Authors@Google: Jeffrey Ma

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 30.07.2010

>>COMMENTATOR: Well, good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to another outstanding Authors@Google
And today we are thrilled to host Jeff Ma.
And Jeff is one of the legendary members of the MIT Blackjack Team, which is a group of
students and affiliates whose study of statistics became legend. And is the subject of movies
such as "21" and the book "Bringing Down the House".
Success in gambling is very similar to success in life and in business. It's all about making
the right decisions with the right amount of luck.
And so, it's no question that the-that the years that Jeff spent honing his blackjack
skills at MIT have given him a basic strategy for success in the-the VC world here in the
Silicon Valley.
So he'll be talking to us today about his most recent book which is entitled "The House
Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big in Business".
We'll have some mikes at the end for questions and answers.
And without further ado, please join me in welcoming Jeff to Google.
Thank you.
>>JEFF: So thanks for having me, guys. How many of you guys have seen 21?
Pretty good amount of people. So you know that the greatest bit of Hollywood magic is
how they turn an average looking Asian-American male into a dashing, British white guy.
Which is what they did.
So I was the main-the inspiration for the real-life character that Jim Sturgis played
in the movie "21" and the character, Kevin Lewis, in the book, "Bringing Down the House".
And, I always like to tell a couple of stories when I get started about my days card counting
that weren't in the book and aren't in either of my books.
So, "Bringing Down the House" was the first book, and "The House Advantage" which is over
there is my new book.
But I like to tell these stories about playing blackjack with celebrities, which was a lot
of fun. I have some good stories with all these guys.
And my first story actually comes from the opening night of the Bellagio. I had the pleasure
of playing blackjack with Kevin Costner. And Kevin was there with his group of friends.
Now what's kind of interesting about the opening of any casino- there's always three types
of people there.
There's card counters like myself; ‘cause for us that was like our emerging markets.
You know like this is like this new casino opening up. They're much more worried about
paying people correctly than they are about catching card counters.
And the second type of people are celebrities.
And anyone guess the third type of person? Card Counters, Celebrities are at a casino...
What's that? Just yell it out loud.
>>VOICE: Gold diggers
>>JEFF: Gold diggers. Cougars. Close!
You can tell a lot about an audience by how quickly they get this. I was in a real estate
conference in, in Orange County. And I asked this question. And not sooner were the words
out of my mouth than a woman from the back row screams, "HOOKERS!"
So it's card counters, celebrities, and prostitutes.
And what's funny is when you do this corporate event type stuff, whenever, the person who
gets it yells it out, I always make them stand up and then that's what's called, "a career-limiting
So, but, anyway, so I'm at the Bellagio opening night and have the pleasure of playing blackjack
with Kevin Costner. And he has his group of friends with him. And it's Kevin Costner,
so, if it were a rapper it would've been like his posse; but, since it's Kevin, it's just
his group of goofy friends.
And...every hand, he was a good player, meaning he did the right thing most of the time. And
then he started to lose, and every hand he lost his friends would look at me and say,
"God, this is like "Water World" all over again.
Actually, I'll tell one other story just be-just because it's a good story and because you
guys are here for entertainment. And if you want the real, hard-business takeaway, you
can get the book but it’s not really, it's very enter-it's a very entertaining book,
I think too.
One of the funnier stories also has to come-comes from the NBA lockout. So we may be headed
for another NBA lockout in a couple years but the last NBA lockout was about ten years
ago. And where do you think NBA players went when they couldn't- they went to casinos.
And so I had the pleasure of playing blackjack with a bunch of the Ni-the Knicks, John Starks,
Patrick Ewing. So I sit down at a table with John Starks and John is-goes nice guy drinking
Merlot. Which I thought was really weird for, we're, we're all from the Bay Area so we drink
wine, we love wine. But for a NBA, big, burly NBA player at the casino drinking wine, it
just seemed like a little weird to me.
Actually, it's not that weird 'cause now I kinda have this whole new impression of what
NBA players drink.
I was in Vegas about two years ago playing blackja-playing craps,'cause I'm not allowed
to play blackjack anymore. And Jalen Rose, who played in the NBA for about 56 different
teams, comes up to me and we start talking. And it turns out the two of us had a lot of
common friends 'cause he was trying to get into sports media and I was in sports media
at the time.
And he finally says to me, "Jeff, let's grab a drink together."
And I said, "Ok, Jalen, what do you want to drink?"
And he says, "Whatever you want to drink."
And so I have one, being a data driven guy, I have one data point. And that is that John
Starks drinks Merlot. So I'm like I wonder what NBA players drink.
He goes, "Like whatever you want to drink just order it."
So now I have rap videos, visions of rap videos going through my head and I turn to the waitress
and I say, "Give us two glasses of Courvoisier." I didn't even know what Courvoisier is.
So the waitress starts to walk away and Jalen Rose, who has like nine-foot long arms grabs
her and goes, "[WHISPERING VOICE] Excuse me ma’am. Could you make mine an apple martini?"
So, he's like 6'9" ordering an apple martini. So now I think any of you guys that are like
closet apple martini fans you can actually drink apple martini and be ok with it now;
you can say, "Jalen Rose does it. So it's cool."
So anyway, so back to John Starks. John Starks is-goes through this kind of transformation
that I'm sure many of you guys have seen your friends go through at a casino. Where they
start as this normal, intelligent human being and then all of a sudden after five or six
hours become this drunk, degenerate gambler. And that’s what happened to poor John.
So John takes his last $500 chip out, puts it down on the betting circle and the dealer
deals him an eleven. And the dealer has a six up. So all you guys that play blackjack,
what do you do there?
>>MALE VOICE: You double down.
>>JEFF: Double down, right! Which means he needs to put another $500 chip down but, unfortunately,
poor John doesn't have one. So I flip him a $500 chip from my stack and I say, "Pay
me back when you win."
The dealer gives him a five to make 16 and John looks at me and he goes, "Man, you just
jinxed me!"
I said, "It's ok, John, ‘cause I'm counting cards so I know that there's still a pretty
good chance that the dealer's gonna bust. I think you'll still win."
The dealer gives him-the dealer flips a 10 to make 16 and then gets another 10 to make
26. Bust. There's much rejoicing.
John pushes me back my $500 chip. Not a word of thank you. And at that moment, I decided
that I would never have John Starks on my fantasy basketball team.
