As a professional actuary, Michael Shackleford, better known as The Wizard of Odds, has become a prominent voice in the gaming community via his website and media presence. He has analysed casinos and their games and provided interesting and insightful information to gamblers of all levels since 1997. Michael has also consulted to various land-based and online-based casinos and software developers on the mathematics behind many games.
The Wizard was kind enough to grant Casino Listings an interview earlier this month, in which various topics related to the gaming industry and his own website and career were discussed.
DJ: Mike, we want to first off say thank you for taking the time to answer a few of our questions. Every time we have a technical question regarding the analysis of a casino game that we can't answer ourselves, your site is always the first one that we look to in the search for answers.
I love your statement on your website regarding quality as it aligns closely with our own philosophy - i.e. We take quality seriously. We don't have popup windows or animated ads, and we don't spam. The net is littered with cheap gambling sites that seem to want nothing better than to give you an epileptic seizure. Do you think this sort of thing has changed for the better over the years since you first wrote it and noted that you hoped others would follow?
MS: I think that the quality of gambling sites on the Internet has improved since I made that statement, so perhaps I should update it. When I wrote that most gambling sites were still just banner farms or blatantly stole material from the few sites that actually wrote content about gambling, usually mine. Today there are a lot more quality sites about gambling.
As a Las Vegas resident, you have seen your state legalize and regulate online poker, while New Jersey and Delaware have gone a step further and legalized online casino games. As you well know, online gambling has both its positive and negative attributes, along with its vehement opponents. What is your opinion on the legalization and regulation of online gambling in the United States? Do you think it will be a net benefit, or should I say positive EV, to society as a whole?
My opinion is that if two consenting adults want to make a bet then the government shouldn't step in the way and say "no" to protect people from harming themselves. On the whole I do believe that society would be better off with taxed and regulated gambling rather than the alternative. So, I'm all in favor of legalized and regulated Internet gambling. The business is crying out for regulation with teeth. It was a sad commentary on our business when the United Kingdom Gambling Commission and Gibraltar Regulatory Authority did nothing, as far as I can tell, when one of their licensees was caught dealing a gaffed, what I would call cheating, game called Reel Deal. It would be nice to see Nevada or New Jersey truly regulating the business in the same manner they regulate land casinos, as opposed to just selling a license to put on the wall.
One of my pet annoyances with the online gambling industry is the almost total reliance on bonuses as a means of player acquisition. The first thing just about every new casino that contacts us asking to be reviewed says is that they offer a big bonus to new players. However a large proportion of these bonuses are little more than traps designed to smooth out the variance for the casino rather than a genuine offer that gives a player a decent shot at winning. Apart from the obvious point that this is financially favourable for the casinos, why do you think this is, and why do you think that so few casinos are willing to go against the grain and focus on other benefits such as improved comps for loyal players?
That is a big annoyance for me too. The reliance on bonuses in the industry is just ridiculous. Before I lost my bank account in Cyprus I was planning to buy and operate my own Internet casino. The philosophy would have been as you said, a great value on every bet, and forget the bonuses. Unless I find an investor, I doubt that project will come to pass.
Several years ago, back in what I like to call the "golden age" when the bonuses offered by the casinos were mostly great value, you used to publish reviews of online casinos based on your experience of playing at them. However the reviews seem to have disappeared from your site. Why is that, and do you still play online these days?
I felt the reviews got outdated so took them down. Between the lack of choices for US players, lack of time, and bonuses not being as good as they used to, I don't play much online anymore, except for sports betting.
We recently conducted a survey that compared the reported payout percentages of a couple of popular online casinos to the numbers reported by the gaming regulators in Nevada and Atlantic City. One thing that surprised us was the extraordinarily low payout figures reported for the table games at land casinos, particularly the games with odds that remain constant regardless of strategy, such as roulette. Do you have any thoughts on why this might be the case?
For table games the payout reported is the "hold percentage," which should not be confused with the "house advantage." The "hold percentage" is the ratio of chips players walked away from the table with to cash dropped at the table. Usually players circulate the same money back and forth for a while. That house edge will grind the player down over time, causing them to walk with about 80% of their buy in. So, you're comparing apples to oranges.
You have consulted for companies in the online gaming space such as Playtech, helping design many of their parlour style games such as Around the World, Dice Twister, and the spectacular Heads or Tails (just kidding!). Who else have you consulted for and can you tell us a little about the games you have been involved in creating?
Besides Playtech, I've done games for Real Time Gaming, Boss Media, Galewind, Cozy Games, Clock Media, GC2, Icarus, Mandalay Gaming, Neo Games, NetoMedia, P&E Games, Parlay Entertainment, Random Logic, Smart Games, Top Game, Video Bet, and many others.
As you are well known for your analysis and publication of correct strategies for many casino games, and have appeared over the years in various media, I imagine it must be hard for you to count or play with an edge in the Vegas casinos. Where do you look these days for the best value when you are betting?
So when it comes to sportsbetting, what is your approach? Do you go by gut instinct, or do you analyze the teams and their form and do everything mathematically?
I like the exotic bets, like Super Bowl props, correlated parlays, and half-point parlay cards. I don’t handicap at all, but assume the point spread and total to be accurate, and try to exploit other bets based on that assumption. I analyze everything in every game and NEVER go on instinct.
If you had to recommend a single casino game to a player in terms of favorable odds and ease of strategy, which game would it be and why?
Craps. Just make the line bets and the maximum odds allowed. (DJ: Odds bets in craps have no house edge, so the larger the ratio of odds bet to your original line bet, the lower the edge for the player).
Lastly, tell us more about the hilarious relationships page on your website. We get our share of strange and even outright bizarre questions from time to time but I can't say that we have ever been asked about someone's cheating boyfriend, nor have we ever had the opportunity to (jokingly) recommend sodium thiopental to anyone. How or why did you start receiving questions like that and do you still continue to receive them these days?
I don't know what spawned the first "cheating boyfriend" question, but I published it and my answer in my Ask the Wizard column, mostly in the interests of humor. However, somehow the search engines latched onto that and I got ranked high for expressions like "Is my boyfriend cheating on me?" That caused more such questions to come in and get published, and that caused the rankings to keep improving. Eventually I felt the joke was getting stale and I quit answering questions on the topic.