Interview with Stanford Wong

by Rick Swogger, for BlackjackTournaments.com and BlackjackInfo.com

Stanford Wong was born in Georgia in 1943. In his early years, his family moved a few times, and settled in Beaverton, Oregon. While attending school, Stanford always had a fascination with puzzles, and trying to solve them. As a very young child, he quickly figured out the proper playing strategy for tic-tac-toe, whether going first or second. Later, when blackjack piqued his interest, he computed the proper way to play each hand versus the various up cards for the dealer. Upon reading Ed Thorp's book, Beat the Dealer, Stanford checked his calculations against Thorp's, and determined his calculations were accurate.

After graduating from Oregon State University with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business, and a Masters in Business Administration, Stanford taught various math-related classes at OSU for two years. He went on to spend two years in the Army, including one year in Vietnam. Stanford wrote his first book while attending Stanford University as a Graduate student working on his Doctorate of Philosophy in Finance. Stanford Wong has two grown children, and lives in La Jolla, California with his wife. They have been married for almost forty years.


RS: What were your goals after graduating from Oregon State University?
Stanford: My intention was to go to Europe for a few months, but my draft board would not give me permission to leave the country. After I received my Bachelor's Degree, I was not planning on attending Oregon State. My plans were to go to Harvard for my Masters Degree. I looked in their catalog, and found out that I would have been one of their top prospects, but Harvard turned me down. I went back and attended Oregon State for my Masters.
RS: Why do you think Harvard turned you down?
Stanford: I did not submit a letter of recommendation from a Harvard Alumnus with my application. I found out later that the letter of recommendation was really important. I did not know that at the time. I thought they were aiming for geographic diversity, that's what their literature said. I figured coming from Oregon, that's pretty diverse, and with my test scores and grades, I should have been in the top 1% of the applicants they were accepting.
RS: When were you introduced to blackjack?
Stanford: Introduced to it as far as analyzing it, when I was about ten. Introduced to playing it, when I bought Ed Thorp's book Beat the Dealer, (in the early 1960s when it was first published), and I learned how to count cards from it, so that when I turned 21, I was able to go into a casino as a card counter as soon as I was legally old enough.
RS: Why did you decide to write your first book?
Stanford: I really didn't decide to write a book, I had two different things, when put together, embodied a large enough quantity to make up a book. I had tables of numbers that I had worked out for various scenarios that Thorp's book didn't give me. Beat the Dealer had information on the dealer standing on soft seventeen (ace-six), where I needed the information on when the dealer hits a soft seventeen in northern Nevada. Thorp didn't cover surrender, whereas I played in some casinos that offered surrender. Thorp's book had tables on splitting pairs where you could double down after a split, and I needed the tables where doubling down after splitting pairs was not allowed. I had many pages on the various tables on which strategy to follow depending upon the rules of the individual casino. I also had many people wanting me to teach them how to play blackjack, and I didn't want to waste the time on telling each person how to play, so I wrote up a little paper explaining how to play. Each person would come back to me with questions, and instead of simply telling them the answer, I would write down the question and put in my answer, so each new person would receive the revised and expanded version. That simply grew to the point where it looked like half a book, and my papers on calculations looked like half a book, so one day I just discovered if I put the two parts together I would have a book.
RS: How many copies have you sold?
Stanford: I'm really not sure how many copies of Professional Blackjack have been sold. The interesting thing about that book, unlike most books in publication, is the fact that sales have grown every year. Most books have a big spike at introduction, and then taper off slowly. Right now it is selling at about 5,000 copies a year, so I would guess in thirty years it has sold probably 50,000 to 100,000 copies.
RS: While writing your first book, was that when you came up with the pen name Stanford Wong?
Stanford: I was thirty-two years old when the book was first published. In the casinos, I always gave my real name when I played blackjack, and I didn't want everyone to know that I was the one writing the book, so I needed a pen name. I always liked complicated first names and simple last names. My friend in the PhD program at Stanford University, Denny Draper, came up with it. I thought it was perfect. It had an academic ring to it and the mystique of the Orient.
RS: What other books have you written?
