How a Santa Barbara Mathematician Beat the Casinos
Dr. Eliot Jacobson Reflects on a One-of-a-Kind Career
By Tyler Hayden | July 7, 2022
For a bigtime troublemaker, Eliot Jacobson is jarringly pleasant. He volunteers at a wildlife rescue center and helps out at the Planned Parenthood book sale. Every Sunday afternoon, he and friends gather under the big tree at Alice Keck Park to play traditional Irish music. He talks lovingly of his family and he always asks you about yours.
But Jacobson certainly knows how to make enemies. In the late 1990s, the former professor began parlaying his PhD in mathematics into a part-time career of counting cards and cracking casino games.
Pit bosses learned to hate him. He’s been banned from an impressive list of Las Vegas properties — the Horseshoe, the Flamingo, Circus Circus, and Mandalay Bay, among others — as well as his hometown Chumash Casino. During one particularly bad night, he was muscled into a Vegas backroom and threatened with violence.
Then Jacobson switched sides and became an independent consultant for the casino industry, teaching managers how to protect their games and spot “advantage players” like himself. He burned bridges with many of his compatriots. They called him a snitch and a sellout.
Then, when Jacobson started publishing all of his research and strategies to his free online blog, he induced the wrath of game creators and distributors who watched their stocks tank.
“I was born and raised on the academic paradigm that knowledge serves the greatest good in the public domain,” Jacobson, 64, explained over coffee last month. Wearing a baseball cap and lightweight fleece, he looked like all the other regular Joes at the Daily Grind that morning. “I want information in people’s hands, then let the best man win. Let the person who is willing to study and learn and educate themselves be the one who succeeds.”
Even if it means knowing tons of people want to wring his neck? “Oh yeah, absolutely,” he shrugged. “That’s my life.”
Jacobson recently made his latest book, Advanced Advantage Play — a 475-page tome that teaches readers how to beat blackjack and baccarat; proprietary games like Mississippi Stud, High Card Flush, and Three-Card Poker; and all manner of casino side bets and promotions — available for $12.95, the cheapest Amazon would allow him to sell it. He’d give it away if he could, and he often does. One of the few other advantage play books out there — very rare and very exclusive — can cost upward of $1,000, if you’re even able to find a copy.
For all the animosity against Jacobson in the gambling world, there is also deep respect. Over the last two decades, he’s made the industry much smarter. “Eliot brought science to the game,” said Willy Allison, who runs the annual World Game Protection Conference, which this year bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award on Jacobson. “And he was a blackjack player himself, so he’s got street cred.” Among the speakers at February’s conference were professional gamblers, surveillance experts, “helpful hackers,” and a former mob boss.
Before Jacobson came onto the scene, Allison explained, most casino operators knew how to run their games but didn’t understand the underlying math that made them so rich. Even now, when a new proprietary game comes on the market — essentially, anything outside the regular casino offerings of craps, roulette, blackjack, and so on — big brains like Jacobson’s are needed to determine if and how they work, as their mathematics are intellectual property closely guarded by their makers. There are currently more than 700 such games in Nevada alone.
But what continues to make Jacobson unique even among his peers is a willingness to openly share his hard-earned knowledge, something Allison greatly admires. “In AP (advantage play), you hang onto your secrets,” he said. “But not Eliot. He doesn’t give a shit. He takes the punches and doesn’t cry.”
Tipping the Odds
Advantage Play (AP), as Jacobson describes it in his book, “is the act of legally exploiting procedural or structural weaknesses in some aspect of casino games or operations in a way that generates an edge over a casino.” Every game can be beaten, he insists. The puzzle is just figuring out how.
Jacobson’s focus has always been on what is considered “legal” and not the mushier concept of what is “ethical.” Whatever people think about the morality of a particular tactic to win against the house, he writes, “advantage players are only concerned with staying on the right side of the law. They take great pride in the distinction between what they do and cheating.”
Jacobson is quick to acknowledge, however, that if the casino catches you employing AP, either by tracking your betting patterns or catching some tell-tale physical sign, you can’t be arrested, but you may be asked not to play a certain game. Or you might be kicked out altogether, perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently. Casinos reserve the same rights as bars and restaurants to deny service to anyone. But you’ll never see a sign that says, “Thou shalt not use thy brain,” Jacobson said.
Card-counting is the best-known example of AP. That’s where a player keeps track of what cards have been dealt and uses quick mental math to predict which ones are most likely to come next. Basic blackjack card-counting first gained popularity in the ’60s and became even more prominent after MIT’s famous team made a killing in the ’90s, but Jacobson sees it as old hat, “roughly equivalent to shag carpeting and bell-bottom pants,” he says. So he figured out how to apply it to baccarat and the dozens of blackjack spinoff games that now exist.
Then there’s hole-carding, or sneaking a peak at a game’s face-down cards either because a dealer is being sloppy, they’re using a poorly designed automatic shuffler (there are specific brands and models to look out for), or the room’s layout offers fortunate lines of sight between tables. The method is technically legal, according to a 1983 ruling by Nevada’s Supreme Court, as long as the player doesn’t use a camera or other artificial device to glean the information.
