Can a College Degree Improve Your Gambling Outcomes? (Heck, Yeah)
Published on February 25, 2018
Over the last 15 years, the mainstream media has fixated on a certain story angle when covering the gambling industry: college dropouts.
This phenomenon is mostly limited to the world of professional poker, as a legion of young 20 something’s went straight from the classroom to the cashier’s cage.
Successful pros like World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event champion Joe Cada, online superstar Charlie Carrell, and European Poker Tour fixture Jake Cody are among the many to be profiled under the “dropout turned gambler” headline.
But ditching class for the casino isn’t limited to poker by any stretch, and indeed, a quick Google search will turn up stories about former students striking it rich or going broke – through daily fantasy sports (DFS), traditional sports betting, table games, and even the slots.
On the other side of the coin, you’ll find many of the gambling world’s most successful players hail from the world of higher education. Professors, doctors, and lawyers are all well represented within the world of professional gambling, as are graduate students and folks pursuing their Ph.D.
In fact, many of the optimal strategies that have been developed over the years to “solve” skill games like blackjack, poker, and video poker were developed by trained mathematicians and game theorists.
All things considered, this diversity is what makes the world of casino gambling so great. Unlike other pursuits and professions, anybody can walk onto the casino floor and take their shot. You don’t need a degree to get in the game but having three or four of them doesn’t hurt either.
Dropouts can beat their former teachers at the table, and vice versa. At the casino, the playing field is levelled and the only barrier to entry is cold, hard cash.
As a onetime professional advantage player who spent a few decades grinding skill games to make ends meet, I find this link between education and gambling to be utterly fascinating. Personally speaking, I attended a state university and obtained the easiest bachelor’s degree out there: creative writing.
However, during my travels throughout this country’s casino landscape, I played alongside successful gamblers who never stepped foot in a high school classroom, as well as a few folks who could legitimately be called rocket scientists.
I’ve always believed that additional learning can never hurt anybody (the more you know and all that jazz), but I often wonder how formal education links to gambling results. To try and find an answer, I’ve studied eight figures who have become well known in casino gambling circles.
First, I’ll introduce you to four pioneers within the realm of gambling strategy and game theory, each of whom has education to spare. These people didn’t try to personally beat the house, but they did devise the optimal method of play used by successful players to this day.
Next up, you’ll meet four professional gamblers who applied their educational background to beat the game.
In the end, you can decide for yourself whether or not higher education can lead to better gambling results.
The entries below are devoted to the mathematicians, statisticians, computer scientists, and professors who translated their knowledge into new discoveries about casino game strategy.
Ask any of the old school blackjack grinders about Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, or James McDermott, and you’ll probably see a few puzzled faces and blank stares. Bring up the famed “Four Horsemen of Aberdeen,” and you’ll see those same faces light up with excitement and appreciation.
The year was 1953 and Baldwin, fresh from earning his Master’s degree in mathematics from the prestigious Columbia University, found himself stationed at the U.S. Army proving grounds in Aberdeen, Maryland.
The private played in tabletop blackjack games with his fellow servicemen, including fellow Master’s in math holders Cantey and McDermott, and professor to be Maisel.
The foursome was well educated in the field of probability, along with blackjack, so when Baldwin heard that dealers in Las Vegas card rooms must stand on soft 17, the proverbial light bulb went off.
Baldwin realized that the dealer’s exposed card, combined with their forced actions (hit to 16, stand on soft 17 and above), essentially created an equation waiting to be solved.
The friends dove headlong into their blackjack project, breaking out bulky adding machines (which preceded computers as calculation tools) to sort through the numbers.
It took the scholars almost two years, but in the end their computations had created an optimal strategy for every conceivable blackjack hand scenario.
Take any two starting cards and the dealer’s up card, and the Four Horsemen could instantly tell you the most mathematically advantageous play to use.
Their findings were first published in a 1956 paper entitled “The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack,” which appeared in the Journal of the American Statistical Association.
The following year, they published their data in book form as “Playing Blackjack to Win: A New Strategy for the Game of 21.”
In the years ahead, computer driven analysis would show that the Four Horsemen were nearly perfect with their strategy guidelines. Almost immediately, sharp players took notice of their work and began applying basic blackjack strategy to beat the game.
In 2008, the Blackjack Hall of Fame recognized the contributions of the Four Horsemen by inducting Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel, and McDermott as members.
I chose to investigate blackjack. As a result, chance offered me a new set of unexpected opportunities.” – Thorp
While many blackjack aficionados aren’t all that familiar with the Four Horseman, you’ll rarely meet a sharp who doesn’t know about Edward O. Thorp.