Stanford: Some of the books are revisions of others and some are no longer in publication. Winning Without Counting was published in 1978, Blackjack in Asia in 1979, Tournament Blackjack in 1987, Tournament Craps in 1987, Professional Video Poker in 1988, Optimal Strategy for Pai Gow Poker in 1990, Basic Blackjack in 1992, Casino Tournament Strategy in 1992, Betting Cheap Claimers in 1992, Blackjack Secrets in 1993, Sharp Sports Betting in 2001, and Wong on Dice in 2005. Blackjack Secrets was originally part of Professional Blackjack, but when I revised the book, even though the book stores advised me to keep the price the same, the amount of information was so great that the cost to produce a book with that many pages would be too high to keep the price the same, so I elected to split the book into two parts. Basic Blackjack is a revision of Winning Without Counting. When the latter got a reputation as material that was no longer current, it contained items that used to work, I decided to emphasize the basic strategy for all of these weird rules you might come across, like a five card hand is an automatic winner in blackjack, so I made it into a book of basic strategy for a bunch of rules variations. I titled the book Basic Blackjack, if I had it to do over again, I would probably keep it Winning Without Counting Revised Version, or something close to that title. About two thirds of the material in Basic Blackjack came from Winning Without Counting. It was such a significant change, I just didn't know if I wanted to change the title. Likewise, Thorp's book Beat The Dealer came out in 1961, with a second edition in 1964. The differences in the two editions is so vast, I would have given it a different title. When Beat The Dealer was still relevant, I would tell people to get both books, they were each worth reading.
RS: When did you first start playing in blackjack tournaments?
Stanford: I started playing tournaments when the Hilton had a match play tournament about 1985, two years before I published Tournament Blackjack. When I heard about the match play format, I thought there would be a big edge over the other players if the correct strategies could be worked out. I invited some of my friends to play, and they put up whatever entry fees they were comfortable with and I put up the rest. The player or players who won the prizes would get a certain amount, and then the rest would receive payment based on the percentage of the amount of their own entry.
RS: You decided to play as a team, and split the profits. Why did you decide to play as a team and who were some of the members on your team?
Stanford: The main advantage of a team, at least to me, was that I had so much more experience to draw from to generate material for the book. If all I'm doing is evaluating my own play, then I'm only getting one or two rounds of play to evaluate. With the other members in our group, when one ran into a situation that we had not discussed, I could figure out the proper play for that particular situation. I would simply add that information to the material I had already gathered. The people who joined my team were Ernie Amore, Anne Amster, Anthony Curtis, Dave Douglas, and later Blair Rodman.
RS: How long did the team last? How many tournaments, and how much money did the team win? What about you personally?
Stanford: We played together for about two years, at that point we no longer came across different formats, and I had gathered enough information for the book. I no longer have the records, but our team won something in the low six figures. I personally won only a nominal amount; I was not the star of our team when it came to actually playing tournaments.
RS: When you decided to put together the book Casino Tournament Strategy, did you think there would ever be enough interest to warrant its publishing?
Stanford: Certainly, I had success with the predecessors: Tournament Blackjack, Tournament Craps, and Betting Cheap Claimers. We took a great deal of information from those previous three works, and added Tournament Baccarat, Tournament Keno, and the match play section for blackjack.
RS: Without getting too technical, how did you derive the statistical probabilities for the different scenarios in the blackjack section?
Stanford: All of those numbers are simulation numbers. What I did was write up a simulation that would finish a tournament after you made that decision. So once you tell me you will bet small, then the computer would give the optimal play for the next player and the next player. The randomness would come in because you have random cards being dealt. Those numbers are not zero and one because of the randomness of the cards being dealt, and how likely you are to succeed with that particular strategy depends on the mix of the cards being dealt.
RS: You also have software available to practice playing in a blackjack tournament.
Stanford: That actually wasn't supposed to be a product. That was my software tool for coming up with those numbers about which you just asked me. When I finished the book, I realized the program I had written as strictly an analysis tool, could actually be used as a game to practice tournament strategy.
RS: I noticed in the Casino Tournament Strategy book, you added example 11A to keep the other examples numbered the same as they were in the previous edition. Have you made many changes to the original publication, and do you have anything else to add to the next one?
Stanford: There are no other major changes like that in the existing printing. What I do in each new printing is to change all known typing errors. In the next printing, coming out at the end of this summer, I will add a separate section on surrender in the blackjack section. Some of that information is new and some will be pulled from the match play section. It is kind of hidden in the part on match play. Surrender has become an important part of many tournaments these days, so I will make sure that my advice is out there where you can find it and understand it.
RS: In your book, you often refer to the progression betting strategy with the last bet an all in bet. When the max bet is a small fraction of the bankroll, how would you address the progression tactic?
Stanford: The progression tactic only works if that all in bet is a legal bet because it would be small enough. If you are playing in a tournament where you possess a huge amount of chips in relation to the maximum bet, then you need to totally change gears at that point. The progression pattern will not work at that point. You just need to be super aggressive, making maximum bets, doubling down, and splitting whenever you can until you bust out or catch up to the leaders.
