Always bet on black and white
Anthony Curtis can gamble, but prefers to make his living writing about it
Thu, May 7, 2009 (midnight)
Photo: Beverly Poppe
"This was an amazing story.” Anthony Curtis is pumped as he relates something he reported last week in his Las Vegas Advisor consumer newsletter, a bible to gamblers both in Las Vegas and across the globe. Curtis alerted his readers with “great excitement” to a tiny bar on Valley View that had a video poker machine “that ups the return at reset to 100.17 percent ... And, get this—the quads have a progressive meter attached.”
To Curtis, reporting this story was huge. “This is the sort of story that no one in the world does but us,” he says. He is talking to me weeks later in his office, looking at the latest update he had to put on the lasvegasadvisor.com website about this video poker machine. Curtis has to explain to me the excitement about the initial story: “It is a story with the numbers on a video poker game that can return up to 102 percent.” His voice rises when he says this. And he finishes with an emphatic, “That’s a lot!”
But here is the problem with being the most renowned gambling expert in Las Vegas.
Perhaps even after reading the above numbers, you may not really understand why this opportunity to play video poker was so amazing for players. Don’t be ashamed—neither did the owner of the bar, who questioned Curtis in detail when another player recognized him.
Curtis, always willing to discuss the underlying math of gambling, explained to the owner exactly why 1 percent matters so much in a game of chance. Or, as he explained it to me, switching to blackjack at the end, his actual game of choice: “If you talk about how people make money playing video poker, they do it by finding situations like this. You have to understand how to read the machine. These are things we teach in LVA, too. You need to learn about gambling. Some will say, what good is 1 percent when the stock market could give you 7 percent? But you put $10,000 in the stock market, you get 7 percent on your investment one time. You put $10,000 on a blackjack table [with a 1 percent advantage], you can go through it again and again and again and again and again.”
But—and this is what frustrates some professional gamblers sometimes—Curtis alerts not only players but also the gambling properties, almost all of whom pay close attention to what Curtis writes about gambling on their premises.
And, unsurprisingly, here is what happened, as happens almost every time Curtis makes a discovery that gives the player an advantage over the house. The next time Curtis came in to play the video poker game, the bar owner, Curtis recalls, the very person to whom he had explained the math behind the machine in such detail, was not thrilled to see this teacher return: “The guy who ran it and who I talked to, who I explained the situation with the game, ran up to me and told me to get the F out of his place. We found out he was kicking everyone out after talking to me. ”
The machine was then adjusted to eliminate the perfect play advantage for players, and, after a reader tip, Curtis informed his subscribers on a lasvegasadvisor.com update that the machine now pays out to players at 97.35 percent. This is no longer a machine of interest to advantaged gamblers; the edge is gone. And, of course, neither players nor the bar are exactly lining up to thank Curtis. Curtis is still irritated at being recognized on his first visit. “I blew my cover. I didn’t do it on purpose.” But he says nothing about regretting explaining the game to the owner, because explaining the intricacies of gambling in Las Vegas is what Anthony Curtis does, and not just to those who subscribe to the Advisor. Curtis’ real influence as a gambling expert comes from being the king of all media covering Las Vegas on the topic. It might not be fair to call Curtis the only consumer gambling expert on Vegas, but no one else approaches his profile.
if there is one thing to know about Anthony Curtis it is that he has no interest in gambling. He may be the most noted independent expert on the games of Las Vegas, but he does not like to gamble. And, in general, he does not gamble at all. He does not believe in lucky streaks or good luck charms or even bad luck or beginner’s luck. There is no superstition of any sort involved in how Curtis thinks and talks about games of chance. In his play and in his writing, Curtis never tries to outmaneuver chance, only to reduce the role it plays in the outcome. To Curtis, chance can’t be controlled—only odds can. “I don’t place bets without an edge,” Curtis says.
If you ask Curtis to explain, he will say that gambling per se bores him. But there is a contempt for gambling that comes through in his tone as well. When Curtis refers to gambling, he often means people applying bad math. Gambling in this context is when you play the house without any advantage. Or, as Curtis puts it: “A negative expectation bet is an anathema to my business as a pro.” And so that is the gambling he won’t do, as it requires him to get lucky by beating the odds stacked against him, a feat that can only be accomplished by chance. Author Kevin Blackwood, whose books include Casino Gambling for Dummies, puts it this way: “Someone like Anthony Curtis would never go into a casino and want to play at a craps table. He knows there is a disadvantage, and he wouldn’t do it.”
