Anthony Curtis is best known as the owner and editor of the world class gambling site the Las Vegas Advisor - in our opinion the best guide that anyone, visitor or local, could ask from when in Las Vegas - and Huntington Press, the publishing house that has releases some of the best respected books on Advantage Play and general gambling available today. Not so well know is that Anthony Curtis is an exceptionally talented player himself and had a substantial career prior to publishing a single page of the Las Vegas Advisor.
Anthony has kindly agreed to take some time out from his very busy schedule to talk to us about a few of the more interesting things he's seen over during his travels in and around the gambling and advantage play.
You’re known to have been a highly successful advantage player early in your life. How did you come to learn enough to play with an edge? Did someone teach you or was this a skill set you developed by yourself? I’ve heard tell that someone gave you a book on blackjack early on in your schooling – what was the book?
I was always a good game player and I had an early grasp of probability. When I was in 11th grade, a family friend gave me a copy of 'How to Win at Blackjack' by Charles Einstein. It had the Hi Opt 1 count without complete strategy tables, but it was enough to explain the concept of card counting and I understood it. From there I read everything I could get and pretty much taught myself. Once I was old enough to gamble, I moved to Las Vegas and met lots of good players who taught me the fine points. I was lucky to get in with some really good people and wound up being good friends with Peter Griffin and Stanford Wong, both of whom had a huge influence on how I honed my abilities.
Having played professionally for several years you obviously went beyond simple card counting. Can you discuss some of the more advanced or interesting plays you were involved in? (Obviously without jeopardising any still active advantages) What were the most important lessons you learned while on the road to professionally beating the casinos?
I would do anything that had been deemed legal by the courts. This included hole card play. But most of my action was in taking advantage of casino mistakes and playing against others, mostly in tournaments. I was involved in interesting plays of all sorts. Once I played with a group that won 23 video poker machines in a month-long contest. Another I played a keno game that was mismarked to yield a 120% return. The most important lessons had to do with bankroll protection and being alert to look for opportunities everywhere. Trust issues were also important and I learned to keep trust levels to a minimum with new people.
You’re not such an active player these days. At what point did you realise that your lifespan as an advantage player was coming to a close? Was it a slow progression or was there a specific event that changed your world view?
As it turns out, I was one of the early guys on the tournament scene and had a lot of success there. The money was good, but those were big high-profile wins and I began to become known to the casinos. I realized early on that there was more money to be made by me in gambling than just by gambling, and I began tinkering with the idea for the Las Vegas Advisor soon after I got to Las Vegas. When I started doing some television to promote that trajectory, that was that. Everyone watches TV and it became impossible for me to stay under the radar like advantage play so often requires.
One of the biggest challenges faced by any card counter is dealing with the swings inherent in playing with only a small edge. What coping strategies did you develop to deal with the bankroll roller coaster?
Play with bigger edges! That necessity was one of my earliest revelations. That's how I got into playing coupons. The idea certainly extends beyond that into what turned into the now-prevalent term "advantage play". When I got serious about the Las Vegas Advisor, I had to title my lead column. Peter Griffin and I came up with "Couponomy" over 50-cent Heinekens at Slots A Fun. Griffin pointed out that the suffix "omy" typically means to extract, so Couponomy meant extraction via coupon. But the whole idea of increasing your edge is paramount. Of course, using Kelly-style betting is important, but be careful. Yes, you want to approximate your edge when you wager, but common sense also needs to be factored in. You can't operate if you don't have money, so you have to temper what you do. I was definitely conservative.
Between Visual Ballistics (predicting the section of the roulette wheel the ball will land in) and Dice Control (the ability to improve the odds of certain scores being rolled on the craps table) there has been a lot of debate over the years about whether these techniques are actually legitimate advantage play techniques, the main issue being that it’s very difficult to collect a large enough sample size to prove whether the player has an advantage. As an insider of the advantage play world, do you believe these techniques are legitimately playable in casino conditions?
