When the numbers don’t quite add up, casinos turn to Professor Bob Hannum

In the television show “Numbers,” a young math wizard runs around solving crimes for baffled police by scrawling mathematical formulas on a chalkboard. In real life, there’s a guy in Denver who actually does that – for casinos.

Professor Bob Hannum, Ph.D., was once the “mathematician-in-residence” at a major Las Vegas Strip resort. He shows up at casinos in Las Vegas now and then to teach a course named “Risky Business: Introduction to Gambling and Commercial Gaming.” And once he took the stand in a case to determine if a slot player could call himself a professional gambler.

I called Hannum at Denver University, where he’s a full professor, and asked him to send me his resume – something I could use to get an idea of exactly what he’s done. So this giant package arrives in the mail. Inside are page after page of degrees, honors, professional affiliations, new courses developed, volunteer work, and almost four pages alone of “Selected Presentations,” most of them on the casino business. You could hurt your back lifting it.

No wonder the guy is in demand by the press. He’s had articles or quotes in every newspaper from USA Today to the Las Vegas Sun and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He’s been interviewed on CBS-TV, NBC-TV, NPR, the BBC and CBS nationwide radio.

So what about the slot player who wanted to call himself a professional gambler?

“In tax law,” said Hannum, “if you’re a professional gambler you might pay a little less income tax. If you’re not a pro, you pay more. This man wanted to pay less. I testified as an expert witness, and told them that a slot machine is a negative expectation game – meaning that mathematically, it makes no sense to call yourself a professional because there’s no expectation of positive profit.”

Okay, so one down. Next case.

“A German online casino called me. They had a roulette player up by $750,000 and were a little concerned, so they asked me to check the math. He won almost $2 million, and the outcome looked unlikely, but not one-in-a-billion improbable based on the number of spins and the amounts he bet. He had more than 3,000 spins and was betting all over the layout. At one point he had as much as 100,000 Euros on the table.”

Hannum says that might sound like a very easy solution, but it was also “an extremely interesting analysis that required new mathematics.” I started to ask him for an explanation of the new math he used. Then I thought, “Naw.”

Here comes another slot call. A series of machines had paid out more on certain bonuses and jackpots than expected. In rushed Hannum. “I worked some long hours on the problem,” Hannum said, “and in the middle of it they just decided to drop it. Not sure why.”

I count more than 30 casinos, manufacturers and state gaming commissions on Hannum’s resume, not to mention AT&T and Ford. He’s a member of the International Masters of Gaming Law and has written two books (One on casino math is in its second edition). So I asked him why he doesn’t have his own TV series, solving murders with mathematics like “Numbers.” He says he’s probably too good-looking to be on television – and besides, he’d change “Numbers” to a series about gambling and casino games.

On his off days, he’s troubleshooting casino problems – like the joint with a player who won $9 million at blackjack.

“They called me in for a brief analysis of volatility in blackjack,” Hannum said. “I worked on the math of the game, and what the casino expects to win. One player winning $9 million was very unusual, but not out of the question with the size of the bets he made.”

I asked him if he’d ever solved a problem where common sense prevailed over math.

“Common sense?” said Hannum. “I’ve heard about that. But after you see the math, it becomes clear that what you thought was ‘common sense’ was flawed. You usually wind up saying something like, ‘Of course!’”

Hannum likes casinos. And when he visits one for fun, he occasionally plays the slots. He knows the “negative expectation” when he picks out a dollar machine and takes a seat. He even knows the real cost of free play, promotional chips and coupons.

Hired to figure out the real cost to the house for all those game-starters, he computed that with house restrictions, a $5 non-negotiable coupon or chip can  – depending on the particular policies – cost the house about half its face value. Cost varies depending on the game.

As he solved casino math problems with ease, the media saw Hannum as an authority on casino gaming – someone who could tell them the whole truth. When several states considered the legalization of slots, more than a few reporters and columnists phoned him to get the ”real”  story on these, “unethical” new machines. The answers were unexpected

“I’m on the UNLV Web site so I get called all the time,” Hannum said. “Newspaper people know all the myths about slot machines, and some of them just refused to believe what I told them–especially that any given spin on a machine is unaffected by the previous spins. They’re the world’s hardest people to convince.”

Now here are a couple of, shall we say, insider tips on Hannum’s special abilities at poker. Is he a super player? I wouldn’t know. But I do know that he’s written and taught a college course named “The Art & Science of Poker.” It covers “the concepts, mathematics, theory and culture of the game.”

He also presented a paper he named, “Knowing When to Hold ’Em and When to Fold ’Em,” and another paper with Anthony Cabot they called, “Poker: Public Policy, Law, Mathematics and the Future of an American Tradition.”

The fact that he writes about poker doesn’t give you a clue about his ability to play the game.

But listen up, Hannum. If you ever invite me over to your place for a friendly game, fuhgeddaboudit.Columns