Nolan – more commonly known as aka23 when posting on various message boards – is the creator and owner of BeatingBonuses.com which unquestionably has been one of the most influential websites on online gambling in the last 10 years. From deriving optimal startegy for several complex casino games to making playing bonuses in an optimal fashion accessable to everyone, Nolan’s site has had a huge impact on the online gambling industry.
Let’s start at the beginning – you say on your site that you have ‘several graduate degrees’ – this is an impressive academic feat! Could you give us more detail about the courses and qualifications that you’ve received?
I went to Stanford where I did my undergraduate in electrical engineering. I also did graduate degrees in electrical engineering, as well as industrial engineering and engineering management (renamed as management sciences engineering). For the latter degree, I had a concentration in investment science, some of which applies well to advantage play. I also tried to create a self-designed major called biopsychology and behavioral neuroscience, which focused on the intersection between biological and psychological explanations for behavior. My degree proposal was rejected, nevertheless, I took many related courses. I finished the pre-med program as well, however, I chose to work in engineering after graduating, rather than apply to medical school. This wasn’t as much
work as it sounds because I was able to count some courses towards multiple degrees. I was an on campus student for 4 years and finished the last degree remotely while living in southern California.
Moving on, after a trip to Vegas several years ago and some good luck, you became interested in gambling and – initially at least – this interest lead you, like many people, to card counting. There are very limited number of opportunities to apply card counting in the online setting – did you invest a serious amount of time in perfecting this skill? Do you ever play offline?
When I first visited online casinos to attempt card counting online, I discovered unexpected sign-up bonuses that gave a far more significant player edge than card counting, so I quickly shifted focus to sign-up bonuses and other player advantage situations besides card counting. On rare occasions, I’ve been involved in advantage play in land based casinos, including card counting.
This interest in offline advantage play lead you to look for opportunities to have an edge when playing online. What resources were available for the aspiring online advantage player at that point? I know Arnold Snyder’s blackjackforum.com used to provide some information, were there others?
One of the main reasons I started the Beating Bonuses website in 2006 was the lack of quality websites related to advantage play. I was particularly disappointed with the way casinos that were most promoted and/or ranked highest were the ones that had the highest affiliate commissions, rather than any measure useful to players, and the large amount of misinformation and incomplete information. In my opinion, by far the most helpful site for casino advantage players was Wizard of Odds. WoO is a rare exception to my earlier comments about poor quality websites. Like today, the site was exceptional quality with expert level information about almost all casino table games. WoO wasn’t purely focused on online play or advantage play, like many others, but the site gave all the tools necessary to become a quality advantage player, such as optimal strategy and house edge for games. After WoO, the casino advantage player site from that period that I hear about most often is Bonus Bud. I understand that they had quality discussions in non-public areas of the site, however, I was not a part of their private forums. At the time, the only casino forum where I posted on significantly was Casinomeister.
There have been several websites since that time that have specifically tried to engage readers with an interest in online advantage play, however Beating Bonuses has easily outlasted all its competition and is now one of the few sites left to cater to this niche. What in your opinion are the key factors in the long running success of the site?
I think the main reason for the site’s success is unique, quality content. A good example is the optimal strategy calculators and return & variance simulators/calculators. Some of the calculators were the first optimal strategy I have seen for their respective games, which in some cases opened the door for many players to new options for advantage play, beyond the traditional game choices, such as blackjack and video poker. The quality bonus lists, game and strategy pages, and community of the forums also had a big influence.
This is obviously a loaded question, but what effect did the passage of the 2006 UIGEA have on you personally? Do you still engage in online advantage play or are you restricted to running Beating Bonuses now? Do you feel that UIEGA was effective in achieving its stated goals?
The UIEGA has tremendously reduced the amount of online gambling in the United States. The vast majority of online casinos and online casino softwares no longer allow US players, and the vast majority of eWallets also restrict US players. That said, there still are numerous options for persons in the United States. Multiple reports estimate that US players have wagered billions per year at online casinos, in recent years.
One of the main reasons I started the Beating Bonuses website was because the UIGEA greatly limited my personal play. I couldn’t play as much myself, so I used the extra time to start a website, primarily for persons outside of the United States who didn’t face the same restrictions I did. I originally started the site as a hobby, as a way to continue to spend a lot of time involved in online gaming. I wanted to create an honest website that had everything I wanted to see as a player.
Do you think that the US will rejoin the online gambling market anytime soon and if so what is
likely to need to change before that can happen and what effect do you feel this change would
have on the rest of the market?