The goal is to pick a mark, swoop in, “slaughter a game, and get the hell out of there,” Jacobson said. It may sound simple in concept but is exceedingly difficult to pull off. Also, determining the edge from hole-carding often requires a huge amount of computational effort, Jacobson warned. Nevertheless, he said, “There’s no doubt that hole-carding is the number-one method advantage players use to beat games.”
Edge-sorting is a strategy players use to spot natural irregularities in the machine-cut patterns on the backs of cards — full diamond shapes on the right side and half-diamonds on the left, for example — that lets them know when to fold and when to bet big. Players aren’t allowed to mark cards by scratching or bending them, but they are legally permitted to use a deck’s existing physical flaws to gain the upper hand.
Jacobson served as an expert witness in a 2012 case involving an ultra-high-stakes baccarat player, Phil Ivey, who used edge-sorting to win more than $10 million in London. A judge ultimately allowed the casino to withhold Ivey’s earnings, ruling he came by the sum “dishonestly.” The precedent-setting decision left Jacobson and many others scratching their heads, as the magistrate essentially stated that what Ivey did wasn’t cheating but wasn’t fair either, thus creating a third and very gray legal statute. “To me, if you don’t like the laws, then create a law,” Jacobson said. “But don’t manufacture one after the fact.”
The final most common form of AP is collusion, or secretly using teamwork at a table. Players flash signals to teammates about their hands, and everyone bets accordingly. “The needle always moves toward the player’s side when information can be used to improve a strategic decision,” Jacobson said. In fact, advantage players often work together. It allows them to cover more ground and flattens the curve of a game’s natural volatility. “Team play is really where it’s at,” he said.
But when done right, AP is not a sexy pursuit, Jacobson warned. It’s a grind. Players spend days on their feet scouting vulnerable games, only to spend more days sitting in rooms filled with smoke and crowds. The rewards can be big, but most of the time, they’re modest and squeaked out over long periods of time. Only a handful of people on the planet have the bankroll and the stomach needed for the really huge scores.
The pathway to green felt and flashing lights for Jacobson began when he was 13 years old on a family vacation to Lake Tahoe. They’d stopped at a casino in Reno, and he asked his mother, a high school English teacher who was reading The Waste Land when she went into labor with him and named him after the poet T.S. Eliot, to play a nickel slot machine. She did, and they lost, but she noticed the sparkle in her son’s eye. That Christmas, Jacobson found a toy slot machine, roulette wheel, and blackjack mat under the tree.
Jacobson set up a casino in the garage of their San Fernando Valley home and invited the neighborhood kids to play. He must have already had a good sense of odds and how to flip them in his favor, because a sign he nailed to the wall announced the house’s roulette payout for hitting a single number was 10-1. Normally, it’s 35-1. Before long, Jacobson had pocketed all his friends’ allowances and the casino had no more customers, but his father, an electrical engineer who invented the modern answering machine, kept the sign up for another 20 years until they moved.
Fast-forward and Jacobson had received his PhD in mathematics and settled down as a tenured professor at Ohio University. “But I really hated it,” he said. “I was in a little town on the edge of Appalachia and looking for a way out.” As fortune would have it, Jacobson was invited to speak at a math conference in Las Vegas. “I thought, ‘This is my chance,’” he said. He studied up on blackjack and learned basic card counting, and he used an early version of a computer program to train. He uses the same program today to run simulations across hundreds of millions of hypothetical hands.
When he finally made it to Vegas, “the worst possible thing happened,” Jacobson said with a wolfish grin. “I won.” That flipped the switch. Soon he was taking trips all over the country — Atlantic City, St. Louis, Biloxi — and learned that as an advantage player, “you can have lots of good times and some very bad times.” By the time he made it to California, his marriage was coming to an end, and he landed in Santa Barbara, which was close to family and an old friend. He essentially walked on to UCSB’s computer science department and secured a full-time teaching job. He also remarried.
Jacobson was near enough to Las Vegas that he started making regular pilgrimages. He was also driving the 45 minutes to the Chumash Casino as often as he could. After years of steady winning, Chumash managers finally got hip to his card-counting. That was strike one. They told Jacobson he could still play, but he wasn’t allowed to help other players. When a pretty woman sidled up to him at the table a few months later and asked for advice — Jacobson suspects she was a plant — he forgot himself and gave a few friendly tips. That was strike two.
Jacobson sustained his third and final strike — a lifetime ban — when he busted the casino’s shuffle, meaning he studied and dissected the dealers’ shuffling procedure so accurately that he could pick the aces out of the deck before they hit the table.
That still didn’t close the book on the Chumash, however. Jacobson personally stayed away but told a couple of his advantage-player students about weak dealers who would accidentally expose their hole-cards during three-card poker games. They made their move the next weekend and walked away with more than $30,000. “They just beat the crap out of them,” he said.
