Michael Shackleford - The Wizard of Odds

For those of you who've had your heads under the rocks for the last decade, Michael Shackleford - The Wizard of Odds - owns and operates one of the most successful gambling sites on the web, www.WizardOfOdds.com. Since it's creation the Wizard of Odds site had provided players with a wealth of information on the mathematically correct strategies to play just about every casino game imaginable alongside being a strong advocate of fair play and protector of player rights. In short, if you're not familiar with his site already, you should be!

Many professional gamblers and others who display deep interests in the field of gambling developed such interests early on in their lives playing cards or dice with their friends or family. When did you first develop an interest in casino games and gambling? Who in your life do you feel influenced your interests?

I must have been born with the gambling gene. Ever since I was young enough to understand the value of money, I've been gambling with my friends on anything I perceived an advantage on. Most wagers were on some athletic contest; in particular, they were based on shooting free throws.

When I was about 13, I checked out Scarne's Guide to Casino Gambling from the library and read every page. I was fascinated at his mathematical look at casino gambling. Between that, and later Stanford Wong's Professional Blackjack, I found analyzing casino games was the perfect union of three of my favorite subjects: gambling, computer programming, and math.

Prior to moving into gaming analysis, you worked as an actuary for the US Social Security Administration and produced widely referenced work, most notably on trends in baby names. What prompted you to move from this field where you’d already garnered great success into gaming?

Thanks for doing your homework for this interview. Not too many people know I was the first to compile nationwide lists of the most popular baby names. While that is what I'll be remembered for at Social Security, it took very little of my time. What I was supposed to be doing was calculating estimates of the cost or benefit to the Social Security trust funds of proposed congressional legislation.

I was with the Social Security Administration from 1992 to 2000. Meanwhile, in 1995, I created a website about gambling, just for fun. The site would later become known as the "Wizard of Odds." While early on I considered it a learning exercise in website design only, the site took on a life its own. By 2000, I realized I could earn more from my website and as a gaming consulting than I could as an actuary, so I left government work voluntarily (which seldom happens) for a life as the Wizard full time.

You quickly made a name for yourself analysing casino games and posting your findings on your old website (what was the url of the now deceased site?). These sort of studies would tend to draw a very specific sort of audience and likely a number of professional – or aspiring professional – gamblers. Can you tell us about some of the more interesting people who contacted you? [Obviously without using names or identifiable features]

My original gambling site was called "Mike's Gambling Page." I've had an enormous amount of email from readers of the site over the years. Some from professional gamblers, some from academics, some from people in the gaming business, but mostly just recreational gamblers. I've at least corresponded with just about every living gambling writer at some point, except in the world of poker, which is not my emphasis. If there is one thing my fan base has in common, it is about 99% male, for better or worse.

To name just one interesting person I've met through the site, I should explain that I used to have something called the "Wizard Challenge." I offered to bet my $20,000 to win $2,000 that no betting system could beat a game with a house advantage. While many people wasted countless hours of my time under the premise of negotiating the terms, one person actually put up the money. In fact, we agreed to double the terms, $40,000 vs. $4,000.

He was an interesting character. He drove all the way from Louisiana to watch me press the button to start the simulation. Although there are plenty of cheap hotels in Vegas, he chose to spend the night in the desert. When he showed up at my door, he had a living tarantula he'd captured the previous night in a paper cup. He asked if he could put in my freezer, I think to put it in a state of suspended animation, with the goal of taking it back home alive. Even without the spider, he was an odd fellow, but he accepted the result of my simulation without argument and paid up.

Where did the title ‘Wizard of Odds’ come from? Obviously what you can do with numbers could seem near magical to many people, but was it just something you made up or is there a story behind it?

As I mentioned above, the original name of the site was “Mike's Gambling Page.” In 1998, I read an article about Chicago bookmaker Donald Angelini (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Angelini) who went by the moniker "Wizard of Odds." Since he didn't seem to be actively using it any longer, I usurped it for myself. In all fairness, others have used it too, including a game show hosted by Alex Trebek before he became famous for Jeopardy.

You currently reside in Las Vegas and you have worked extensively as a consultant for many of the Vegas casino. Alongside this however, you also have practiced card counting and other forms of advantage play. Are you still welcome to play in most Vegas casinos, or have your side interests made you unwelcome at the tables?

Contrary to popular belief, I have done very little work for land casinos, including those in Las Vegas. An exception is I worked part time for the Venetian earlier this year. Most of my consulting has been for software providers for Internet casinos. Some has been for gaming companies, like Shufflemaster, that create games for use by land casinos.