When Curtis walks into a casino, there are only five games that matter, as Curtis counts them: “Poker, video poker, blackjack, sports betting and [horse] races.” These games matter because a smart player, who makes no mistakes, can gain a theoretical chance of beating the house over time. As for the rest of the casino (minus certain coupons or special offers), Curtis says, “If someone claims to be able to beat any game that is not one of the five I listed, you can make a fairly safe assumption that they’re full of shit.” And even playing one of those five games perfectly does not mean the player will win or even not lose everything. It only means that given an infinite bankroll, the usual law of Vegas (the one that guarantees casinos are profitable)—the longer you play, the more you will lose—has been, very slightly, adjusted to give the player that advantage.
The percentages involved in this transformation are almost always minuscule; in fact, you really have to grasp mathematics better than most not only to find these opportunities in Las Vegas gambling, but also to understand how such a slight advantage matters when there remains so much risk to playing. Curtis holds court on issues like this to his faithful followers—currently 30,000 subscribers, with a core group of die-hards that he estimates at 15,000—in the Las Vegas Advisor, which he has published since the early ’90s, even before his own retirement from full-time gambling.
There is nothing quite like the Advisor in Vegas publishing, a little over a dozen pages stapled, targeted at gamblers who want to know the behind-the-scenes of Vegas’ most profitable activity, and not just on the Strip. The Strip is for the whales and the clueless tourists. Certainly Curtis covers the deals on the Strip when they exist, but the Advisor usually hits gold for readers when Curtis comes to them with tips that matter to the little guy scrimping by in Vegas trying to profit from what is designed to be an inherently unprofitable activity for the player.
Turn on your television and find a show on any aspect of gambling and you will likely find Anthony Curtis as the talking head and explicator of gambling in Vegas. Curtis’ gambling expertise has been featured on all the major networks, including the Today show, 48 Hours, 20/20 and Dateline NBC, as well as The Learning Channel, Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, CNN and MSNBC.
In print media, Curtis functions as both journalist and frequent expert interview, popping up either as a writer or a subject in papers and magazines all across the country. His syndicated column has not missed a week in 13 years, appearing in papers such as the Dallas Morning News and San Diego Union-Tribune. Of course, Curtis would be the first to admit the attention he gets is outsize compared to his knowledge. He does not claim to be the most knowledgeable gambler in Las Vegas, and there are games—like poker—at which he claims no particular advanced skill. But the gamblers who do know more than Curtis in general won’t talk to the press, or if they do, the complexity of the math and strategy explanations involved do not work well as media sound bites. Curtis is an ideal bridge; he can understand the theories, practices and the gamblers well enough to explain the significance in understandable English to outside media. This ability to communicate without jargon, very importantly, is combined with his lack of a financial affiliation with any casino, and it is this combination that allows Curtis to make his name as perhaps the most widely known commentator on gambling in Las Vegas. “They come to me because they know I am not under any thumb. I don’t need to say what R&R wants or what the LVCVA wants said or what Green Valley Ranch wants or what anyone wants.”
But there is definitely some irony to his current high public media profile in that Curtis initially quit being a professional gambler, the job he announced to his father at 20 he would drop out of college to pursue as soon as he turned 21. Curtis estimates that around 1996, he became too recognizable as a blackjack player to continue. Blackwood, who also authored Play Blackjack Like the Pros, recalls that Curtis, at the height of his playing years, had successes that reached a level where anonymous play was no longer possible. Blackwood says: “As far as blackjack, it is a little different than poker. Poker you get a lot of notoriety, and you get on television, and you make money. In blackjack you can make some money, but most of the time you get chased out of casinos, and you get barred if you get well known. Anthony, once he started to get well known, would get barred from even blackjack tournaments. For the most part in tournaments you don’t get kicked out like you do for card counting. But Anthony was on a team with six or seven people who were so successful that a lot of casinos would not let him join their blackjack tournaments. With Anthony, stepping into a different field is a smart long-term decision.”