After earning a Ph.D. in mathematics from UCLA in 1958, Thorp went on to work at the elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1959 to 1961. He then served as a professor of math for various universities.
Thorp became interested in blackjack theory after reading the Four Horsemen’s findings, along with an aspect of game theory known as the Kelly Criterion which was developed in 1956. From there, he used an IBM 704 to perform the first computer assisted calculations of blackjack probability.
Thorp also expanded on previous blackjack theory by exploring the impact of card removal. His method of tracking and memorizing exposed cards to gain insight into the deck’s current construction formed the foundation of card counting advantage play.
Having spent the next decade applying his perfect strategy and card counting techniques in actual casinos, Thorp published his legendary book “Beat the Dealer” in 1966.
Simply put, “Beat the Dealer” was the Bible of blackjack advantage play, teaching countless players how to dissect the skill-based card game. More than 700,000 copies were sold, making “Beat the Dealer” the first gambling strategy book to reach the New York Times Bestsellers list.
Card counting proved to be so effective that casinos introduced multiple deck shoes as a direct countermeasure to Thorp’s theories.
Like the Four Horsemen, Thorp quickly moved on from blackjack, leaving the casino industry for gambling of another sort: the stock market. His hedge fund has proven to be wildly successful, and in 2017 he published, “A Man for All Markets: Beating the Odds, from Las Vegas to Wall Street” (2017).
But it’s not that simple. Anything involving skill must be studied and mastered.” – Silberstang
As a young man in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Edwin Silberstang graduated from the University of Michigan, and attended Columbia Law School until the Korean War called. From there, he completed his law degree at the Brooklyn School of Law.
But writing was his true calling, and while he worked on a gambling themed work of fiction called “Snake Eyes,” he visited Las Vegas for a year of firsthand research.
Of course, the gambling bug bit Silberstang as it has for so many visitors to Sin City, and he immersed himself in that age-old battle between player and house.
Rather than rely on lady luck, Silberstang applied his educational background to sort through the skills and strategies used by successful gamblers. He began compiling his research into strategy guides written to help recreational players improve their game.
While he has dozens of books to his credit, Silberstang is best known for his “Winner’s Guide to Casino Gambling,” which hit bookshelves in 1980. In it, the author succeeds where so many other gambling instruction writers fail; he presents probabilities, statistics, and advanced strategies in a way laymen could easily understand.
His conversational writing style and willingness to truly teach, rather than just recite facts and figures, set Silberstang apart from his fellow gambling writers.
No one has tried to dispute it or improve upon it to this day. I was the first one to look at poker and realize that situations could be analyzed in a very cogent, academic style.”
If “Beat the Dealer” is the blackjack Bible, “The Theory of Poker” (1999) holds the same stature for fans of Texas Hold’em and Seven Card Stud.
David Sklansky studied accounting at the Wharton School of Business, passing exams required by the Society of Actuaries in the process. While working as an actuary, he devised an improved method of calculation, but found himself feeling disillusioned when his boss ignored the news.
Sklansky soon devoted his analytical abilities to another hobby, taking Texas Hold’em apart at the seams to study the game’s fundamental strategy.
As the title suggests, “The Theory of Poker” presents poker in terms of pure probability, breaking down all possible situations to identify the most profitable play available. The book has been studied by poker pros from Doyle Brunson to Daniel Negreanu.
And for what it’s worth, Sklansky could easily be including in the next section, as he used his skills to win three WSOP gold bracelets between 1982 and 1983.
The following four entries are devoted to geniuses who translated higher education into successful professional gambling careers.
Eventually, I looked at all of that material and thought if I put it all together, along with an explanation of how to play the game, it could be a book.” – Wong
As the quote above suggests, the figure known as “Stanford Wong” followed up on Thorp’s study of blackjack basic strategy. Wong is a pen name adopted in the 1960s by John Ferguson, who played blackjack on the side while teaching and pursuing his Ph.D. at Stanford University.
Eventually, after noticing that dealers in Northern Nevada were forced to hit on soft 17s instead of stand, Wong became engrossed in the minutiae of regional rules and their impact on perfect strategy.
His accumulated data was published in book form as “Professional Blackjack” (1975), continuing the lineage started by the Four Horsemen and Thorp.
Wong wasn’t limited to theoretical examinations either, and he immersed himself in the casino industry during the height of advantage play. As a proficient card counter, he invented a new move designed to protect players from unnecessary risk.