Yes, I play both sides, and I am not welcome to play in some Vegas casinos. Some others have me on the DNI list, which stands for "do not invite." I like to play above the radar, exploiting the niceties like mailers, tournaments, and special events. Without them, I don't have a reason to play. So, I'm allowed to play in most Vegas casinos, but my wings have been clipped.

Alongside all of this you were the developer of Three Card Second Chance – a game that is now exclusively owned by WagerWorks software and one that I have to say is one of the most enjoyable casino table games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. How did this game come about? Were you approached by WagerWorks to develop a new table game for them or was this a pet project that you took round prospective clients?

Thanks for the kind words about my game. I invented it in 2006 and titled it Mulligan Poker. However, Wagerworks didn't care for the name and changed it to "Three Card Second Chance." They also changed the rules a bit. Wagerworks doesn't own the game, but we have an agreement to let them offer it on their Internet casinos.

I'm excited to say that Shufflemaster has taken an interest in the game, with its original name and rules. They featured it at the last Global Gaming Expo. I've been told it will make its casino debut in Kansas early next year. I hope my fans will come out and play it.

n 2011 you attended Max Rubin’s Blackjack Ball – an invitation only event that caters solely to professional gamblers. At the Blackjack Ball you won the lofty title of ‘Best Gambler in the World’ for the 2011 event - a title that has been held by some of the world’s most talented professional gamblers in previous years, including members of the MIT card counting team team and even James Grosjean author of the fantastic Beyond Counting who is widely regarded as one of the best advantage players of all time. Can you tell us how winning this title made you feel, about the competition itself – what did the competition test and what little you can about the players you were competing against?

Yes, that is one of my proudest moments. To be honest, I have to give luck a lot of the credit. I've attended the ball several times and only made it beyond the qualifying test twice. The other time I lost in a tie-breaker contest to get to the final table, over a stupid answer I'm still kicking myself over.

In 2011 I got just enough correct to make it to the final table. I recall one question was to name the location of the Chumash Casino. The answer is Santa Ynez, California. I only knew that because I went to college in nearby Santa Barbara. Without that, I would have not made the cut. Once you get to the final table, it is a combination of a blackjack tournament and certain skills in blackjack that determine the winner. Even I didn't fully understand the rules at the time. I recall one skill they tested for was chip riffling, which I happen to be good at.

In the end, it came down to me and my publisher, Anthony Curtis, to see who could count down a single deck of cards the fastest. I think both of us were pretty rusty, but Anthony more so than me. They gave each of us a deck of 51 cards. The goal was to be the first to identify if our missing card was high, medium, or low. I got through the cards first and had a running count of +1. So I answered "high," with a low degree of confidence. I was very nervous. However, it was a queen, so I won!

As mentioned before, you’ve worked extensively as a consultant for various casinos both online and offline. Can you tell us about some of the more interesting issues you’ve been brought in to advise on? Do those casinos that you have consulted for actually take your advice on board, or have you found speaking against conventional wisdom an uphill struggle?

I find the land casinos pretty set in their ways and slow to ask for help. However, in the world of online gambling, they are not as shy about soliciting advice. I have helped many software providers, with the goal of making their games as realistic as possible while still maintaining their desired house advantage. So, yes, I think I have had a big impact on the world of Internet casinos. For example, many of the best online slots machines you see at Internet casinos I personally designed. My footprint is much smaller in the world of land casinos.

From the very start of your website, you’ve been a strong advocate of fair play and currently only advertise one online casino (Bodog). How did this exclusive affiliation come about? What do you feel needs to be done to improve the best online casinos to ensure that players are treated fairly?

Thanks for noticing. I've called out various Internet casinos and software providers through the years for stiffing winners and cheating. In the mostly unregulated world of Internet gambling, I think that webmasters such as myself and CasinoMeister have the responsibility to keep an eye on the industry, and to warn players about whom to avoid. The forums are also a form of self-regulation of the industry.

Regarding Bodog, my former webmaster Michael Bluejay had the idea to just have one advertiser and to promote that one hard. We thought of it as just an experiment, but it worked out very well. For years Bodog/Bovada has been the only Internet casino I endorse. Everyone says I'm a fool to not advertise more casinos, but I'm happy with our business model.

In 2002 you compiled and published a paper on the Return to Player (RTP) percentages of the slots games offered at various Las Vegas casinos – something that CainoReviews is very interested in trying to do for online casinos in our casino reviews. How did you go about gathering this information? You obviously don’t agree with these figures being kept from players – what are the benefits for new casinos and players in having this information publicized?