I really showed him.
So, I'd like to talk about and this is from the first chapter of my-of my new book.
The most important lesson I ever have learned at the blackjack table. And it comes from
Caesars Palace. I was 22 years old.
I walk up to the table and I'm using math. Again, to basically-I'll explain this all
later and and most of you guys probably understand the concept. But I'm using math to beat the
casino, so every decision I make is governed by math. It's completely 100% objective.
So I walk up and I bet two hands of $10,000 and the first hand I get an 11. On the second
hand, I get a pair of nines. And the dealer has a six up. So what do we do when an 11
gets a six? We...
>>JEFF: ...We double down, again.
So I put another $10,000 down and I get a seven on that to make eighteen.
Then I split the nines, ok, and I lay two on the first one.
>>JEFF: So I've got to double again. Put another $10,000 down, and I do. And then, on the last
nine, and I get, I think, a eight on that to make 19 and on the last nine I get a ten
to make 19.
So how much money do I have on the table?
>>VOICE: 50
>>JEFF: $50,000. The dealer flips a-has a six, flips a five to make eleven. And then
gets a-a-a-a-a ten to make 21.
And I lose $50,000. And this woman behind me shrieks, "Oh, my God! That's my entire
mortgage!" And I want to turn around and go. "Where the hell do you live?"
'Cause we don't live in a place where there’s $50,000 mortgages, unless you're in a cardboard
box in the Tenderloin.
But again, very focused on the math, very focused on objective data to make decisions,
so now the objective data tells me to bet three hands of $10,000. So I do.
And I get a nine on the first hand, a 19 on the second and an ace four on the third hand.
And the dealer has a five up.
Ok, now, again, basic strategy. As Cliff mentioned is this role well played out, well simulated
matrix of decisions that tells you what to do in every situation. And there's no-there's
no obje-there’s no subjectivity in playing blackjack.
It's really funny because I'll stand behind my friends now, 'cause I'm not allowed to
play blackjack. And they're all pretty smart friends and we'll be sitting there havin'
a beer and I'll be like the old guys from the Muppets just making fun of ‘em when
they play blackjack.
But they'll turn around and they'll ask me. They'll be like, “Hey, I've got this hand-I've
got this against this, and the dealer has that-What should I do?”
And I'll tell them.
And they'll go, “Eh, well." And they'll go and do their own thing. And they'll lose.
Right and then I'll look at them and go, "Why do you bother asking me for advice if you’re
not gonna listen?"
So nine against a five, right, you double. All right. So I put another $10,000 down.
An ace four against a five is another doubling hand so I have to put another $10,000 down.
I do.
I get a four on that to make 19 and the dealer has a five up. So here I am with my chance
to win back that $50,000 or to lose two of the woman behind me houses. So again, one
of those moments where you kind of say, “How in the world did I get here?" Well, I was.
If this advances, I can tell you what I was.
I was - graduated from MIT in 1994 with a Mechanical Engineering major, which I've used
nothing of in my life.
And then did this like incredible rebellion against the world of engineering. And instead
of going to medical school, went into the world of finance.
In the interim, this whole internet thing started. And these days people don't depict
the internet this way, but it used to be depicted always as this big cloud, and that's what
the internet looks like in case you're wondering.
And then I went on to start three companies the last of which was called Citizen Sports.
And just sold that to Yahoo actually three-three months ago.
And decided I didn't want to work there as part of the deal so I am now just out promoting
my book.
But during that whole time, I was a professional card counter and I played blackjack for a
And I like to actually make this reference to the guy who invented the internet which
is important that we all refer to him; 'cause now we can say that Al Gore has invented two
things-one good, one bad. He invented the internet which is good-none of us would have
jobs if he hadn't done that. And then he invented global warming-which has been bad for us.
Come on that's funny. No one ever laughs at that joke anymore. Maybe that joke is too
far for people now. They don't remember that-anyways.
So what is a professional blackjack player?
This first thing that people say is, "Isn't that illegal?"
And it's actually been tried and I have a whole passage in the book.
'Cause people always wonder why it isn't illegal or why- It’s just using your brain to beat
a game.
It's like- What´s your name?
>>JEFF: Mike. Say Mike and I are playing Monopoly together all the time. And I always buy Boardwalk
and Park Place. And he buys the crappy utilities. And one day he just throws the board up in
the air and says, "This should be illegal!"
It's just using your brain to beat a game to be better than someone at a game.
So Mike, just get better at Monopoly and stop complaining.
So the second thing that people always say is, "Are you banned from Vegas?"
And believe it or not there is not someone who waits for me at the jet way of McCarran
Airport when I get off and says, “Excuse me, Mr. Ma, you have to turn around and go
I'm just not allowed to play blackjack.
Actually, a pretty funny story from the filming of the movie. Now, you guys that have seen
the movie know I'm in the movie, right. Nod. Pretend you remember. Otherwise it's really
sad for me. [AUDIENCE LAUGHS] Yes.
Ok, so this is always very sad for me. Because people never remember. I am a dealer in the
movie, named Jeffery. The person who plays me walks up to me and says Jeffery my brother
from another- I have a couple of witty lines a sad card, nominated for a new academy award.
Best actor in a movie that's about themselves, that's in the movie for less than five minutes.
But that scene which is literally about five minutes long, I-I was out there filming for
three days. And it's not ‘cause I was messing up my lines. It's because you talk about an
inefficient industry-movie making is completely inefficient.
So I'm out there filming my scene and one day the cast turns to me and they go, "Hey,
Jeff, I think it'd be really fun if we all go to dinner tonight."
So we go and we head to dinner. On the way over to dinner, Kate Bosworth pulls me aside.
And if any of you guys know what Kate Bosworth looks like, when she pulls you aside, you’re
like, “Kate, yes, what would you want? What can I do for you?"
So Kate says to me, she says, "You know what I think would be really fun?"
And I said, "What?"
And she said, "After dinner let's all go play blackjack."
And I said, "Kate, I don't think this is gonna happen. They know who I am. They're not gonna
let me play blackjack.”
She said, "It's ok. You'll be with me. I'm a big star. They won't bother you."
And I'm like, "Kate, it's been a long time since "Blue Crush". I don't know what a big
star you are anymore."
But what seemed like this horrible idea, after about four or five bottles of wine later,
seemed like this great idea. And after dinner, we're rolling up stairs to the casino at the
top of the Palms, the Playboy Casino.
And I set down at the table and the floor person looks at me, he goes, "Jeff, what are
you doing?"
I said, "I'm here. I'm playing blackjack with Kate Bosworth of "Blue Crush". Big star, no
big deal, right."
And he said, "Let me check."
And he calls upstairs, and comes back to the table and he goes, "Not only are you not allowed
to play, but if your little friend, Kate's, at the table you're not allowed to be within
20 feet of the table."
And so this was cool because it made Kate think I was like this-you know- she thought
I was so cool after that. And so she went and told everyone on set the next day how
cool I was. And if any of you guys watch "Seinfeld", it's like when George tries to be a bootlegger
and like he's this really bad dude.
Anyways, sorry, sorry for the non sequitur, but the whole point is I'm not banned from
Vegas; they just don't let me play blackjack.
And then the final thing is they say, "Remind me never to play poker with you."
And this is interesting because it actually is a real-it really kind of is a lead in to
why I wrote "The House Advantage", my new book.
Because blackjack is this perfect petri dish for using analytics. Imagine that you could
model situations and always know how the person you were modeling or playing against was gonna
act. You always knew perfectly.
In poker, you don't, right. In poker, you can make absolutely the right call all the
time and then some idiot decides to go all in on a pair of twos. And you just -- a two
pops up and they get lucky and you lose.
And the same thing's true of the market, right. You know people think that it's smart to keep
lending a million dollar mortgage to farm workers who make $12,000 a year and think
that's a good investment decision from a mortgage standpoint.
I mean people act irrational, and blackjack is not that way, because you only play against
the dealer and you know at all times how the dealer's going to act so you can model the
situan per-situation perfectly.
So what makes blackjack beatable? Well, blackjack is the only game in the casino that's subject
to something called "conditional probability."
If you contrast blackjack to roulette-
And one of my favorite stories from roulette and it's in "The House Advantage".
Is this time that I went to Vegas with my friend, Brian, and this is after the whole
blackjack thing was done for me. And I walked up to the blackjack table and Brian actually
asked me to sorta coach him to play blackjack. So I was kinda sitting next to him, just tellin'
him what to do. And over about two hours we won a couple thousand dollars.
So it's Friday night in Vegas, and I'm like, “Let's go spend the money somewhere.”
So we get up and we start walking over to go cash out the chips and all of a sudden
Brian disappears. And I'm like, “Where did Brian go?"
And all of a sudden I hear, "$1000 on black."
I look up. There's Brian. I walk over to the roulette table and Brian's setting there and
before I can say anything the roulette wheel spends and it's, "14 red."
Brian loses $1000.
I go to grab Brian and I'm pretty happy that he's only lost a $1000 and he's still up a
$1000. And I can explain to him that roulette is the most horrible game you can play in
the casino.
And he looks at me and before I can grab him, I hear him say, "$1000 on black."
And I say, "Brian, what are you doing?"
He says, "Don't you see what is happening here?"
And I said, "No."
And he points up to this magical sign above the roulette wheel. And this magical sign
has the result of the last 20 spins. And the last seven now have been red. So in Brian’s
mind, black is a sure thing.
And I say, "Brian, that's not true."
And he goes, "Listen. I know you know blackjack and statistics. But this is roulette. And
this is gambling, and I know gambling."
Well, we all know that-the flaw in his logic, right. Every spin of that roulette wheel is
independent. And I walked away. And the whole "fool and his money are soon parted." Well,
he was the fool and his money parted. And an improbable three more reds in a row, Brian
was out $4000 now and down $2000 for the night and we no longer had any money to spend at
the club. But no worries. Anyways.
So the point is that roulette every spin is independent and the same thing is true of
craps. Right, every roll of the dice is independent.
But, in blackjack, if I take all four aces out of a deck of cards, hand you that deck
of cards, what do you think the chances of you dealing yourself blackjack are?
Mike, what do you think the chances are?
>>Mike: Don't know.
>>JEFF: Zero, Right. There's no more aces left. Good luck dealing yourself blackjack
with no aces in the deck, right. So blackjack is the only game where what you see impacts
what you're going to see.
There is a professor, by the name of Ed Thorpe, and he wrote a book called, Beat the Dealer.
But, in the-in the early days, ok, and this is in the 1960's, Ed Thorp was a grad student
at UCLA. And he, -- his wife wanted to go on a vacation. So he had this idea of going
on a vacation with his wife to Vegas. And the thing with really smart odds people is
they don't want to gamble because they know the odds are always against them.
So Ed Thorpe did not want to gamble in Vegas. He just wanted to take advantage of the buffets
and the pool and the shows. And so he's like thinking about heading to Vegas and not gambling.
And then all of a sudden, before he goes, this guy hands him a research paper that had
just been done by these army technicians where they used hand-held calculators. 'Cause remember
this is in the 1960's. It's not like people are floating around with laptops back then.
And this-this-this-this thing basically told him -- this paper told him that there was
an optimal strategy for blackjack, which is this basic strategy thing that I've already
alluded to. And what it said was that if you did this correctly, your odds against the
casino were about even.
So he took this little piece of paper and he walked into the casino and he sat down
at the table.
And this is a guy, Ed Thorp, that wrote "Beat the Dealer". He then wrote a book called "Beat
the Market". He started the first quantitative hedge fund. Has made hundreds of millions
of dollars but he tells this story to me like it's his proudest moment.
He goes, "Jeff, I started with $10 at that table and you know how much I walked away
And I'm like, "I don't know. Like 100,000; 10,000?"
And he's like, "$1.50."
And I'm like, "Really."
But he's like, "But I outlasted everyone at that table and they all thought I was crazy."
So, this was the moment that he realized that blackjack might indeed be beatable.
And so what he did is he took this knowledge with him to MIT and he applied it. And he
had one of the first computers ever, an IBM 704 computer, and actually did simulations
on blackjack where he simulated a deck of cards with no twos in it, with no threes,
with no fours.
And what he found is that the high cards- 10's, face cards and aces- are valuable for
the player. Meaning, when there's a lot of those left, it's good for the player.
The low cards- two, three, four, fives, and six-are bad for the player. So when those
are gone, that's good for the player. Ok, and then we just created- and he created this
really simple way of tracking the cards by lumping them into these buckets.
And so what this does is this tells you what your odds of winning are. You know when there's
a lot of tens left, your odds of winning go up. And that means you bet more. When your
odds of winning go down, you bet less or you don't play at all. And this is really this
sort of fundamental lesson of blackjack.
And this is why-why I say, "How is Google like card counting?"
Right, and the reason is, is that Google in a lot of ways is all about data.
And it's all, I don't have to tell you -- I mean you guys tell me what Google’s really
about, but when I look at Google from the outside, I think that a lot of it's about
data and it's a lot about using the past to predict the future, right -- the better algorithms
and what not-and that's really what card counting was.
This quote from this French philosopher, sort of in poet, "History teaches everything, including
the future." Is the key to card counting. It's using data from the past to predict the
And so many industries would be well served to think about business that way right now
and that's at the core of sort of why-why I wanted to write the book.
So when you, when you have at the core this sort of idea of using data and analytics behind
you, it helps you make difficult decisions.
So, proof to you guys that I was actually in the movie. That's me Jeffery, the dealer.
What's sad about this is I had a name tag as a prop and they actually spelled my name
wrong. So I'm not Jeffrey, J-e-f-f-r-e-y, the dealer; I’m Jeffery, J-e-f-f-e-r-y.
But anyway so. Why I have this up here is to remind myself and you guys of one of the
most difficult decisions I've ever made.
Okay. And how many of you guys play blackjack?
So only about half of you guys.
So you're not-this'll be-this’ll be a little bit difficult for you guys to understand but
I walk up to a table and this a-a probably about a year and a half into my playing and
I had just learned something called numbers plays which is an advanced way. It's almost
like an advanced strategy.
It's a way of actually varying what you do at the table based on knowledge of how many
tens and low cards are left. So I walked up to the table and the count. My team mates-basically,
the whole idea of the cloak and dagger thing where Kate Bosworth folds her arms and-.
Well, I walk up to the table and the math tells me to bet two hands of $8000. So I do.
I bet two hands of $8,000.
The first one I get blackjack and on the second one I get a pair of tens and the dealer has
a six up. So the blackjack I get paid $12,000. OK, Great. All rejoicing.
The pair of tens, I actually have the opportunity to split but no one in their right mind splits
tens with $50 on the table let alone $8,000. But, actually, the math called for me to split
And let me explain to you the math behind it. Imagine you're tracking tens and low cards.
And imagine that you know that pretty much every card that you're not seeing is a ten.
And if you have a pair of tens against a six wouldn't you want to split those. Wouldn't
that give you a higher expected value? So that’s what I did.
So I turn to the floor-the woman and she's like looking at me like I'm crazy. And I said,
"I think I want to split those."
And she says, "Excuse me, you want to what?"
I said, "I think I want to split those."
And, literally, there’s four people at the table, all stare up at me and if they were
packing heat, I would have been dead right then.
But the dealer gives me a nine to make 19 and then gets an ace and then gives me an
ace on the second one to give me 21.
So, I'm feeling pretty good about myself but I still needed the dealer to bust, otherwise,
probably won't walk away from the table alive.
The dealer flips a ten to make 16 and gets a ten to make 26. I win. I grab my chips and
I run away from the table basically, 'cause I knew that they were going to be pissed off
at me.
But as I walked away from the table I thought a lot about why that was such a hard decision
for me. And there's a lot of reasons why that was hard for me.
And if you think about them in terms of business stance, it’s one of the reasons why it's
so hard to make difficult decisions in general.
One was something called group think. OK. So many of the decisions that you make in
life are influenced by people around you and they don't need to be.
Everyone at that table thought I was an idiot for splitting those tens. Right, there's,
to a man they thought I was idiots. And this was a $500 table. So they all had real money
out there. And all probably thought they knew a lot about blackjack.
But I had to like divorce myself from the-from the feelings of wanting to just assuage them,
you know. And just go with it and split them.
The second thing is actually a-a cognitive bias. Are you guys familiar with the any sort
of behavioral economics or behavioral finance stuff that's done?
Any of you guys read Dan Ariely's work and "Predictably Irrational"?
The classic way of looking at economics is that people are rational. People always make
the right decision. But the reality is, people aren't.
And, in fact, there is something called, "Loss Aversion", where we're more impacted by a
loss than we are by a gain of equal amounts.
It's the reason why when Google's stock was shooting up. You know, back in the day, that
people kept, every time you guys kept kicking butt, they still sell because they were afraid
of losing the money that they had gained already. It would go up more and they'd be really pissed
off that they sold.
In general, it's the reason that people are risk adverse. It's something called, "Loss
And for me having that 20, and when people have 20, they already bank that as a win.
And they don't want to give up the opportunity to make more money.
But if you think about the way that-and not-not to talk about-I don't know do you guys consider-
I guess you consider Facebook a competitor for sure, no, maybe, I don't know.
Anyways, I was speaking at Facebook and I-I mentioned this story and I said, "You guys,
are you gonna take the exact same risks now?"- And I spoke at that day, the day had 500 million-they
got 500 million users. "Are you going to take the same risks today?"
And someone from the executive team was standing in the back and he said, "Absolutely, we're
gonna take the same risks"; because they're not loss averse.
And I'm sure you guys are not loss averse as a company. You're thinking about how do
we continue to grow the business, not how do we try to protect and defend.
The other kind of bias that actually comes into play is something called "omission bias"
or "inactivity bias". And so in blackjack, what's interesting is-is people make mistake-so
many mistakes when they play blackjack. And they make a lot of mistakes based on inactivity
versus activity.
So think about it. You have 15 and the dealer has a 10 up. What do you guys do in that situation?
You hit, right.
'Cause there's a good chance they got 20, but a lot of people will stand on that. 'Cause
15 they're worried that they're going to get a 7, an 8, a 9, a 10 and bust, right.
And that's something called, "Omission Bias."
People favor maintaining status quo versus making an active decision.
I always kinda allude this to-like to take it totally out of the realm of business and
out of sports or out of gambling-to that friend of yours that you know is in this horrible
And e-and then they-they everyday they don't-they stay in that relationship, right, because
they just don't want to make the active decision of breaking up with them. Because the idea
of staying in this relationship is easier, right. Maintaining status quo is easier.
So when you think about making decisions as we did in blackjack, you have to think about
inactivity and activity equally.
So as I thought about this whole thing I was reminded- How many of you guys are sports
fans. All right, so a handful of you, again.
There's a guy by the name of Bill Belichick, who made this really difficult decision with
the New England Patriots. He got a sort of killed about it. Anyways at the end of the
day, it was an okay decision but it didn't work.
And I was talking to a very famous sports writer by the name of Bill Simmons about it.
And Bill and I were talking about the decision. And he was getting frustrated with me because
I thought I was right and he thought he was right. In the end, he looks at me and he goes,
"Well, Jeff, you know what. It was the wrong decision. We know that."
And I said, "How do we know that, Bill?"
And he said, "'Cause it didn't work."
But you guys laugh. But, I mean, in his mind, bad outcome meant bad decision.
And that's not true, right. A bad decision doesn't always necessarily mean a bad outcome.
And separating the outcome from the decision was an important thing that we learned in
You can make the right decision all the time, but still lose if you just happen to get unlucky
and the dealer got a five to make 21.
So why make difficult decisions?
Don't end up like this guy. You wanna end up like this guy instead.
Okay, and Sean Payton-What's interesting about Sean Payton-Now, how many of you guys watched
the Super Bowl? [PAUSE]
So you guys all know the really, really crazy thing Sean Payton did, right? He decided to
go for an onside kick at the beginning of the second half.
Ok and for those of you guys that don't follow football, onside kick is this really risky
thing. You basically kick the ball short and, if your team's able to recover it, you get
the ball. But, if not, the other team gets the ball in much better field position.
And this is a really risky thing 'cause, over the course of history of football, only 25%
of onside kicks are recovered by the home t-by the team kicking it.
But what no one in mainstream media-no one talked about, was that a surprise onside kick,
which this was, is recovered 60% of the time by the kicking team.
So that even though, this was like a big risk by Sean Payton. If he had done this 1,000
times his team would have gotten the ball 600.
So how risky was it really?
So-o-o-o, what's kinda interesting about this whole Sean Payton and Bill Belichick thing,
just to get out of sports now, is it actually highlights sort of this thing -- the reason
that we use analytics and the reason that I've used analytics is that I believe it helps
you win more often and teams help-it helps, it just makes your company win, makes your
team win.
But wha-what's interesting about coaches and professional teams-and I was talking to Daryl
Morey, who's the General Manager for the Houston Rockets, about this. And I was kinda like
bitchin’ to him about how "coaches make all these bad decisions". Why do they do this?
They make decisions that don't help them ultimately win.
And he said, "You know what, 'cause their ultimate goal is not necessarily to win."
And I said, "Really! How's that possible?"
And he said, "Actually their first goal is self-preservation. They wanna keep their job."
And if they do something that is so- there's a-there's a philosopher, or sorry, economist
named John Maynard Keynes. And he has this great quote that says, "History would teach
us that it's better to fail unconv-fail conventionally than it is to succeed unconventionally."
And just this idea that you need to sorta go with the flow, and that's what these coaches
were doing. So it's, what I think and there's actually a chapter in the book. How many-has
anyone read "The House Advantage" yet?
So, there's-there's a chapter in there that actually talks a little bit about Google.
And it talks about Tom Wu, who anyone of you gu-guys know Tom Wu, he's in your sort of
HR Compensation Plan Department.
And he talked all about the way you guys work hard to try to create aligned incentives within
your compensation programs.
And that's like what people need to do, because in blackjack we had a really, really great
si-set of aligned incentives.
We had this pile of cash and chips that we tried to grow into a bigger pile of cash and
chips. OK, and that's how simple it was.
Actually, people always ask me, "What was the most money you ever made in a weekend?"
And the most money we ever made in a weekend was $450,000. And at the end of the weekend,
myself and a coup-one of my other buddies, Wes, were sitting at the Mirage pool with
all of the money that we had in a duffel bag. And the reason we do that is that we didn't
want to leave the bag up in our room, and it was too big to put in the safe, so we have
it down at the pool under a lawn chair in this ratty duffel bag. No one knows what's
in it. So I turn to Wes and I say, "Wes, do you think we can just leave this bag here
and maybe go for a swim?"
And he looks at me and he goes, "Uh-h-h, well, how much is in there?"
And I said, "Well it's the money we won-$450,000, and the money we brought out here- $540,000.
So it's about $990,000."
And he says, "I don't see why we can't leave it. It's not like it's a million dollars."
So, we have this sort of real common set of incentives and I think that in business that's
so important. And if you read Michael Lewis' new book "The Big Short" what he talks all
about is how the mortgage crisis so much of it was caused by people having misaligned
incentives. And I applaud the work that you guys do on your compensation plans for trying
to strive so much for aligned incentive.
Soooo. [PAUSE]
OK, My four keys to making better decisions; and this is sort of a recap of what we just
talked about.
One, that realize that decisions are everywhere. This idea of omission by us, or not wanting
to make a decision that should be the same weight as actually making the decision.
Evaluate decisions from a true zero frame of reference.
So this’ll help you avoid that idea of loss aversion, right. Instead of thinking about
like, ok, I’d already won $5,000 maybe I’ll just kind of quit right now. Well, no, your
company will never get bigger if you think that way.
Oops. [PAUSE]
Imagine you’re to make a decision millions of times. So in the Sean Payton example that
we talked about, instead of him thinking about that one play, think about, "Well if I did
this a thousand times, how many times will it work?"
You need to, like let’s say that Mike, I know you're sitting in the front row, just
shouldn’t have done it, so; let’s say that we’re gonna play a game you and I,
We flip a coin. If it’s heads, I’m gonna give you a million dollars. If it’s tails
you give me a $100,000. Ok, right.
You’re psyched on that, but let me pre-empt-le-I’ve got five goons behind me. And if you lose,
you gotta pay me right now. They’re going to go with you to whatever bank you’re at,
whatever place you’re at and you gotta pull that $100,000 out and hand it to me today;
otherwise, they’re going to rough you up. But you only get to play once. Do you want
to play that game still?
Ok, now let me say that you have a line of credit with me. And you can play that game
as many times as you want and you can settle whenever you want. Now do you want to play
that game? Absolutely, right?
And so the decision is much easier when you get to make it millions of times than it is
to do it just once.
So try to think about decisions and try to put yourself into positions where you get
to make good decisions millions of times.
And the final thing is this idea, this Bill Simmons story, right. Don’t confuse the
outcome with the decision.
A bad outcome doesn’t necessarily mean a bad decision. And that's the best way to think
about it as you evaluate decisions you make in your life or in your business whether they're
good or not, right. Don’t think about, ok, it’s just worked.
This guy was telling me he works for a hedge fund, right. And he says his hedge fund manager,
the guy that he works for does not believe in this, right. He believes that good decision-good
outcome always means good decision.
He was telling this story, actually, what’s funny, where he was trying to buy Google,
I think. And he mistyped the ticker symbol and didn’t notice and bought some other
stock that went up 60% in like two days. And claimed that that was a good decision, ‘cause
it was a good outcome, as crazy as that sounds.
So let’s go back to my defining moment-my big lesson.
Oh, this slide just gets all screwed up now. I’ve gotta fix it. Anyways, this kind of
gave it away.
But, basically, I had, recap, I had $50,000 on the table, the dealer had a 5 up. I’m
about to win back this money, this woman’s house, that she had lost-“oh, my mortgage.”
The dealer flips a 10 to make a 15 and then gets a 6 to make 21. And I remember thinking
to myself- well, first of all I was 22 years old. Just lost $100,000. Sick to my stomach.
I walk upstairs to my room at Caesars Palace. Collapse on the floor, stare up at the ceiling,
wondering to myself, "Why is there a mirror up there?" And then once I got over that.
[Audience Chuckles]
Well, I was 22 no idea why there’s a mirror there. And so once I got over that, I’m
like "Do people get ready like this? How do they do this?"
[Laugh from Audience]
So once I got over that, I-I started thinking about all those lessons that I had just talked
about, right.
I thought about loss aversion.
I thought about the idea of making a decision million of times.
I thought about had I made the right decision and just suffered a bad outcome.
And I realized that that-that was true.
And I thought about all this that I believed in, in terms of numbers and analytics and
And I really believed that I had made the right decision. So I went back down and I
kept playing.
And for the weekend, I won back that $100,000 I’d lost and I won an additional $70,000.
So I ended up plus $70,000 for the weekend.
And, if I had quit, a lot of this would never have happened to me.
I mean, I certainly wouldn’t be considered this data expert.
And I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.
And never would have had a movie or a book written about me.
And I wouldn’t have been able to write my new book, "The House Advantage".
So thanks for the time.
Do we have questions? I’m gonna put my mike up here now so that people can get the mike
and then I’m gonna just stand by the podium.
>>YOUNG MAN: Ah, So when you talk about decision making in blackjack, from an objective point
of view, you have the numbers, and there’s always a right decision, right.
>>JEFF: Uh huh.
>>YOUNG MAN: But in business and, um, and in poker for example, you have the incomplete
set of information, right.
And a lot of times like- like you said you lose your $100,000 here but to you, you can
rationalize it to yourself that, oh, you made the right decision mathematically.
But in business and in poker a lot of times you think you made the right decision.
>>JEFF: Right.
>>YOUNG MAN: But you don’t actually know.
>>JEFF: Right
>>Young Man: So how do you deal with that kind of uncertainty?
>>JEFF: Well man, I think you need to-need to be able to do things enough times that
you can decide whether it was the right decision or not.
So, I think that'sa really good point. Which is ultimately-how do you avoid having like
confirmation bias where you look back on something and you go, “God, I think that was the right
So in blackjack, if you think about it, we have this played out and simulated so many
time that we knew it was the right decision.
So you have to create a framework that you’re certain that your decisions are correct, and
not just rely on outcomes. Does that make sense?
>>YOUNG MAN: Yeah.
>JEFF: And the thing with poker and the market and everything is that you’re never gonna
be able to reach the certainty that we did in blackjack.
You’re gonna just to try to improve. So all you wanna do is make sure that whatever
analytics or whatever framework you’re using improves your ability to make decisions. So
now that’s the only level that you need to feel competent.
And honestly, if you do something a million times-if you do something a hundred times
and it keeps not working or a thousand times and it keeps not working, it probably wasn’t
a good decision in the first place.
>>YOUNG MAN: That’s so.
>>JEFF: You have to be pretty objective with yourself though. Yeah.
>>MAN: Yeah, Hi. Thanks, thanks again for coming out here…
>>JEFF: No problem.
>>MAN: and speaking to us. I just wanted to ask you- now that the houses at a lot of these
casinos have gotten a lot smarter and started to add more decks to the shoes, do you think
it’s still possible to beat the house or…?
>>JEFF: You know it’s a lot harder in blackjack, and certainly like our movie, our book and
this book don’t really help. But, it’s -- the thing about the casinos is that the
reason that blackjack is beatable and the reason that blackjack became popular was because
it was a game that could be beaten.
So it’s always gonna be beatable because that’s what makes it popular and they’re
always gonna offer a version of it that’s gonna be beatable. It’s just harder to beat
than it used to be.
You just have to find your niche. What you can’t do like a big team anymore with hundreds
of thousands of dollars. You could probably go in as an individual betting thousands of
dollars and be ok.
Other questions? [PAUSE]
Anyone? Come on you guys must have some questions?
Don’t you wanna know if I ever really got beat up?
Don’t you know how it was like having a white guy playing me? I mean these are all
the standard questions. Like I can start asking them myself.
Yeah, go ahead.
MAN: So you talked a little bit about having an argument with Bill Simmons about a football
>>JEFF: Uh huh
>>MAN: What exactly was the decision and what were the-what was the frame of reference…
>>JEFF: …Oh, well…
>>MAN: …you…
>>JEFF: …was so…
>>MAN: …were using.
>>JEFF: …in that was, It was the-when the Patriots went for a fourth and two against
the Colts and they were at their own 29 yard line. They were up by six points and they
didn’t get it and then the Colts came down and scored and won the game.
And he got killed, Bill Belichick got killed by the mainstream media because they thought
it was absolutely the wrong decision. Now there is a lotta math and numbers that said
that it was the right decision.
And I’m not here to tell you guys that it was the right decision or the wrong decision.
What I’m saying is that it was a, probably, a difficult decision that he probably could
have been right. What I’m here to say is that it didn’t make it a bad decision because
it didn’t work, right. That’s my main point.
>>MAN: OK, thanks.
>>MAN: So you mentioned that people get mad at the blackjack table when you pull cards
when you’re not supposed to.
>>JEFF: Yeah.
>>MAN: Is there anything beyond superstitious to them?
>>JEFF: No
>>MAN: It’s like how do you explain to people that it really…
>>JEFF: There’s…
>>MAN: …doesn’t matter.
>>JEFF: There’s like this wonderful chapter in this new book called "The House Advantage"
about it.
No, I do talk about that and that’s, so what he’s referencing is that in blackjack
you only play against the dealer.
Ok, you don’t play against the other players.
Yet when you do something that people perceive to be wrong and it causes- Let’s say that
you have a 12 and the dealer has a six up and you decide to hit your hand and you get
a ten, right, and you bust. And the dealer flips his card, has 16 and gets a 5 and makes
21 and everyone loses, right.
The thought process is that you took the ten that was gonna keep the dealer from busting
so you cost the entire table.
But the problem with that is that the cards are in there are 100% completely randomly.
And you very well could have taken the six that the dealer needed to-or the five that
the dealer needed to make 21 and then ended up giving the dealer 10.
Now nobody ever remembers the times that people did things and it hurt them -- and it helped
them, right. People only remember the things-the times that people did things and it hurt them.
And that’s something called confirmation bias, Right. We’re all inclined to believe
things that support our hypothesis. It’s just easier.
It’s like the reason that there’s conspiracy theories. There’s this whole, there’s
going to be this whole section of my book where I made fun of Charlie Sheen, ‘cause
Charlie Sheen actually still believes.
Or-n-you can just go and it’s cool to say at Google. Just go home and Google this. I
have to say that’s cool. Sorry, that was just nerdy.
But go back and Google this which is to say that “Charlie Sheen Conspiracy Theory”
and you’ll see quotes from him where he says. "It looked too planned the way that
second tower went down almost it was like an internal demolition."
Or, he says things like, “They never found any plane parts at the Pentagon", even though
they did find plane parts at the Pentagon. So the concept is that he has this conspiracy
theory and he only wants to remember details that support his conspiracy theory.
And that’s true of people that believe that, right.
And what I would say to them is, “Listen. What I want you to do for the next year that
you’re playing blackjack I want you to take on your IPhone or whatever I want you to keep
running track of every time someone does something stupid and it hurts you and every time someone
does something stupid and helps you. And I bet after that year you’re gonna come back
and it’s gonna be 50-50.” So that’s what I would tell them.
>>MAN: How often will they do that?
>>JEFF: No one will do that.
But confirmation bias is fascinating because it-it-it’s not just the blackjack table.
It affects us all over the world, right.
It’s the reason why like, you know, there’s this guy -- I mentioned him earlier, Daryl
Morey, he’s the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, and he’s like telling me about
how important it is that he will only have people that work for him that are willing
to argue with him. ‘Because he doesn’t wanta be-have people that are there just confirming
whatever biases he has. It’s important.
>>MAN: Um, also, FYI I think actually Bill Simmons, I don’t know if you read the article
about that Bill Belichick incident afterwards but I think that he ended up agreeing with
you afterwards, so-
>>JEFF: He’s-he’s, yeah, I don’t wanta talk about Bill Simmons any more.
He's already gotten enough play on this.
>>MAN: Anyways yeah. So, there’s this thing that I guess in poker we call it emotional
tilt, right. It’s this situation where you understand…
>>JEFF: Right…, right…, right…
>>MAN: …you like make a right decision but you get the wrong result and you get this
kind a like huge like blow to your head where it’s like, God, like what the hell is that…
>>JEFF: It like emotional tilts in business…
>>MAN: …Right…
>>JEFF: …it’s in everything, right…
>>MAN: So…
>>JEFF: Sorry go ahead.
>>MAN: So like beyond kind of trying to stay objective, beyond looking at the numbers beyond
that, what do you think is like a real like tangible way you can deal with that?
>>JEFF: You can’t make emotional decisions if you really want to be successful. I mean,
there’s not a lot of people that make emotional decisions that are successful.
And the avoiding emotional tilt in life and in business and in blackjack or poker is really
important and that’s one of the things that using data and analytics to make decisions
it makes it easier for you to make unemotional decisions, because you’re not impacted by
what recently happened, because you’re not following a subjective framework. You’re
following an objective framework. And I-I-I think that’s-I think that’s really important.
Because there’s a scene in the movie "21" where the guy that plays me basically goes
on an emotional tilt and he loses hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And that scene is based on the story that I told you guys where I lost $100,000 in two
hands of blackjack. And when I read that script the first time I went to the screen writer
and I said. "You gotta take this out, ‘cause we never would have done this."
If someone went on an emotional tilt they were fired they were off our team. So, of
course, they don’t listen to me ‘cause they’re making a Hollywood movie but the
point is that that's just unacceptable. You can’t allow that to happen.
You had someone behind you.
>>Man: To sort of follow up on that question, what are the-what are the elements that cause
people to go into that emotional tilt, like on a casino floor or in a trading room…
>>JEFF: That’s a fascinating…
>>MAN: …in a…?
>>JEFF: That’s fascinating and honestly that’s something that I’ve been sorta
playing around with for my next book, if I do a next book -- which is just this idea
of the emotions that go behind us that make us make really bad decisions.
So like, there are a lot of really, really successful people in business that go to Vegas
and play games that they know they’re gonna lose, but they still do it. And I don’t
know why they do it. I don’t know, I mean, I honestly don’t know.
I would love-it’s a fascinating thing to think about, because if you could understand
that, you could: 1) help people make better decisions and 2) you could prey on that for
your own business [AUDIENCE CHUCKLES]to help them make bad decisions. So, it’s cool.
Did you have something in the back, the red shirt or?
>>MAN: And so a question that I think someone asked earlier about when you have incomplete
information. And you know that you don’t have enough information…
>>JEF: Right
>>MAN: …or all the information…
>>JEFF: Right
>>MAN: …And I guess recently there-there’s been some books or articles about like your
gut instinct…
>>JEFF: Right
>>MAN: and how that could be right because you’re assimilating information that you
don’t logically have, but you have…
>>JEFF: right
>>MAN: What are your thoughts on that?
>>JEFF: Yeah. I mean there’s a chapter in my book that’s entitled “The Brain Cells
in your Stomach” and it’s-it’s-it’s supposed to be talking about gut or intuition
or it’s supposed to kinda describe this new form of intuition, which is kinda like
what you’re saying, this idea that-that maybe your intuition is incorporating data
that you’re not conscious of.
Which is fine which is like a great way of thinking about things. But, I think the key
is that you understand that every successful decision that’s made has some form of data
behind it. It might not be data sitting in a spreadsheet, it might be in your brain and
it be-not even be totally data that you remember or understand, but it’s data nonetheless.
Because like the point of that chapter that I have is this-the last time I checked there’s
no brain cells in your stomach, right. And you can’t use your gut to actually make
a decision.
And I’m actually, like literally have in my bag a cop-a copy of "Blink", Malcolm Gladwell’s
book ‘cause I wanta reread it because when I remember reading it, it kinda drives me
crazy, right. This idea that people blink and they make these great decisions.
Well, that’s well and good but how in the world are we able to harness that or use that
in our lives? And I’d love to take him to task on that and try to get him to help me
to understand how that’s useful to me. So.
>>WOMAN: Ok, so did you really get beaten up and how bad did it get? And, also, did
you start the club at MIT or was it already there?
>>JEFF: No, it’s been around for a long time. You know, it’s one of those things
that the reason that I got well known is because I approached Ben Mezrich, who wrote "Bringing
Down the House", the original book and I told him I had this great story for him.
He was-had written only fictional books before and some would say he’s only written fictional
books since.
That’s a little inside joke about Ben and the flak he’s getting on his Facebook book.
But he had written six books before and they’re all fictional and I had this great story about
what we did playing blackjack.
Now none of us-neither of us thought the book was going to be big at all. And what’s actually
interesting is that in terms of the life is about preparation and luck and hopefully successes
comes from those two things. Well, this was a lot of luck.
It turned out that Kevin Spacey's right hand man read a wired out adaptation version of
the book before it even came out and called Ben and told him, "I really think that we-that
Kevin and I want to make this into a movie." So before the book even came out, it was going
to be made into a movie by Kevin Spacey.
And Ben was on the Today Show the first day the book came out. It went through the roof
on Amazon. All this kinda stuff. Anyways, so that’s how I ended up getting well known
in that equation. It wasn’t because I started the team.
I never really got beat up. There’s this-there’s this scene I describe in the new book about
getting chased off a riverboat in Shreveport, Louisiana, at gunpoint wondering to myself
if anyone's going to notice if an Asian dude disappears in Shreveport, Louisiana.
And it was a-it was-it was sorta fascinating time. The scariest thing probably that ever
happened to me was when I was screening the movie for the first time, Laurence Fishburne
was sitting right next to me in this like tiny little screening room and every time
his character hit my character he would stand up and cackle over me.
And I was just like, "Leave me alone, Morpheus. Go back to the-go back to the Matrix."
>>WOMAN: So did it in fact upset you to be portrayed as a white guy?
>>JEFF: You know what? It didn’t- it did and it didn’t. Now if any of you guys actually
think that I had any say in who cast me, you’re crazy. Because it’s not like I’m Lance
Armstrong, where people are gonna to go, “Ok, I know Lance Armstrong is not black.”
They’re not going to know that so I didn’t have a lot of say. And at the end of the day,
what I tried to do was be as complicit with the casino, with the, sorry, the studio as
possible so that they would make me part of their promotion. And they did.
They made me front and center for their promotion. I was on the second front page of USA Today;
I was on the Early Show on CBS. And that was my way of sort of representing to everyone
that the guy from "Bringing Down the House" was Asian-American.
If I had gone against them, they would have pushed me totally out and nobody would have
ever known. They probably would have taken Ben Mezrich out with them on their PR Tour.
So I’m pretty, pretty strong in my-in my roots and it’s not like I wanted to ever,
-- and the reason that I’m talking about this so much is because I did get a lot of
flak about it publically. It’s not like I had that much say and in the end I try to
do the best thing for myself and the movie and just my culture in general, I guess.
Alright, we’ll probably take one more if anyone has one more.
OK, if not, I’ll…
OK, sorry, go ahead.
>>MAN: Mike
>>JEFF: No problem.
>>MAN: So I know a lot of people have very, very strong opinions about LeBron James’
decision to join with you…
>>JEFF: Yeah!
>>MAN: …I just wanted to know, based on your thoughts on…
>>JEFF: Yeah.
>>MAN: …decision making. What do you think on his decision? And part two- Have you ever
talked to Bill Simmons about that?
>>JEFF: I have not talked to Simmons about it. Simmons like - the reason I’m mad at
Simmons is ‘cause I’m trying, I talked to him about my book back in February. He
thought it was like a great idea and he said, “Oh, I’d like really be interested in
reading that." And I’ve been trying to get him to read it and I haven’t been able to
get him to read it yet.
So that’s why I’m annoyed in full disclosure.
The second thing is that LeBron James --
It was a fascinating-it was a fascinating time. For two weeks, it was consuming so many
people and every-I was doing an interview with a- and not to like stereo type or profile
or anything- but with like a 65 year old woman on NPR in Boston and we started talking about
the book and then we mentioned sports. And she was like, “What do you think of LeBron
James?” And so all of a sudden we got on to LeBron James.
I think it was kind of a cowardly decision. I mean, I think that I kinda agree with Michael
Jordan’s words when he says like, “You're LeBron James and these people come to you.
You don’t come to them.”
But at the end of the day, there’s a lot of ways you can paint it.
I mean he wanted to go to play basketball with two of his friends who are really good,
and who can fault him for that?
In Miami versus Cleveland. Who can fault him for that? So, you know.
Ok, Sorry.
>>MAN: Do you think it was a good business decision?
>>JEFF: For him? I just don’t think that it matters, right.
He has so much money, like what’s the difference? I mean, you can play that out -- like there’s
all those ideas and I-I-I did about two different or three different interviews for different
ESPN and Sports outlets.
You know there’s no income tax, State income tax in Miami, there’s no-there’s all these
things, right. He’s probably spent so much money in bottle services in the clubs that
it probably was a bad financial decision, in South Beach, but. No, I mean, I don’t
know, I have no idea on that. So…
>>MAN: Cool.
>>JEFF: Thanks.
>>MAN: I just think when you were talking about the bias and how a lot of people say
that if he doesn’t win a ring then it was a bad decision, but…
Not necessarily.
>>JEFF: I don’t think he can say that.
[Chuckle from Audience] So…
>>Man: Alright. Thank you.
>>COMMENTATOR: Well, that was an outstanding talk and thank you very much for speaking
with us.
>>JEFF: Thanks guys.