Yes, but no. Yes in the sense that both will work. But no in that they don't really work in the practical world. I could go on and on about this -- maybe we can do a separate interview -- but the point is, unless you've got all the time and patience in the world, likely neither is worth pursuing. I'm fairly certain that of the two, roulette prediction was the bigger money winner. Readers, don't go crazy on me for this, but I'd move on.
What first made you think of going into business as a publisher? The Las Vegas Advisor has been a phenomenal success over the years crossing the line between skilled players and regular Joe’s in its appeal. How did it start? What do you feel were the biggest factors in the success of the LVA?
As I was approaching 21 and contemplating dumping everything to go to Vegas, I was enrolled in Duke University and my father was a university professor in California. We are a close family and I had to convince my parents that dropping out of college was prudent, at least to some degree. The only way I could convince them was to cite "ancillary opportunities," which I identified primarily as publishing. My father begrudgingly approved and that became part of the plan. So I was planning to publish before I ever played my first hand of blackjack in a casino. That objective fell distantly into the background when things started to click in my playing career, but it was never forgotten and I gathered a lot of mental data. I'm sure that the success of LVA (and the crossover, as you mention) had to do with the solid base of knowledge behind the product. I'd lived the meagre life in Vegas and knew the value of a bargain, and I'd lived the analytic life at high levels and knew how to bring that to bear. Everything I do has always been based on the concept of "expected value" and that translated into the LVA content.
From the LVA sprung a whole publishing company – Huntington Press – that has released many of the best books on advantage play to be found today, from ‘KO Blackjack’ which introduced the first (published) unbalanced counting system and made counting more accessible for a huge audience to Max Rubin’s ‘Comp City’, a book that examined how to gain an edge over the casino using the cashback and gift promotions the venues offer to attract players in, that ultimately earned the author a place in the ‘Blackjack Hall of Fame’, and even stretching to a series of books by former casino executive and gaming protection specialist Bill Zender. When did you first decide to publish a book? What have been the most exciting projects you’ve worked on over the years with Huntington Press? Can you give us the inside scoop on what books you’re going to be releasing soon and what books you’d like to release in the future?
Huntington Press is the parent company and it was formed in tandem with the Las Vegas Advisor, although you're correct that the newsletter preceded the books. I chose Huntington Press, by the way, because I was living in Huntington Beach, California when I decided to drop out of college and move to Vegas. The book-publishing began when Peter Griffin suggested that HP publish his new book Extra Stuff -- Gambling Ramblings and also a new addition of his classic The Theory of Blackjack. I started with two of the most prestigious books in the business and decided that quality of information would be where we would stand out. Our breakout book was probably Comp City. Max came to my house one day and proposed about 10 different ideas. I listened and as he was leaving, I said "Let's do the comp book." Max did an amazing job and we piled on with all sorts of embellishments to make it the incredible book that it was. The comp world changes a lot, but the fundamental ideas in that book are still valid. It's out of print in hard copy, but we still sell it as an ebook that you can get for any reader. I'd say our blackjack and video poker books are the best in the world. Along with K-O that you mention, our blackjack books include Ian Andersen's Burning the Tables in Las Vegas, Arnold Synder's Shuffle Tracker's Cookbook, Rick Blaine’s Blackjack Blueprint, Barry Meadow’s Blackjack Autumn, and most recently, The Blackjack Life by Nathaniel Tilton (read our interview with Nathanial here). We're extremely selective about taking a new blackjack book and they all focus on different areas. Our video poker authors are Bob Dancer and Jean Scott -- enough said. We have several titles from each. Lately we've been concentrating on poker. Two Plus Two Publishing has ruled the poker roost for some time, but our most recent releases have outdone them. They include our Kill series, and books from Annie Duke and ElkY. We have a big list upcoming. Our next book is The Moneymaker Effect, which tells the whole story or the Chris Moneymaker victory on the World Series of Poker Main Event that changed poker. We're also close with a new book from the Kill series that brings in WSOP champ Joe Hachem as an author, a new one from Bill Zender that moves from Casino-ology to Casino-nomics, a new edition of Blackjack Blueprint with new information, and a must-read for any pro from Bob Nersessian, the attorney who represents James Grosjean and most of the world's top players.
