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Best of Howard Schwartz

Gaming Guru

 

Fortune's Formula -- Unique History of Gambling's Money Management

14 September 2005



For generations of successful gamblers, speculators and edge-seekers, the subject of money management and its correct and disciplined application has been an understood secret. Sports bettors, table games fans, and stock market investors would "live to fight another day" -- if they mastered the formula or technique. Those folks who had no understanding usually fell by the wayside.

Now comes William Poundstone's Fortune's Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street (386 pages, hardbound, $27). The illustrated and well-indexed book is comprised of six major sections.

Poundstone, author of nine nonfiction books and a Pulitzer Prize nominee, is never boring. He creates some of the most interesting scenarios, including how closely the early telephone companies were indirectly connected to bookmaking (the Annenberg family's wire service business is explained) and how legal pressure would eventually put the Mob's wire service out of business.

In 1956, a young scientist named Claude Shannon would devise "the most successful gambling system of all time." How Shannon got interested in gambling, his meeting with Ed Thorp, who would later write the classic blackjack book Beat the Dealer in the 1960s, is documented in detail. Both men were geniuses in their own way. Both were fascinated with the chances of beating casino games, especially blackjack and roulette. They were among the first to try to "clock the wheel" for profit.

For those knowledgeable players who understand or want to know more about "gambler's ruin," randomness, disorder and uncertainty, this book makes fascinating reading. And for those who want to know more about John Kelly, who worked for Bell Labs and the discovery of the Kelly Criterion, the birth of "information theory" and code-breaking, Poundstone lays it all out for you. (In part, the secret was to wager only a fraction of your bankroll on a favorable bet.)

One section of the book examines the relationship of mobster Manny Kimmel with a young, somewhat naive Ed Thorp and how Kimmel bankrolled the young mathematical genius in the 1950s.

Poundstone says Thorp and his book were responsible for "creating a subculture hero." Want to get rich without working? Like disguises, glamour and neon lights? Thousands have answered that call. Yet the card counter is an often lonely figure whose appeal rests on the masquerade as much as the all-too-hard-earned money."

Poundstone's book keeps rolling with a section on arbitrage, its impact on Wall Street, the parallels between the stock market and race track betting. He brings in Michael Millkin, Ivan Boesky, Rudy Giuliani, hedge funds, the Computer Group of sports bettors and Dr. William Ziemba by book's end. How each relates to "finding the edge" and eventually a profit is there.

This is a marvelous book which includes an 11-page list of references--with one significant flaw. I would not hesitate to tell Poundstone in person if I ever meet him that he's neglected a very important person--the late great Huey Mahl, whose work in the 1970s and 80s in particular first explained the concept of "middling" in sports betting and who explained money management and the Kelly Criterion more clearly for the average guy on the street.

Howard Schwartz
Howard Schwartz, the "librarian for gamblers," was the marketing director for Gambler's Book Club in Las Vegas, a position he held from 1979 to 2010, when he retired. Author of hundreds of articles on gambling, his weekly book reviews appear in numerous publications throughout the gaming industry.

Howard Schwartz Websites:

www.gamblersbook.com
Howard Schwartz
Howard Schwartz, the "librarian for gamblers," was the marketing director for Gambler's Book Club in Las Vegas, a position he held from 1979 to 2010, when he retired. Author of hundreds of articles on gambling, his weekly book reviews appear in numerous publications throughout the gaming industry.

Howard Schwartz Websites:

www.gamblersbook.com