably you’re a fairly well travelled individual, you’ve been to different places, I understand, you mentioned you were in London .
The Wizard Of Odds: I was just in London two weeks ago.
Joey: Okay how was that? Good time?
The Wizard Of Odds: It was great, you guys have very competitive odds over there, your Craps rules are very generous. Good Black Jack rules. The casinos there I thought were a little too uniform and not as fun as the Vegas casinos, but London in general is great and I’m looking forward to coming back.
Joey: Did you check out our first ever super casino in Stratford while you were here?
The Wizard Of Odds: Is that Aspers?
Joey: That’s the one yes. That’s the one.
The Wizard Of Odds: Yes I did go there.
Joey: What did you think?
The Wizard Of Odds: So that’s called a super casino?
Joey: Yes or a large scale casino complex, or a regional casino. We have two at the moment in this country but we’re looking to get some more.
The Wizard Of Odds: So you’re the one in the shopping mall right?
Joey: Yes the one in the shopping mall unfortunately yes.
The Wizard Of Odds: Well you know if that were in Las Vegas nobody would be calling it a super casino. That would be kind of a small casino by Vegas standards. But I liked it, as I recall it had about twenty tables, poker a restaurant, a nice place. But I think super casino is going too far.
Joey: Well it’s all relative, it’s super to us.
The Wizard Of Odds: It’s super compared to your other casinos, let’s put it that way.
Joey: That’s fair, let’s be nice and leave it there.
The Wizard Of Odds: Well you asked, you said that ‘m a well-travelled person.
Joey: Yes please elaborate.
The Wizard Of Odds: Let’s see I’ve been to China five times, Europe four, Australia, South America and lost track of the number of places I’ve been in North America. So yes I like to travel and every time I do I like to check out the casinos and learn how people play in other parts of the world.
Joey: What have you learned on your travels? I mean how does the gambling culture of America compete to say the Far East?
The Wizard Of Odds: In the Far East people in the casino are there to gamble. They’re not there to go to nightclubs and to go to bars and restaurants. It’s just no nonsense gambling, they don’t want any friendly banter with the dealer, they just want to be left alone to bet. And the vast majority of them like Baccarat. Where as in the US it’s more of an entertainment experience and it’s supposed to be fun. And of course we tend to like the Poker and Black Jack games better. So yes it’s a lot different between the US and Asia.
Joey: Do you have any particularly Crap [Inaudible 0:25:12] or do you just prefer to get your head down and really play or do you like the more sort of friendly ambient experience kind of all-round entertainment complex of American casinos?
The Wizard Of Odds: Yes not surprisingly I think most people like what they’re used to and I, I think that the US casinos are a lot better than the Asian casinos. Just my opinion.
Joey: Okay yes just your opinion there’s. No partisan of you there at all, it’s purely your view of course.
The Wizard Of Odds: Sorry no offence to my Asian fans.
Joey: Of course they probably say the same thing of their own casinos. So as you know on-line gambling is currently banned in most of the United States. Do you ever see it returning?
The Wizard Of Odds: I absolutely think it’s going to come back. And let me be clear by Federal law there’s no law that says on-line gambling is illegal, it says its illegal for banks to conduct transactions facilitating on-line gambling. So my non-legal opinion is that as long as you’re not using US banks to gamble on-line you’re breaking no US law. Now some states have specifically said that it’s illegal, like New York, Virginia and Washington. So let me offer that correction, but yes I absolutely believe that legalisation in the US is the way of the near future.
Joey: Okay thank you for the correction. Last question, what is your number one piece of advice for all the gamblers out there? If you could impart one piece of wisdom.
The Wizard Of Odds: Don’t play 6-5 Black Jack.
Joey: Buy some [Inaudible 0:27:06] fantastic. Well thank you very much Michael you’ve been fantastic, thank you very much for speaking to us. This was Joseph Attard interviewing Michael Shackleford, AKA the Wizard of Odds for Roulete.co.uk. Thanks very much.
The Wizard Of Odds: Thanks for having me.
Joey: Good bye.