Prior to UIGEA, a large portion of online gaming revenue came from US players. A legal case against Anurag Dikshit of Party Gaming claims that 85% of Party Gaming’s revenue game from US players in 2005. Across all casinos, I’d guess that about half of gaming revenue came from US players. If the UIGEA was repealed, many well known casinos would have an opportunity to tremendously increase their player base and gaming revenue leading to casinos being more successful overall and more advantage player opportunities.
I think the UIGEA will eventually be modified and/or repealed, allowing the US to rejoin the online gambling market. There have been some important steps over the past year in that direction, such as the US government saying the Wire Act only applies to sports betting, after facing backlash from seizing some well known poker sites in 2011. However, I don’t think the US will return to pre-UIGEA regulation any time soon. Over the past 6 years there have been dozens of news stories about steps made towards legalizing gambling in the USA again, few of which have had much success. I think it’s primarily a matter of politics. A bill needs to be introduced with enough support from key groups, including major land based casinos. A combination of Vegas casino groups having a successful online gaming presence and the US government collecting billions in new taxes on online gaming would go a long way.
It has been stated on many occasions on the Beating Bonuses forum that the quality and quantity of bonuses has reduced in recent years. Do you agree with that? What in your opinion has changed in terms of the types and frequencies of bonuses available?
The quality of bonuses has no doubt reduced, but I wouldn’t say that the quantity of bonuses has reduced. When the site started in 2006, the best bonus list had more than 30 cashable sign-up bonuses with low wagering requirements and low house edge games like blackjack allowed and weighted fully. The current best bonus list has only 10 and several of those restrict most countries or have other reasons why most players wouldn’t choose them. While low house edge BJ bonuses are rare, there are still plenty of other bonuses, many of which are EV+. The difference is typical bonuses have higher wagering requirements than in the past and/or do not weight low house edge table games well, resulting in a higher level of risk for players to get that EV.
What about the entry requirements to start taking advantage of online casino bonuses – is it just as easy as it ever was to start from the ground up or do you now require larger bankroll or more in depth knowledge?
As I discussed in the question above, there are still a few simple, low risk bonuses. However, typical bonuses require a higher level of risk level in the past. You can’t just bet $1 on blackjack and have a near certain chance of coming out ahead. Instead you often need to take bigger risks where you have a decent chance of busting. This increased risk of busting, often necessitates a larger bankroll. It also helps to have knowledge of strategy for additional games besides the traditional choices, like blackjack and video poker, as well as knowledge of how bet size impacts EV, and various other areas.
Not to call you old – online gambling is still a very young industry and the photos on your site place you years away from the zimmer – but you’ve now seen a substantial portion of the development of the online casino industry. What do you feel have been the biggest events and changes in terms of bonus play?
Having started the site in 2006, I missed a large portion of the changes in bonus play. A member of the forum mentioned that from 1998 until around 2000, all bonuses had a 1 or 2x wagering requirement. Around 2001, bonuses started to increase wagering requirements. There is a Wizard of Odds column from 2002 where someone emails a question and complains about wagering requirements increasing to 5x in 2001 and asks if it is still possible to make a gain. I’ll focus on the changes that happened since the Beating Bonuses website started in 2006.
The first major event that comes to mind is the UIGEA, which greatly limited bonus play for persons in the United States. Several major software groups restricted US players and lost half of their player base or more. Fewer players and less income led to many casinos closing and/or tightening bonus offers.
Another major event is an increased number of bonuses that have different weightings for different games and related changes in terms. This includes Clearplay bonuses. When Microgaming introduced Clearplay bonuses, nearly all of them permitted withdrawal of winnings at any time, so a player could leverage the bonus to make a big win and cash out with only a few minutes of play time. Some of the casinos had high percentage matches as well. For example, you might deposit 50 and get a 200 bonus. Nowadays I believe the Jackpot Factory group is the only one that still allows early withdrawal, and they don’t have more than 100% match. Game weightings are quite different. French roulette used to be the best choice for completing the WR for a 50% weighting. Now all groups have lower weighting on the game and usually have less than 50% weighting on all table games. Most groups have added terms restricting bets with a large portion of bankroll. Other software groups besides Microgaming also have started to frequently use bonuses with game weightings and have started introducing similar terms restricting certain types of bets. The game weightings have led to different game choices. Several low house edge per wager texas hold’em variations were also introduced in the past 6 years including Texas Hold’em Bonus and Casino Hold’em, which also led to different game choices.