But by far Jacobson’s closest call with physical harm as a result of his advantage play came at the hands of security officers at an undisclosed casino on an undisclosed date. Jacobson can’t say much about the incident, because he later settled a lawsuit with the casino in his favor that also came with a nondisclosure agreement. But what he can say is that at around 2 a.m. in a Nevada facility, he was hole-carding a game — he was up about $400 — when he was approached by four men, two in uniforms and two in plain clothes.
The group told Jacobson he was under arrest and placed him in handcuffs. Jacobson protested but was quickly led away. As they exited the casino floor, one of the plain-clothed men leaned in and told him they were headed to the loading dock where there were no cameras and where he would be taught a lesson. Jacobson yelled for help, but the man told him he was a cheat and scum and no one would come to his aid. They refused to let him make any calls.
Eventually, it became apparent the men were bluffing and only meant to scare Jacobson, which they did. “I didn’t pee my pants, but almost,” he said. After insisting Jacobson provide them his name, Social Security number, place of birth, and other private information — Jacobson said one of the men was quivering with anger and seemingly about to lose control — the guards escorted him off the property onto a busy road with no sidewalks.
When Jacobson got back to his hotel room, he called an attorney and had a lawsuit for kidnapping and false imprisonment drawn up by the next day. The settlement, he said, was substantial. “They lost a lot of money,” he said. Much more than $400.
It wasn’t the brush with a serious butt-whooping that pushed Jacobson toward what advantage players call “the dark side” — casino surveillance and security. It was the slow but steady realization he didn’t have the nerve or the bank account to ever become a truly high-level player. “These guys who are out there, they’re betting $2,000, $5,000 a hand,” he explained. “I was nervous to bet $200. My life, earning a minimum income as a professor, made it very challenging for me to put out a month’s pay.”
So Jacobson ultimately decided he was better suited as a theorist and began offering his services to the industry. He hooked up with fellow mathematician and casino analyst Mike Shackleford, better known as the Wizard of Odds, who sent a few clients his way, and before he knew it, Jacobson was crunching numbers for some of the biggest names around.
Jacobson audited online casinos, designed slot machines, performed market research, and put on seminars. “The casino industry is the only industry whose product is math,” he said. “Whether it represents itself as craps or slots or pai gow, it’s math,” he said. He also developed games and promotions for other businesses and organizations, including a bingo game for NASCAR and a scratcher for McDonald’s.
Jacobson claims to have retired in 2017, but his recent activity suggests otherwise. During the COVID shutdown, he started making how-to gambling videos and created a free spreadsheet that helps casinos determine if they’re being fleeced through their baccarat games. In keeping with his self-diagnosed “serial compulsive personality,” Jacobson also recently published a book of poetry as well — Totally Disconnected: The Poetic Ramblings of a Socially Awkward Mathematician, available at Chaucer’s.
Casino games, however, occupy absolutely none of his free time. “I don’t like any of them,” he said. “And the reason I don’t like them is because I can run a mathematical analysis and figure out exactly what’s going to happen.” There’s zero rush in the supposed unpredictability, he explained, because every game is predictable in the long run. “I don’t need to watch the thing play out in slow motion,” he said.
Where Jacobson still gets his kicks is chess, a game he learned when he was 5 years old and the only one he’s ever truly enjoyed. Interestingly, unlike gambling, it’s a full-information contest, meaning both players are privy to everything that’s happening in front of them. But the mental jousting of attacks, traps, defense, and feints make outcomes much harder to anticipate. Jacobson usually plays online because the Santa Barbara Chess Club meet-ups begin at 7 p.m. and end at 10. He’s in bed by 8.
Next winter, Jacobson will head back to the World Game Protection Conference to teach a three-hour class on safeguarding against advantage play. He’s booked for future dates, too, in an unofficial conference faculty role. The lifetime achievement award meant a lot to him, as it confirmed the abiding admiration of his peers over all the previous hostility thrown his way.
“For me, it’s always just been about knowledge and the excitement of knowledge, and discovering things,” Jacobson said. There’s a deep-rooted good guy/bad guy mentality in the casino industry, he continued. “And I just don’t buy into that. I love people on both sides of the table.”
There’s a reason one of his direct competitors, Bill Zender, wrote the foreword to Advanced Advantage Play. “Eliot is a good friend, and it is a privilege to be given the opportunity to contribute to his outstanding work,” Zender stated.
In the meantime, Jacobson is stirring the pot with a new pursuit. He can’t help himself. His new blog on calculating the rate of climate change — not denying its reality but sounding new alarms on the speed at which Earth is circling the drain — is drawing a good amount of attention but also some serious pushback.
But you’ll also still find him on Sundays at the park, plucking a mandolin, banjo, or guitar. He used to play a mean flute, but a shoulder injury put a stop to that. He’s also tried the fiddle. Anything to keep him busy. Because every morning, Jacobson said, he asks his wife: “What am I going to do today to avoid getting in trouble?”