But publishing? Indeed, if gambling is always a risky business, book and magazine publishing have seemed increasingly, point blank, doomed. For years publishers have struggled with adjusting dysfunctional business models to the Internet age. Newspapers, magazines and publishing houses in all fields have enjoyed some of the worst years since the time of Gutenberg. Why would someone so realistic about the bottom line invest his blackjack winnings in a newsletter? And then take said successful newsletter and return even those unlikely profits into an even riskier book-publishing house, Huntington Press? To Curtis there was little risk to starting the Las Vegas Advisor, and he knew there would be a demand for a gambling consumer newsletter in Vegas. And he was exactly right. According to Palms owner George Maloof, “Anthony’s role has always been important for a certain person in Las Vegas who looks for opportunities and advice. I respect what he does for Las Vegas. I think what he does here is pretty special. He is out in the community, and he understands it. He follows up on his research. And I think it is important for Las Vegas to have someone who understands the town from the consumer’s perspective.”
But shouldn’t owners like Maloof worry about Curtis teaching tourists (96 percent of LVA subscribers live outside Vegas) to turn the tables on the odds by arming so many with the knowledge and skills to come at the house as advantaged gamblers? “No,” Curtis says. “Our readers are not informed gamblers. A lot of them subscribe to LVA because they love Vegas and want to feel like insiders to the lifestyle. We have done demographic studies. Our readers gamble at triple the rate of the average tourist and visit Vegas more often. And our readers still play slots and shoot dice. You can’t beat slots. You can’t beat dice. People continue to look at gambling as a way to get lucky and get easy money. A lot of people are confused about what gambling is all about. The numbers are so precise. No, reading more will not help most of them, unfortunately. Most of our subscribers for the Las Vegas Advisor don’t make full use of the information we give them. We are not creating an army of casino-killers.” Maloof concurs and notes that he spends very little time worrying about advantaged gamblers.
In short, the Las Vegas Advisor gives you the information to gamble like Anthony Curtis and his vast network of advantaged players, but the skills involved are so complex to actually acquire and accomplish under actual casino conditions that the task is beyond most people. In fact, Curtis worries about the opposite. “I always have a concern about pied-pipering losing players forward. People will grab onto something I say and think they understand it in their heads, and that can be dangerous.”
To Curtis, the Las Vegas Advisor was not just a cash cow filling an obvious market niche, a calculated decision such as how to play a hand of blackjack; rather, LVA was always a gateway to creating Huntington Press. “I tell my employees that Las Vegas Advisor is air. It is what we need to breathe while we go to the next level, which is books, e-publishing now and everything else. We know Las Vegas Advisor is going to bring in money day in and day out, and that funds everything else we do.”
But the goal of book publishing could not be further from the way Curtis plots and seeks advantages in casino games. “I went into publishing because it was the original idea,” he recalls. “I had always considered publishing as part of the plan. LVA came first, but Huntington Press was always part of the bigger plan.” Unlike his actual gambling, for Curtis, starting Huntington Press was probably the biggest gamble he ever made in life, and it was done to make good on an idea tossed out almost randomly in a car ride with his father decades ago.
Curtis’ father was a university professor who specialized in communicative disorders, and he was not thrilled at his son’s choice of career. “When I told him I was going to drop out of college to go to Vegas to be a blackjack player, it was a bit of a blow to him. And we were in the car, and I told him that it wasn’t just blackjack; there were all these ancillary opportunities besides gambling in Vegas. And he said, ‘For instance?’ Off the top of my head, and I had nothing since I was talking out my ass, I said, ‘Publishing.’ And, I’ll never forget this, my dad was driving, and he looked over and smiled at me and said, ‘That’s a good idea.’ And that always stayed with me.”
In the ’90s, Huntington Press might have done a mere book a year, like the Curtis-authored Bargain City in 1993, followed by Max Rubin’s Comp City in 1994. Though mostly the books focused on gambling strategy, Huntington Press, with more or less success, has experimented over the years with everything from fiction to true crime and hiking guides. As of 2009, through Huntington Press, Curtis has published more than 90 books and products (strategy cards for video poker machines, software, special reports and calendars) focused primarily, though not exclusively, on gambling and Las Vegas.
Blackwood’s most recent book is an e-book that came out last month, Legends of Blackjack, with a chapter that features Curtis as a player called “The Maximizer.” According to Blackwood (who has never written a book published by Huntington Press), the reasoning behind the title was the unique way Curtis finds to make a lot out of a little, whether it’s blackjack or the Las Vegas Advisor. “Most blackjack players make their way counting,” Blackwood says. “But Anthony used match play coupons and little things like that; things that most other blackjack players didn’t recognize you could make money from. He maximized a lot of little things into a lot of money over time.”
