Edward O. Thorp is one of America’s most famous, and most scholarly gamblers. An American born in August 14th 1932 in Chicago Illinois, he graduated with a PhD in mathematics from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1958 where he later worked as a professor of mathematics.
So, why is Thorp of such interest to the gambling industry? Well, Thorp is the infamous (at least to the casino world) author of the hugely popular gambling strategy book, ‘Beat The Dealer’. This was the first book to showcase how the house advantage that the casino has in Blackjack could be overcome by some relatively simple card counting. The highly mathematical book was published in 1962 to resounding success.
Card counting is a card game strategy used mostly in Blackjack to ascertain the probability of the next hand giving advantage either to the player or to the dealer. This is done by using all possible legal means to decrease the casino’s house advantage by keeping count of all high and low cards seen. Those who actually come to master the art of card counting are in this way able to bet more on the high value cards and less when the opposite is likely.
During the experimental stages of his theory, Thorp, along with his good friend, Manny Kimmel (who was alternately a successful professional gambler and illegal bookmaker heavily involved with notorious Italian gangsters) providing the initial capital set out to test the theory. Manny put $10,000 on the experimental research itself, sure it would work. The research was covertly carried out in Reno, Lake Tahoe and of course the city where all gambling dreams come true: Las Vegas.
The experimental results were amazingly successful, as the duo won $11,000 in one weekend. He would have most certainly won even more had his uncanny ability at winning not drawn the attention of casino security in the Las Vegas casinos where he had initially ventured out to conduct his research. This led to him being thrown out several times from the casinos he visited that night.
Thorp’s exploits in winning with card counting led to casinos taking extra measures to ensure that cards were thoroughly shuffled before each new play. Though card counting isn’t illegal under any jurisdiction, casinos make their own rules that govern their premises, so Thorp was thrown out of a number of casinos when they cottoned on to his wining technique.
News of his winning antics quickly spread within the close-knit gambling community, with enthusiasts eager to learn new methods of ensuring a win. Thorp predictably became an instant celebrity. His new-found celebrity status led him to pen books like ‘Beat The Dealer’, but he also came up with innovative ways to apply Hedge Fund techniques to financial markets to his benefit, and went on to work with Claude Shannon to create the world’s first wearable computer.
Not only was Thorp not your common gambler but he effectively used his impressive academic background through exploits in mathematics to conceive ‘Beat The Dealer’ which is the very first undisputed card counting manual. The book sold well over 700,000 copies. Soon he was a household name in the gambling world.
Also known as body-borne computers, these are electronic devices worn under, in or on top of clothing. Wearable computers are especially suited to complicated computational processes, rather than just straightforward binary uses – they’re not simple pieces of hardware, and they take quite some skill to conceive.
In 1961, Thorp and Claude Shannon built some of these devices in order to help them cheat a game of roulette. In the game, players choose to place bets on either a single number or a range of numbers, whether black or red, or even whether the number will be odd or even. In his second edition of Beat The Dealer published in 1966, Thorp explains his winning method of putting a timing device in his shoe in pretty sweeping statements. He writes that ‘I played roulette on a regulation wheel in the basement lab of a world famous scientist’ (Shannon), and ‘in an hour’s run, betting not more than $25 per number, we won a fictional US$8000’. He also noted “there are certain electronic problems that have limited the use of the method on a large scale in casinos.”
His success and exploits in applying mathematics in the art of gambling certainly earned him an inaugural membership in the Blackjack Hall of Fame, and make his BlackJack bible on card counting a runaway success to this day.