That was one of my proudest accomplishments. I got the information by studying slot machine par sheets. For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with how slot machines are programmed, the casino has a choice of several settings for most games, ranging from about 85% to 98% return. The difference from one setting to another will be a few changes in the reel stripping. If you know the reel stripping for each setting, you can find individual patterns that are unique to certain settings. After a few minutes of play, it is possible to narrow down the return to a single setting.

I feel strongly that the player should know the rules and/or the odds of any game in the casino. Since the casinos aren't volunteering this information, I went in and got it myself. The benefit to the players is they can patronize the more liberal casinos and lose less when playing slots. Certainly the Palms benefited, as they quoted my survey for years. If the stingy casinos at the bottom of the list lost some business, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. You can find my survey in my slot machine appendix 3A.

You told Gaffg.com earlier this year that you were planning to set up a Spanish language site that would hopefully be live by the end of 2012. How is that progressing? Other than being gambling focused, what will this site offer? Is it simply a translation of the Wizard site?

That project is running behind schedule. However, I hope to launch it in early 2013. It will start out pretty thin, and I'll add more material as I go. It would be a monumental effort to translate everything on Wizard of Odds. There are probably over 1,000 pages of material there. Instead, I plan to just cover the major games and only hit on the basics.

Ever since the passing of the UIGEA in 2006 the US market has been highly restricted from engaging in any online gambling and there has been constant discussion about when the US will rejoin the market. How do you feel about the UIGEA? Has it actually been effective in stopping the US gambling population from playing online or has it simply force them to turn to less reputable outfits that were more willing to circumvent the rules? Do you see the US returning to the market any time soon and if so what would need to happen before then?

When it comes to issues of personal liberty, you can call me Ron Paul. When anything fun is prohibited, it just drives that business into the black market. I would rather have the freedom to exercise my own choices about engaging in activities that are potentially addictive or harmful to me. The role of government should be to regulate and tax it.

I do not doubt that prohibiting US banks from handling financial transactions to Internet casinos has depressed play. However, there are ways of funding accounts without using US banks, and millions of players know that. Unfortunately, many of the casinos accepting US players are the more rogue ones. Bovada excepted, of course! Meanwhile, the US government, with its $16 trillion of debt, is missing out on a huge source of tax revenue, as all the proceeds from the online gambling industry circulate in the economies of other countries. The United States could dominate the Internet gambling market if it weren't for those in Washington who think the American people are too stupid to make their own choices.

Nevertheless, I do believe Internet gambling will soon have a foot in the door with legal online poker in some states. Once the sceptics see that was the right decision, other forms of gambling will follow. It is just a matter of time. I hate to throw out a date. Having intimate knowledge of Social Security reform, I know change in Washington happens very slowly. If forced, I will say full blown Internet gambling will be here in the early half of the next decade.

If you were to start or take over an offline casino today what would you differently to the standard practices currently in place within the industry? How about an online casino?

Funny you should ask. I've toyed with opening my own casino for years, but I don't have the start up funds to do it properly. However, if that day should come, my philosophy would be to offer the best overall odds online. Meanwhile, I will not be jumping over the cliff with everybody else with casino welcome bonus offers.

You’ve written a gambling book – Gambling 102 – published by Huntington Press. For those not familiar with the book already can you tell us a little more about it? Who would benefit from reading it?

It is concise gambling advice for the most popular casino games. I know that all the same information is on my website, but sometimes it is handy to have it in something you can carry around. Recreational players, who already understand the rules of the games, and just want a mathematically valid strategy to play them get the most out of it.

You mention on your site that one of your hobbies is juggling – a close family member of mine is a keen juggling enthusiast and regularly puts on displays involving fire and clubs and many other spectacles. Do you get much time to practice this art and have you ever performed in public?

During my Baltimore years (1992-2001), I juggled a lot with a friend there. We put on a pin passing show outside the employee cafeteria two or three times a week. I also rode the unicycle in the Saint Patrick's Day and Thanksgiving parades in Baltimore. Sadly, when I moved to Las Vegas, I fell out of both hobbies and have become rusty. Both are social activities and not much fun to do alone.

To round off the interview – I used to do some music journalism work so I’m always interested to hear about people’s tastes in music. Could you give us your top 5 albums?

It is hard to limit it to just five. This list admittedly considers the artist's full body of work.

  • Emmylou Harris -- Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town

  • Bring Springsteen -- Nebraska

  • Pink Floyd -- Dark Side of the Moon

  • Elton John -- Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

  • 10,000 Maniacs -- Blind Man's Zoo