By standing nearby the table, and maintaining a running count as if he was playing, Wong could spot favorable situations before they happened. Then, with the count leaning towards high cards, he’d hop in the game and bet big to score quick winnings.
This style of play became known as “Wonging,” and it proved to be so effective that casinos rolled out the “no mid shoe entry” signs you see today.
You don’t spend a fortune at Yale and Harvard to become a blackjack player.” – Uston’s mother, Elsie Lubitz
Born as Kenneth Senzo Usui, the son of a Japanese father and Austrian mother decided to Americanize his name as “Ken Uston.”
But you can always call him the “King of Blackjack” to make things easier, as Uston left the world of elite Ivy League schools to tackle twenty-one. Uston was accepted to Yale University at the tender age of 16, and he didn’t let up there, earning his MBA from Harvard a short time later.
For a while, Uston was content with a job in the corporate world, but that all changed when he read Thorp’s “Beat the Dealer.”
After teaching himself the art of card counting and advantage play, Uston was noticed by legendary gambler Al Francesco, who had begun assembling his own card counting team.
Uston and the team wound up beating the biggest casinos out of massive sums during the 1970s, leading to a spate of bans and exclusions. He wound up suing the state of New Jersey in 1979, claiming that regulators there held no official power to ban suspected card counters.
The judge agreed with Uston, and to this day casinos are not permitted to bar players simply for counting cards.
The legal victory notwithstanding, however, in the eyes of his fellow advantage play specialists, the damage wrought by Uston’s crusade was already done.
By publicizing the tricks of the trade employed by card counting teams, Uston compelled casinos worldwide to tighten up their own security measures. Multiple deck shoes and mid shoe shuffles were among the responses designed to counter card counters.
In response, Uston developed many of the methods advantage players use to avoid “heat” by casino staff. He regularly donned disguises, altered his betting patterns to give the house a little back, and concocted cover stories to conceal his true identity.
Uston’s approach to “card counting camouflage” helped countless advantage players to avoid detection by the eye in the sky.
Uston passed away in 1987, but his success as a blackjack sharp remains unparalleled.
As people deviate from optimal strategy—as they bluff or fold or call too often or not enough—it’s actually pretty clear.
If you’re able to see how they deviate, you can see how to take advantage of them.” – Ferguson
Better known as “Jesus” to his fans, and “Judas” to folks who lost money on Full Tilt Poker, Chris Ferguson is a unique figure in poker history.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science at UCLA, Ferguson spent 13 years completing his doctorate in computer science.
In the interim, he moonlighted as a professional poker player, applying his analytical powers to pioneer a game theory optimal (GTO) approach to solving the game.
Between 2000 and 2003 he bagged an impressive five WSOP gold bracelets, cementing his status as a poker superstar just as the “Moneymaker Boom” arrived. Ferguson also created the software behind Full Tilt Poker, one of the first fully functional online poker rooms.
Of course, the site wound up collapsing in 2011 due to a multimillion dollar scandal over operators spending player funds. Ferguson has since been shunned by the poker community, but he returned from self-imposed exile in 2017 to win his sixth bracelet and WSOP Player of the Year honors.
They’re not these nerdy math guys and girls who were sitting at home or at college with plenty of options but who then started making a lot of money by doing statistical analyses.
That’s a different generation and that’s what we were.” – Selbst
During her teenage years, Vanessa Selbst stood out at school as a bona fide math prodigy. She earned Star Ledger Scholar honors and was crowned the Essex County Calculus Champion.
Selbst went on to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before ultimately transferring to Yale University and graduating with a degree in political science. As a Fulbright Scholar, she then completed her law degree at Yale.
Sufficed to say, brainpower has never been a bother for Selbst, but like that trio of poker playing dropouts mentioned in the introduction, she soon became obsessed with poker.
Selbst immediately staked herself to a reputation in the high stakes games on PokerStars, employing a hyper aggressive style defined by the boldest of bluffs.
After transitioning from online to live play in 2006, Selbst became the top tournament player in the world for a time, earning more than $11 million from live tourneys alone.
She added three WSOP gold bracelets to the trophy case over that span, while representing her home site as a member of PokerStars Team Pro.
Selbst recently announced her retirement from professional poker, as she’s moved onto hedge funds and social justice causes, but her impact on the game is indelible.
You don’t have to be a genius to leave the tables a winner, but as these eight entries demonstrate, higher education certainly goes a long way towards gambling success.
These masterminds are outliers though, so be sure to read up on the list of successful gamblers who didn’t need any schooling to survive and thrive.