RS: In 1993 you made the book gender-neutral by making every reference of the singular pronoun "he" into "she/he". Scouring every page to locate and modify every pronoun throughout the book not only required a great deal of time and effort, it also makes for more difficult reading. Did some group approach you with that idea, or did you decide to make the changes on your own?
Stanford: I did not realize the she/he made it more difficult to read. I will probably switch back and forth between he and she from now on in my books. I decided myself to make all the books gender-neutral. I don't like the idea of turning off any element of society. It is really difficult sometimes to write without pronouns and make a sentence sound reasonable.
RS: When and why did you start the web site BJ21.com?
Stanford: I wanted to have a web site for quite a few years, but I realized the repeat traffic would be minimal to any site, which only contained static information. There needed to be constant updates to the pages, or some sort of a message board. So, when the software for message boards came out in 1996, I started BJ21.com. Had the software been available in 1994, I would have started it in 1994. One of the things when I started the web site, was that I tried to set up a peer group because, I knew that I would run into questions, and I wanted to have other people that I could bounce ideas off of. Finding people managing content on message boards was difficult because so few message boards existed at the time. BJ21.com is basically a location for the blackjack players to exchange information. It contains a free message board and a membership message board.
RS: What do you think the future holds for the advantage player (AP) in blackjack?
Stanford: I don't have real high hopes for blackjack. There are a lot of things happening in casinos that make it tough on the blackjack player. There still is this tendency toward more decks of cards being used, you have these CTRs, (currency transaction reports which requires the casino to report to the Treasury Department cash transactions over $10,000), you now have a great deal of continuous shuffle machines, (CSMs), and unfortunately big money players are willing to play them, so they are likely to stay in the casinos. Single deck blackjack has almost completely gone to paying 6 to 5 on a blackjack, instead of the standard 3 to 2. All of these things just make blackjack less attractive as a moneymaking opportunity these days. I do think that advantage players will always have some things they can do to get an edge. They have to be willing to play more games than just blackjack. They have to be willing to travel to more places than just Las Vegas. There are always opportunities out there, if you are plugged into an information network, and are willing to travel and you have the money that you can afford to take the risk.
RS: Can you still sit down at every casino pit and play blackjack without getting scrutiny from the pit?
Stanford: I can sit down at almost all the casinos these days, for one thing I am pretty ordinary looking, and most of the people who know me are the people in the higher offices, not the people on the floor. All of these casinos have rules on passing the information up the chain of command. How much you are betting determines how far up the chain the information must go. If you are betting one hundred dollars a hand the dealer may have to notify the pit boss. If you are betting five hundred dollars they may notify the shift manager. As long as I keep my bet small enough, that they don't have to notify the owner of the company, then I am probably OK. When the new owners of The Golden Nugget took over, they stopped me at the craps table, and told me not to come back there. The Venetian likewise, doesn't want me to return to play in their casino. Every other place I'm a total unknown. I have had occasions where a dealer will look at me and say, "I know you, but I don't know how I know you". They must have watched the World Series of Blackjack on GSN, but they just can't figure it out. I have more of a problem with other players. They will come up to me and say, "hey, you're Stanford Wong". I'm like "shhhh, shhhh, hold it down".
RS: Have you ever been read the trespassing law?
Stanford: Most recently was at the Golden Nugget, and the Venetian. Once they decide they don't want you anymore, that is just a formality. If they come up to me and say they just don't want me to play blackjack anymore, but everything else is fine to play, I look at it as disrespect. Don't they know me very well? Don't they know that I'm only going to play a game when I have an edge? Interesting enough, most of the other half a dozen places that I have been trespassed, have since been torn down.
RS: As far as their thinking is concerned, you can only have an edge while playing blackjack.
Stanford: A lot of times they think that way. I have heard of someone playing at the dice table, and the boss came up behind them, put his hands on their shoulder, and said, "You know we don't want you playing blackjack here". And the player answered, "no, no, I'm not going to play blackjack, I'm just here playing dice".
RS: What gave you the idea to publish the book, Sharp Sports Betting?