Where do you see the industry progressing from here? Are there any changes that you predict will occur in terms of policies and rules?
I expect bonus term will continue to decrease in quality over time, but at a slower rate than in the past. Mobile gaming on phones and tablets will be bigger, along with other new technologies. As discussed earlier, I expect the US market will eventually return.
There are stark differences between the ways that different casinos handle both the bonuses and promotions they offer and players who they believe have an advantage over them ranging from more reputable venues paying the win and quietly telling the player they can no longer participate in promotions through to aggressive use of ‘spirit of the bonus’ clauses and slow paying. If you were to take over an online casino today what would you do differently to industry standard practice right now? How would you deal with advantage players?
If the player followed the T&C, he should be paid his winnings. Reputable casinos generally follow this rule, and less reputable often do not. There is a gray area when T&Cs have ambiguous language that can be used to not pay winnings whenever they choose, such as “The Casino reserves the right to decide in its sole discretion which activities constitute “irregular play” for bonus play-through requirement purposes from time-to-time and to withhold any cash-ins where irregular play has occurred.” If I was operating a casino, I would not use such vague language and would instead spell out exactly what is allowed and restricted. Similarly I would offer fair, quality games with fast payouts and available support. I think I’d enjoy being able to program and add my own games, making the casino unique with a game selection not found anywhere else, maybe combined with games from a reputable and well trusted software.
When advantage players talk about how they would run a casino, they usually focus on making extremely poor bonus offers that have no way for an advantage players to gain an edge, hence eliminating advantage play. The problem with this approach is that you also greatly reduce the number of desirable players. At some casinos, the average new player sign-up is worth over $1000 to the casino. If you want to succeed, you cannot make bonuses so restrictive that you greatly reduce new sign-ups and cause existing quality players to leave and choose other casinos. Instead you need to choose bonus offers that are good enough to encourage new sign-ups and keep existing
players happy, but not so generous that you have a long term net loss. I’d offer a sign-up bonus that met this balance, but I’d focus the majority of my bonus offers on existing players, particularly ones that have a good history. I wouldn’t just use financial bonuses with a wagering requirement. I might include gifts in the mail for holidays and/or promoting specific games. For example, a set of chocolates to promote the Chocolate Factory game. This would work especially well if linked with a land based casino group, such that comps and player cards could be shared between the online casino and land based casino.
Beating Bonuses has lead the way in many fields with yourself and other prominent members developing optimal strategies for games and bonuses. Could you tell us about some of the achievements of the site and community that make you most proud?
Where do you see Beating Bonuses going in the future? Do you feel the site is likely to be a permanent feature in your life? What new features would you like to add in the next few years?
If you asked me this question towards the start of the year, I’d say my biggest goal was to add strategy calcs for new games, particularly for caribbean stud variations, such as caribbean draw and oasis poker. Now that this has been accomplished, I don’t have a big future project in mind, aside from updating areas of the site that are outdated. This field changes dramatically from one year to the next, so it’s difficult to predict far into the future.
Could you tell us about some of the more interesting and lucrative promotions you’ve seen over the years?
The most lucrative promotions I’ve heard about occurred years before I was involved in online gambling, such as Casino On Net’s 007 roulette promotion in which they paid double winnings on bets of 0 and 7. A few fortunate players cashed out 6 figures in winnings from this promotion. A couple of other interesting promotions (far from the most lucrative available) are in 2006 Mansion offered a $1000 risk free bet, which 5000 players cashed out, resulting in Mansion paying $5 million in winnings. And In 2010 Betfair offered a “unlimited” (terms in some languages mentioned £10,000 maximum) happy hour bonus with 10x playthrough. Betfair paid some players, but stopped paying after they realized how much they were losing. This event caused major damage to Betfair’s reputation. Most players considered them reputable before the happy hours promotion, and now many players consider them untrustworthy. Betfair is rogued at Casinomeister and many other sites. A funny You Tube video about Hitler playing the Betfair happy hour promotion is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qV3h_lDppT8 .
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?
I haven’t purchased an album in more than 10 years. Instead I download the specific songs from
within albums that I like and play them on my iPod. I typically set my iPod to random mode, so
the same artist rarely repeats sequentially. My current 5 favorite songs are Bring Me to Life by
Evanescence, Crazy by Gnarls Barkley, Float On by Modest Mouse, Rolling in the Deep by Adele,
and Living on a Prayer by Bon Jovi.
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