Poker Faces in the Crowd: Mason Malmuth

Ben Saxton
Jun 10, 2018 · 8 min read

In 1987 John Luckman, the owner of Gambler’s Book Club in Las Vegas, got a phone call from a man named Mason Malmuth. He needed Luckman’s advice. A mathematician with a keen interest in gambling, Malmuth had recently sold a book — Winning Concepts in Draw and Lowball — to Gambling Times magazine. The problem was that the company had gone under and wouldn’t return the rights to Malmuth. What could he do? Luckman recommended an attorney who successfully retrieved the book’s copyright. By the end of the year, Malmuth would self-publish not one but three books: Winning Concepts, Gambling Theory and Other Topics, and Blackjack Essays. Two Plus Two Publishing was born.

I met Mason at the Two Plus Two office in Henderson, Nevada. It was a Wednesday afternoon in July, and I arrived a few minutes early; only Mat Sklansky was inside. “Mason usually wakes up at noon,” he told me, “and then we go out to lunch at one.” When Mason showed up at one p.m. sharp, the three of us drove to Boss’s Slow Smoked Barbeque and ate ribs, brisket, and pulled pork. Upon returning to the office, Mason and I discussed his journey into gambling, his favorite Two Plus Books, meeting his wife, why jokes are funny, the future of poker, and Shakespeare.

Ben Saxton: How did you get into the gambling world?

Mason Malmuth: I went to work for the Census Bureau in 1975, and eventually got sent west to a processing center in Laguna Niguel, California. I had only been there for a few weeks when one of the clerks said to me, “I understand you’re a mathematician. I have a book you might like.” He handed me a copy of Edmund Thorpe’s Beat the Dealer. We went to the Lake Elsinore Casino — this was around 1980, I guess — and played draw poker.

What about poker and gambling fascinated you?

Well, I actually made a bit of an error. I assumed, because I was a mathematician — and particularly because I was a statistician — that I’d quickly become good at it. And I liked the idea that, once I became good at it, poker would give me a level of freedom. In 1982 the Northrup Corporation offered me a job working with a reliability engineering group. It turned out that our location was in Pico Rivera, California, right between the Bicycle Club and the Commerce.

Right in L.A.

I was at the Commerce Club on opening day, in October 1983. It was much smaller. They’d have only four or five games going.

What games would be going?

Well, the only games that were legal were forms of draw poker: Jacks-or-better and what they called California lowball, also known as ace-to-five lowball draw. A year later the Bicycle Club opened. I liked the Bike better so I switched over.

What stands out to you from those early days when you were grinding out a living?

Well, most of the games were player-dealt. They had just started some jackpot games with professional dealers, but the vast majority of games were player-dealt.

Did you know David Hayano?

I knew him slightly — well enough to say hello. I thought that his book [Poker Faces: The Life and Work of Professional Card Players] was terrific, but that it painted too dark of a picture. I don’t think things were quite that negative.

Negative in what sense?

He talked a lot about desperate people who were trying to survive and didn’t do very well, and I think that things were better than that.

Was it hard to leave your job to pursue a career in gambling?

I was torn between the two. I had a very, very good job with Northrup and I liked the people. But I also liked all this other stuff. In 1986, I asked Northrup if I could work three days a week, and they agreed. So I had a year when I could test out Las Vegas.

Was Vegas the natural destination, given your interests?

At that time, yes. I came for poker and blackjack. I also wanted to write about poker, blackjack, and other forms of gambling. I got to know David Sklansky fairly well.

How did you meet?

It’s one of the ironies in the history of poker: Mike Caro introduced me to David Sklansky. Not long after that, I concluded that Mike Caro’s stuff on how to play hold ’em was wrong.

Why did you think he was wrong?

He didn’t understand that hands that might look good are very bad in other situations. A hand like ace-ten offsuit is, in general, a good hand. But it’s not a good hand if somebody has already raised and they’re a tight player. So that was a major error in his stuff. By then, David and I had been talking about hold to play hold ’em. By the end of 1986, I had a very good set of notes on how to play limit hold ’em. And then David came to me in early 1988 and wanted to create a book from the notes. And I did not want to do that.

Is that because you didn’t want to distribute knowledge in the poker community?

Right. He finally told me that if I wouldn’t help him with the book, he’d do it myself. When that happened I said, All right, I’ll do it. Of course, doing Hold ’em Poker for Advanced Players was probably the best decision I ever made.

You’ve written more books, most recently Real Poker Psychology

And David’s done more stuff.