Stanford: I wanted to publish a book on sports betting, because I saw it as being a market that was wide open. There was no decent book out there covering sports betting. I couldn't find anybody to write the book for me. All of the professional sports bettors that I know, they just told me no, they were not interested in writing a book, so I decided to write my own book, just for the lack of anyone else to write one for me. The difference is that if I would have gotten a professional sports bettor to write it, I would have gotten a lot of tips on how to evaluate players, how to evaluate teams, match ups, how do you look at an NFL game and decide which team to bet based on analysis of the strengths of the teams. I don't have that ability myself. I don't know anything about the strengths of the teams, or how to evaluate one player against another, but I do know the math. So, what I did in my book on sports betting was I emphasized the math. Some of the proposition bets are very interesting. You know, like when the Superbowl comes along, you can bet on how many completed passes, or how many guys are going to throw a pass, just about anything you can think of, you can bet. And the mathematics behind that, I find is very fascinating. It's all Poisson distribution; (Poisson is a process where the number of changes in non-overlapping intervals is independent for all intervals. The probability of two or more changes in a small interval is essentially 0. In the limit of the number of trials becoming large, the resulting distribution is called Poisson distribution.). What you need is the sum of Poissons, and you cannot find tables for sum Poisson distribution in any textbook. I didn't invent the Poisson distribution, or how to analyze it. What I did was explain how to use it on analyzing proposition bets, and to my knowledge no one else has ever explained how to use it on proposition bets, nor come up with a table that would allow you to do that. That is my contribution, any place where I could apply mathematics in sports betting, I did.
RS: You started the web site, SharpSportsBetting.com to complement the book. What information is available on that web site?
Stanford: The main area of SharpSportsBetting.com is the picks by professional sports bettors. I have people that I have hired to post their picks. That is how they make their living, and they are very good at it. There are other people who are willing to pay to get predictions of people like that. That is what supports the site. I sell memberships, and of the membership revenue that is generated, half goes to maintain the site, and the other half goes to the hosts that provide the picks. There is also an Excel file that you can use to derive the information on the tables in the back of the book, as far as analyzing proposition bets.
RS: What is your most recent project?
Stanford: My most recent project was to research and write a book about craps, and controlling the dice on your toss to give you an edge over the casino. The book is titled Wong On Dice.
RS: At the end of the craps section of your book, Casino Tournament Strategy, you answer a reader's question about making a living at playing craps, with, "no craps system gives you an edge over the casino, and all crap shooters lose in the long run." I take it you have changed your mind on this subject?
Stanford: Absolutely, those comments at the end of the section on craps are totally wrong. I did not know any better at that time. This whole notion of people controlling the dice as a skill that can be learned came along about the same time as when I wrote those comments in the book. But still, I was just plain wrong, and those comments won't be in the next reprint. Those comments will be replaced with something that says craps can be beaten, but it is difficult.
RS: Are you banned from playing craps anywhere?
Stanford: Currently not, except the Golden Nugget, and Venetian, where I am not allowed to play any games. Although, there are some places, I think, that don't extend me the same complimentary level as other players on the same amount of play.
RS: What advice, not presently in your book, can you offer to our members about tournament blackjack strategy?
Stanford: I don't have any advice that is not already in the book. Everything I know about tournament play is already in there. I didn't hold anything back. General advice is just to be aggressive, and bet your money. You're not going to take it with you when the round is over.
RS: Do you ever have second thoughts about making all of this information available to the masses?
Stanford: No, I just get a lot of satisfaction out of writing things up, explaining it, and distributing it to other people. That is what gives me satisfaction, that's what I do. Now, I know there are other people who have figured out a whole lot of things, and used that information themselves or with a team and made money that way. You have to decide what it is that you personally want out of life, and then structure things in such a way so that you get the satisfaction that you are looking for in life. For me, publishing is just tremendously satisfying. Benjamin Franklin had a quote that sums it up. He said, "If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are rotten, either write things worth reading or do things worth the writing."
RS: What is next on the list to challenge Stanford Wong?
Stanford: I really don't see any whole new books in my future. I do see a major revision of the dice book, Wong On Dice, maybe in a year or two. I think probably what I'll do to keep busy the next few years is publish more books written by other people. I published the first one last year, written by King Yao titled Weighing the Odds in Hold'em Poker. I'm also publishing a book by Tino Gambino, The Mad Professor's Crapshooting Bible. I am editing and will publish a book by Bob Nersesian, the Las Vegas Attorney, well known for his courtroom victories against the major casino corporations, and Griffin Investigations. So, I will concentrate my energy, for now, on publishing the work of others.
You can visit Stanford Wong's websites at BJ21.com and SharpSportsBetting.com. All of his books are available for purchase at BJ21.com, and his book Professional Blackjack is among the most popular titles available at the BlackjackInfo store.

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