Curtis read his first book on card counting in 11th grade, and that is when he decided he would move to Vegas at 21 to become a professional blackjack player. When he got here he had saved $2,600 to stake his new life. “The first day I won $29, and I was ecstatic. The next day I lost $1,800. I was counting cards playing blackjack, and I just got destroyed. I was a spectacular player. That was all I did at all that time. I understood, but I had never experienced how I could play so well on so many hands and lose. And from there I went into survival mode. That was an extraordinary lesson learned. You’ve got to take it slow and have back-up and play within your means. That is why Huntington Press is surviving in this economy. We have always lived within our means.”
To this day Curtis pays attention to all the little things. He self-parks at resorts, dresses so casually no stripper would think he could afford an hour in the VIP room and always factors in the free beer as a value added when he plays video poker. You would not call Curtis cheap—just professionally aware of where every dollar is going and what he is getting back for his cash. One reason the press loves going to Curtis is that he does not believe in off-the-record comments, and he does not leave questions unanswered. Still, when asked if he is a millionaire, he does look momentarily uncomfortable before answering in the affirmative. The issue was fresh on his mind because he was asked the question by me on April 15. “Today was the bad day of the year. Today you have first-quarter royalties and taxes and usually payroll. I wrote checks to people all over the world and people I don’t even know. But I do know my authors, and so it is a double-edged sword there, especially in this economy. You don’t want to write big checks, but when it is your author, you get excited and go, ‘Oh yeah!’ and then you realize you are writing the check and go, ‘Oh shit.’ So, today was a brutal day.” And, even retired, Curtis still does enough gambling to keep his information current for writing the Las Vegas Advisor (he remains the primary author of the entire newsletter), and since he does not often lose, he must also pay taxes on his gambling winnings.
To Curtis, now is not the worst recession in history but the time for his tiny press to compete on a more even keel with the big boys of media, thanks to the distribution possibilities of the Internet. At the end of April, a day after a marathon writing session allowed him to finish the May issue of LVA, Curtis held a meeting with five staff members to go over two major upcoming projects planned for Huntington Press.
First, Curtis is moving into writing about adult Vegas. He has two approaches. Like other publishers, he is releasing an e-book that will be a guide to topless Vegas, from shows to clubs to pools. Then he is also launching the Sin City Advisor, a counterpart to LVA to cover the skin and adult scene: “When LVA began, Vegas was always naughty but never so overtly. It was always behind the scenes. But Las Vegas has morphed into a sexier sort of thing than Las Vegas Advisor. But we could not blend that into LVA. That did not make sense. So we got Sin City Advisor, and we will do LVA-type stuff like try to get to the core of issues, find bargains and best values on the sexy adult side.”
His second major project is to prepare to rush to press a traditional book by poker star Annie Duke. Curtis is convinced Duke is about to win the television show The Celebrity Apprentice, and wants her book ready to go the moment the series ends. The finale is set for May 10. Duke has published another book with a major New York house, but did not feel they understood how to work on a gambling book like Curtis does. Duke e-mails me, “Huntington Press really understands the gaming space, and I have no doubt they will market me much more effectively than a bigger publisher ever could. I would much rather work with a friend anyway, and I consider Anthony a friend.” But, friend or not, even 10 years ago, Curtis agrees, the idea that a small press like Huntington could be as effective at marketing a book nationally as a New York house was absurd. That is no longer the case, and the Duke book will provide a crucial test to the publisher.
Meanwhile, Las Vegas, the city that Curtis built his business and reputation on, is now lurching amidst the worst recession in the town’s history. I ask Curtis to take a moment to look at things from the perspective of the house instead of the consumer. What should casinos be doing? Curtis thinks for a moment:
“Casinos are doing something very stupid. They only have the first part of the equation right, which is they are discounting to fill rooms. But they are trying to hide where they are cutting back, and that is to the gambler. And the gambler will feel it with reduced payback and reduced comp policies. But they should be going back to the old model where the profit center is the casino itself. They can’t maintain profits in other areas, because people aren’t that stupid. Bring them in and break even on other things, essentially, and earn your money in the casino.”
In short, Curtis is reminding casinos of the lesson he knew before he got here, the lesson he has been trying to teach every reader of the Las Vegas Advisor for decades: Gambling is less a game than an equation. And if you are the house, the most profitable activity a person can do in your resort is to play a game and hope for luck. Curtis doesn’t believe in luck for gamblers and the house doesn’t need luck. It is all about the math.