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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Learning how to beat the odds

8 November 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Like mediocre math students wrestling with high-level calculus, the gamblers gathered at the Silverton are shifting in their seats.

"How many cards can give you a wild royal flush?" Bob Dancer, a professional gambler and former computer programmer, asks them.

The 40 or so students are mostly retired locals. Some of them wandered into the Silverton's steakhouse out of curiosity. Others are serious video poker players who study 100-page manuals and use computer tutorials at home, and have made a special trip to the free, two-hour class.

They're stumped by the question about the wild royal flush. A few tentatively guess.

"I'll give you a hint. I haven't heard the right number yet," Dancer says with a good-natured laugh.

It's going to be a long morning.

A former computer programmer with a master's degree in economics from UCLA, Dancer is to video poker what Bobby Fischer is to chess. The longtime Las Vegas casino consultant is both liked and loathed by the industry he serves. He is valued for his ability to analyze slot machines and for helping casinos toe the line between making as much profit as possible and offering slots and promotions enticing enough for savvy regulars.

But his loyalty rests with gamblers.

He makes a living helping them level the playing field against casinos, and sells software programs, study guides and laminated flashcards that aim to improve those odds.

But rather than tossing Dancer out on his ear like an enemy mole, the Silverton has welcomed him with open arms, hosting weekly tutorials. As a condition of offering his classes, Dancer even got the Silverton to loosen the odds on a bank of 16 video poker machines now labeled, "Bob Dancer Approved."

Silverton is betting that the classes will draw more players into the casino and therefore more revenue over time.

"It's a pure volume game," Silverton General Manager Craig Cavileer said. "They bring friends and try to teach them, and the whole audience grows."

Gamblers who can outsmart the machines may lose less money per visit or win more often. Players in a better position to compete with the casino will be more likely to return to the Silverton and play longer, so the thinking goes.

But as any mathematician knows, the longer you sit at a slot machine, the more likely you will lose your bet.

Dancer's presence still makes casino managers sweat.

Dancer has conducted classes over the years at the Fiesta casinos in North Las Vegas and Henderson. Each time, the classes were sponsored by the casinos to drum up new business - and then were phased out over concerns that the tutorials were getting too close for comfort.

Cavileer, a former Los Angeles real estate developer who masterminded Silverton's turnaround by bringing in a major sporting goods store and other attractions, is accustomed to taking chances many of his risk-averse peers would avoid.

"It's kind of like sleeping with the enemy," he said. "Some of it makes me nervous. But an educated player is not necessarily a player who is going to win consistently."

Unlike pure skill games like chess, much of poker is subject to the luck of the draw. And while a computer chip in each machine chooses hands at random, video poker machines are not purely random.

Over millions of hands and many hours of play, most video poker machines at off-Strip casinos such as the Silverton will pay back from 95 to 99 percent of every dollar put into them - and then only if played by skilled gamblers who optimize their strategy of which hands to play to, based on the cards dealt.

That's what Dancer teaches. Cavileer hopes the students will spend more of their money at Silverton, trying to become experts - and coming up short.

"Only a few guys like Dancer exist," Cavileer said. Even those players succumb to bad luck now and then, hoping that, by the end of the year, their occasional big wins offset their more frequent losses.

The better players in the crowd have two things in common: They either know a thing or two about statistics or, like chess players able to visualize several moves ahead of their opponents, are able to memorize dozens of numerical combinations.

Like the smart kid in class, tax accountant Anne Freid-Lefton is several steps ahead of her stumbling peers. Freid-Lefton, who came to Las Vegas four years ago and was content to lose "about $10 to $20 per hour" playing video poker, now expects to make more money next year by gambling part-time than she would preparing taxes.

"This is the best investment of my time," she said. "I thought I knew what I was doing and it was all luck. Now I know there's skill involved."

Pearl Perry, a retired cashier who attends Dancer's classes with her husband, a former financial planner, says much of the information was "over her head" at first but has begun to "sink in."

"We figured we'd stop just donating our money to the casino and try to make our money last longer," Perry said.