You’ve had a lot of success playing in Blackjack Tournaments. How do you feel your experiences playing tournament competitions compare to your time as an advantage player? Were their many transferable skills? Is it as satisfying?
First I want to make the point that blackjack tournaments specifically are among the least profitable. Anyone can win a blackjack tournament if they just bet their money aggressively. The big edges come in games like craps and keno. To your question, all of the skills transfer, and tournament play absolutely is in the advantage-play arena. Winning a tournament is more satisfying than almost any other gambling endeavour, because you don't have to do it clandestinely (in fact, you can't). It's good to be able to get recognition for doing something well, which is rarely possible outside your peer group playing on the outside.
You’re known to have played on Stanford Wong’s – a blackjack writer who’s legendary amongst professional blackjack players for authoring ‘Professional Blackjack’ – tournament team. This was a team of players that competed in various casino tournament events where they knew they had a mathematical edge. Could you tell us a little about the team, their strategies and your experiences?
It was a defining event in my career. Wong formed his team and had an opening for one more player. I hardly knew him at the time, but out of the blue he called me (in my crummy one-bedroom apartment) and asked me to join him. Of course, I leapt at the chance and it worked out really well. Wong was a fantastic innovator and I was good at application. We made each other money and I acquired one of my best friends and mentors. The thing no one really knows about him is that he didn't just write books -- he was a player. Wong was never afraid to back up his ideas with his money. When he formed the team, for example, none of the players could afford the travel and entry fees, so he put them all up. It's a high-variance game and we were down about $70K when I won the Hilton Matchplay Blackjack tournament for $72K to get us even. Then Wong packed us into his van the next morning and we drove to Tahoe, where another team member won a crap tournament for $43K. Wong acted like he knew it would happen and I suppose he did. What he was really good at was coming up with strategies on the fly. Every time we ran into something new, I knew it was to our benefit, because Wong would figure out how to take advantage. And he came up with the answers fast. Personally, the dude is very dry, but he enjoys the good things, like great sushi, and he was one of first guys I know to get into micro-brews. Certainly he's a legend in gambling, but he also had very defined and intelligent views on life. Often somewhat rigid and linear, but almost unfailingly logical. I learned a heck of a lot from Wong.
One of my favorite stories about him comes from that Hilton win. I'd been trying to get a date with this cocktail waitress from the Lady Luck. When I made the finals of Matchplay, I called her and told her to come down and see me play for $70K. She did, I won, and they gave me the money right there in cash. This girl's eyes about popped out of her head. The money was in a box and she and I went to the lounge to start the celebration. All of a sudden Wong shows up out of nowhere with a paper grocery bag. He hardly acknowledges the girl, tells me I played well, then dumps all the money into the bag and takes off. It was kind of hard to explain.
Right from the beginning you were involved in the Ultimate Blackjack Tour – this was televised blackjack tournament that used Elimination Blackjack, a form of tournament blackjack that looked to combine elements of both blackjack and No Limits Texas Hold ‘Em poker. Can you tell us when/how did this format of blackjack first come to be conceived? Were you involved in the discussions about a televised blackjack tournament or was all the planning over and done with by the time you were approached?
Elimination Blackjack was an incredible game. It's a shame it didn't catch on. All credit goes to Russ Hamilton for devising it. Say or think what you want about Hamilton, but he's probably the greatest game player I've ever met and he used his skills to create EBJ. I was approached early on to be a part of it, primarily as the analyst of the play for TV voice-overs and I got involved. I analyzed every hand that showed on TV and wrote the commentary. I worked in the studio with Max Rubin and Matty Moralejo. They were very good and Max has excellent gambling chops, but they didn't know tournaments, so I got to do that.