— so when you think back, which one are you proudest of?

Gambling Theory. It has the most unique ideas. You have to understand: I’m the first person who ever talked about variance in poker and gambling. Not only had almost nobody heard of terms like standard deviation, but I was actually criticized by people. Players like me, back in the eighties, were known as scientific players. People would say to me, “Are you one of those scientific players?” People thought that poker was a people game, a hustle: you had to size up your opponent psychologically. David and I introduced the idea you played in a strategic fashion — which, of course, dominates everybody’s thinking today.

Once you began publishing other authors, which books stand out?

The two books by Matt Janda are considered to be masterpieces. Philip Newall’s The Intelligent Poker Player is one of the best things I’ve ever read. The book emphasizes limit hold ’em, so it doesn’t sell very well, but it’s a tremendous book. And, of course, the Harrington books were brilliant. Almost no one knows this: Dan and I have done a lot of traveling together. In the early nineties, we drove around to about a dozen national parks. My wife hates these kinds of trips, so last summer we went back to Yellowstone. We also went to Cedar City for the Utah Shakespeare Festival, so we might leave Charmaine at home and go back this summer.

How did you meet Charmaine?

I met her at a poker table. She was watching someone who knew me, somehow it came out that I played tennis, and she said, “I think I could beat you.” I said, “I don’t think so.” That’s how we first got to know each other.

Who won?

At that time, I was a much better player. My hamstrings are bad now. We still hit all the time, but I can’t beat her today.

What’s your schedule like these days?

It varies. I still come to the office three days a week. I try to play tennis. And I play poker some evenings, mostly limit hold ’em at the Bellagio.

You mentioned that, in the eighties, people understood poker in terms of psychology or “playing the person.” Have your own views changed? Do you still understand these interpersonal dynamics in terms of a mathematical model?

Well, Real Poker Psychology is a bit different from that, but the answer would be yes. I’ve concluded that tilt follows the same pathway as humor. The difference is that, with humor, your brain can solve the discontinuity, but not with tilt. Years ago, when I was working at the Census Bureau, I discovered a joke in a statistics journal that illustrates this. Here it is. There was a young girl who wanted a boyfriend, but she had some requirements: her boyfriend needed to be short and well-dressed. So her friends introduced her to a penguin.

Well, you can see the discontinuity there. A penguin is not an appropriate boyfriend. But penguins are short and, because of their coloring, they appear to be well-dressed. Your mind is able to bridge that discontinuity. That’s what causes humor. That process makes us laugh. When you see expert poker players take a bad beat, a lot of times they’ll laugh. But when players go on tilt, they can’t bridge that gap. They don’t know enough about poker to solve that discontinuity.

Where do you think poker is headed in the future?

I’m not very optimistic. More states need to come in with internet poker. And I don’t think no-limit hold ’em is a good cash game for poker rooms.

Yeah. You mentioned that on Joey Ingram’s podcast. Can you say a little more about that?

The main reason is that expert players have too big of an edge on bad players. The way I view things — again, it goes back to statistics — is that there needs to be kind of a sweet spot: bad players need to have enough winning nights that they keep playing. And good players need to have a long-term positive expectation. There’s a tiny middle territory where luck and skill is brought into proper balance. But that doesn’t seems to happen in the no-limit games.

So what does poker need? More PLO?

I don’t think PLO is the answer. It’s certainly an exciting game, but the problem is that you end up being all-in too often. That’s not good for a new player. When all your chips are in jeopardy every twenty or thirty minutes, a lot of times they’ll be gone. To me, the ideal games are limit hold ’em and seven-card stud.

Poker is in a contraction period. Right now it’s the World Series of Poker, there’s games everywhere. It’s not like that all year. I do believe — this is just my observation from playing at the Bellagio — that we’re seeing some growth in limit hold ’em. But I don’t have proof.

I have a few rapid-fire questions. Favorite tennis player?

I don’t really like watching tennis.

Favorite poker player?

I definitely don’t have a favorite poker player.

Why do you sign your Two Plus Two posts “Best Wishes”?

It’s just something that I started to do.

Favorite joke?

I guess it has to be the penguin joke.

Favorite national park?

I really like Arches. It’s really something.

Favorite Shakespeare play?

Well, I don’t know much about Shakespeare. But the play that Dan and I saw last summer, Much Ado About Nothing, was just terrific.

*originally published in the October 2017 issue of Two Plus Two Magazine

Ben Saxton

Written by

reading, writing, teaching, pokering @McGovernCenter

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade