Against All the Odds, He Writes With Authority on Gambling

Wyma is a Toluca Lake free-lance writer

When Matt Dillon shoots craps against Tommy Lee Jones in the upcoming movie "The Arm," viewers will see him coaxing Lady Luck with such shouts as "Come on, seven-eleven!" and, "Let's have a natural!"

What they won't see is a compact man with a silky gray beard standing just off camera, making certain the dice-shooting scenes are done authentically.

Filming now and set for release next year, "The Arm" is the 1950s-era story of a Midwestern boy (Dillon, star of "The Flamingo Kid") who has a knack for shooting dice. He goes to Chicago, where he wins everything in sight until Jones comes along. At stake in their rivalry is not only money, but also the affections of a character played by Diane Lane.

The technical adviser on the movie, the man hired to ensure that the craps scenes are realistic, is Ed Silberstang of Studio City. Author of 20 books on gambling and games, on-camera instructor of two videotapes on casino play, acquaintance of such gambling luminaries as Doyle (Texas Dolly) Brunson and gin rummy whiz Stu Ungar, Silberstang was a logical choice of film makers looking for a gambling consultant.

Was an Attorney

But Silberstang won't be drawing on first-hand experience when he describes how dice were shot in the '50s. At age 56, he is old enough to have played then. However, until his 40s, he was an attorney and then a novelist with nothing more than a casual interest in gambling. It was chance that led Silberstang into a career as an authority on gambling, a pursuit he otherwise disdains.

"In 1971, a friend of mine was going to Puerto Rico, where they have casinos, and he asked me to write a page on each of the games," Silberstang remembered. "Not an outline for a book, but just for his own use. He came back and said, 'That was very clear, why don't you do a book on games?' "

Silberstang, who at the time was living in New York and finishing his fourth novel, gave the gambling notes to his literary agent and forgot about the matter.

His agent asked Silberstang to write a sample chapter for a book on games that Playboy Press was interested in publishing. Silberstang got the assignment, did extensive research, and the result was the hefty "Playboy's Book of Games." Included were casino games, chess, hearts, rummy, Scrabble, horse betting--anything Silberstang could think of. The Book of the Month Club offered the guide as an alternate selection, giving it a two-page spread in its newsletter.

An Instant Authority

"Suddenly, this was a real big seller," said Silberstang. "Instead of 'Who are you?' I was now the authority."

During the last 16 years, Silberstang has lived in Las Vegas three times to research books, each stay lasting about 11 months. Most of the rest of the time he has spent in Studio City, where he made his home after his marriage broke up.

A long wave of growing interest in gambling has carried Silberstang along. When Playboy Press went out of business, other publishers picked up Silberstang's games guide. The book has gone through five editions, and he has a contract for a sixth with New American Library. He also has written books on sports betting, card games, backgammon and chess--20 titles in all.

"It's hard to get away from it now," he said. "I've got an offer for another blackjack book, but, well. . .," and he shrugged like a man who has had enough.

Silberstang would like to return to writing novels. He has done six to date, and he often teaches writing classes for the UCLA and USC extension programs.

"When I was an attorney, I had a storefront office in Brooklyn," he said, "and I did that for eight years until my second novel sold. I quit because my dream was to be a writer."

He believes it was his writing skill as much as his gambling knowledge that made the betting books successful. Much of the content of the books is straightforward explanation of how the games are played. Silberstang also includes sections on strategy, separating sucker bets from those that offer players a better chance.

Debatable Assertions

Experienced gamblers, however, might disagree with some of Silberstang's assertions. For example, in the summation of the craps section of "Winner's Guide to Casino Gambling" (New American Library), the author writes:

"Never forget these three rules for winning.

"1. Bring a sufficient bankroll to the table.

"2. Make only those bets that give the house a minimum advantage.

"3. Keep your self-control, whether winning or losing.

"With these three rules as your guideline you can't help but be a winner."

A member of Gamblers Anonymous, Johnny W. (G. A. tradition requests that last names not be used in the media), termed Silberstang's second and third rules a good guide for keeping losses to a minimum.

"But the key words here are 'house advantage,' because the house has the best of it every time the dice are rolled," he said. "Some bets are dumber than others, but there are no smart bets in the sense that you'll win over the long haul if you make them."

Silberstang writes that gamblers can win at craps by "raising your bets with the casino's money" during the table's "hot streaks." Johnny W. disagreed, saying, "Each roll is an independent event, and it isn't influenced by the previous roll. Patterns and hot streaks that you can depend on are an illusion."

But another Gamblers Anonymous member, Oscar K., said that Silberstang has a point.

Defying the Rules

"The hot table defies all rules," he said. "Tables do seem to go in patterns. To me, the key to winning at craps is to leave when you're ahead. But someone who's compulsive, like I am, will stay at the table too long."

Bob Baucom, dice pit boss at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, does not believe in hot tables.

"According to pure mathematics, the fact that a person has made three or four passes (winning rolls) in a row doesn't mean he's any more likely to make another one than if he's been cold," Baucom said.

"But there are a lot of people on both sides of the table who would tell you differently.

"Gambling in general is filled with superstition," he said. "We have people in management who believe certain stickmen (dealers) call hot hands. 'There's John,' they'll say, 'calling another hot hand. It's like clockwork with him. I don't know how we can keep him.' But over the long haul the mathematics say it's going to be the same for all stickmen."

Silberstang said he does not recommend dice as the game for a person intent on winning at a casino.

"My attitude is that I don't encourage craps," he said. "I believe it's a negative game. Someone who plays blackjack and learns how to count cards has a better chance. But, if you are going to play craps, play intelligently."

Silberstang said he doesn't care much for any form of gambling.

"After an hour at a poker table with that smoke and with the angry losers, I'm ready to leave. If people think that middle-level gamblers have a glamorous life, it's not. They all have stomach problems."

The elite of the gambling world, dispassionate men with a shark's taste for blood, may enjoy their lives, he said. But most people who want more from gambling than occasional recreation are locked in an unhappy struggle for survival.

Not Thrilled at Trend

"People who get excitement in life, who look forward to life, don't get involved in gambling," Silberstang said.

Gambling still is on the increase in America, he believes, and even though the trend may mean higher sales for his books, he is less than enthusiastic.

"Society has become very money-oriented," Silberstang said. "I see all these TV programs on how to buy a foreclosed house, but nothing on how to help the guy who was foreclosed on.

"I don't think Las Vegas is much different from the rest of the country, except outside Las Vegas there's a modicum of culture around it. I see in America a vast emptiness, a lack of purpose. The slogan might as well be, 'I want mine.' "

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