As a competitor to televised poker, the Ultimate Blackjack Tour failed to gain momentum and folded after its second season. What do you feel were the factors that contributed to the UBTs demise? Was the media coverage not sufficient or were there more fundamental issues with the way the viewer perceived it?
The latter, no doubt. The public always felt the game was too complicated for them to ever be competitive playing it themselves. Meanwhile, they all watched no-limit hold 'em and felt that that was something they could do. My goodness, they were completely backward. The truth is, a rank beginner could virtually never win a big poker tournament, but even a first-timer can win a blackjack tournament. Even a big one or the more complicated Elimination Blackjack. I have to take some blame for not coming up with a way to convey that better. But the bios of the players always stressed their superhuman abilities, so it was hard to overcome. We should have done that better.
During the first series of the UBT you got to compete with some of the best blackjack players to have played the game including Ken Smith, MIT Mike and James Grosjean. You’re a very skilled player yourself, how did it feel to pit yourself against such a calibre of player? Was it more challenging than the average tournament table or does the ‘luck’ factor largely level the playing field regardless of the competition? Do you change your style of play against more skilled opponents?
It was a gas. Who wouldn't want to play against those guys. But most of the big blackjack names were relatively inexperienced at tournament play, so I had an edge over most of them. That said, I had a relatively unimpressive run, with a few final-table appearances, but no wins. Ken Smith was the exception. He's one of the top tournament players in the world and has been for years. I'm known for aggressive play and I'd amp it up even more against Smith, because I never wanted to have to take him on in a tough decision on the end.
The inventor of Elimination Blackjack, Russ Hamilton ended up at the centre of a massive scandal in the online poker world shortly after the demise of the UBT, where an online poker company he was involved in the running of – UltimateBet.com – were found to be allowing ‘SuperUsers’, allegedly including Hamilton, to see their opponents’ hole cards. When did you first become aware of this issue and what are your thoughts on how the situation play out? Did you know any of the people involved personally? How do you feel instances like this one affect the USA’s prospects of rejoining the online gambling market?
As we know, it ultimately didn't affect anything, as the U.S. is on its way to a very big, and legal, online presence. That whole thing was really depressing. I knew nothing about it, I think because Hamilton was such a good friend of mine that he kept me out of it so I'd never have to deal with repercussions. The down side of it for me was that I defended him for a long time, then later more information came out that makes me think otherwise now, at least to some degree. The truth is almost certainly more complex than any of us know, or will ever know. Regardless, it sucks. One of the great gamblers of all time, a WSOP Main Event Champion and more, will forever be by colored by it.
In more recent years you’ve become more involved in poker tournaments. Coming from a background in blackjack tournaments, what skills transferred and what do you feel you needed to learn fresh to compete at the poker table?
Funny. I'm best known in poker for my screwy play with aces against Sammy Farha on an ESPN featured table at the WSOP. We were putting out Kill Phil at the time and the book's advice was to get off aces early, so I made a ridiculous play and the far more poker-competent Farha ate me up. No excuses -- I botched it and looked like a goof -- but if you're gonna swim with sharks you have to take what comes. Of all the beatable gambling games, I've spent the least amount of time in poker. It just takes too long to play, let alone to get good and play well. Still, tournament strategy does translate and makes me a reasonable tournament poker player. Just reasonable, mind you.
Finally, I used to do some work in the music journalism field and I’m always interested to hear about people’s tastes in music. Could you give us your top 5 albums?
Lord. This is the toughest question. To get it right would take me months of pondering. Gonna shoot from the hip here. Not necessarily in order: Supertramp Breakfast in America, Billy Joel The Stranger, Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Howard Jones Dream Into Action, Electric Light Orchestra Face the Music.
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