SI Vault
David E. Scherman
January 13, 1964
Edward Thorp, the pensive professor above, is shaking the gambling world with a system for beating a great card game. He published it a year ago, and now the proof is in: it works
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January 13, 1964

It's Bye! Bye! Blackjack

Edward Thorp, the pensive professor above, is shaking the gambling world with a system for beating a great card game. He published it a year ago, and now the proof is in: it works

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Thorp recently asked a dealer point-blank the crucial question: "Why do the casinos cheat when, in the long run, the house edge will win for them against all but the good system players?" He reports that he got this answer, before witnesses: "Long run? They don't think about the long run. They want the money and they want it now. I know a dealer who lost $1,500 one evening. They told him to get it back quick, and he did, in 15 minutes."

Strangely enough, the discovery of what looks like the key to the bank at Las Vegas has not made Thorp either a millionaire or a gambler. He does not seem to want to be either one. In 1961 he moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico—which does happen to be 2,000 miles closer to Las Vegas than MIT—and he can usually be found in his small office at New Mexico State working on a lecture for his functional analysis class. His house is in the $18,000 range, his car is a modest 1961 Ford and his demeanor is subdued. The only thing that really distinguishes him from his fellow professors is his rather frequent weekend trips to Nevada—presumably made when the petty cash runs low.

"I have no intention of becoming a gambler," he said the other day. "For one thing, I like being a math professor. For another, I'd have to move my wife and three children to Las Vegas and work like a trooper. Not that it couldn't be done. I estimate that I could make about $50,000 a year moving around the state, working about 500 hours a year—a couple of hours playing and an hour planning strategy. I like money, but there are a whole lot of things I like more. The way I'm doing it now I'm having my cake and eating it too. We're trying to build up a long-range capital investment, and, frankly, I look forward to an early retirement—to reading, music, mathematics, writing, travel—with pleasure.

"My gambling strategy today is streamlined: I don't play much more than half an hour in one spot or win or lose too much there. If I start to lose, I cut my bets. I'm probably being cheated and I don't have time to find out. If I start to win, I kick the bets up. I am not naive about casino charity. It's a business like any other and the operators can't afford to leave anything to chance. If an operator behaved like a romantic movie gambler he'd be flat broke in 24 hours. On the other hand, if I get ahead $1,525 in seven minutes, like I did a few weeks back, I walk away. I only go to the same casino every few months. I want to give them a chance to forget me. And I move all over the state. In three or four days I can work in about 30 hours of play. If the cheating is bad I cannot expect too much of a profit. On my last trip I took $1,000 and made $420 more in 5� hours. That's a 42% return on your money, and not bad."

Friends of Thorp who are as capable as he at playing his system have done well. One engineer from Los Angeles made $15,000 in a few months, with time out for a vacation in Mexico. Another engineer has quit his job in Los Angeles and commutes to Las Vegas, but Thorp is afraid he is overdoing it. He is getting too well recognized. The shuffle comes quicker and the betting limits change the minute he begins to play.

Thorp and his friends feel that one answer to the problem of recognition is an obvious one—disguises. "It is true that you can be spotted by your play, your walk, your voice, lots of things," he says. "These people have sharp eyes. I went into a place some time ago wearing new contact lenses instead of my horn rims. In 30 seconds I heard, 'Here's the guy who wrote the book.' Phones rang and a friend of mine heard somebody say, 'Leave him alone.' In two hours I won $1,000 and quit. If I had gotten greedy I would have been thrown out or bored out by too much shuffling. I know one character who was barred from all casinos. He went over to Paramount's makeup department and for $500 he got a sensational disguise. He was young, and by building a shell over his body they made him up as a fat, 50-year-old Chinese. His friends didn't know him. He fooled five men on duty in one casino pit, then the sixth came back from having a drink, looked up and said, 'Well, well. Look at junior all dressed up like Charlie Chan.' "

But disguises frequently work. Thorp himself now uses a combination of wraparound glasses and a beard to change his appearance on successive Las Vegas visits. And his trips to the same casino are really infrequent. For example, he was not initially recognized one recent night at the Riviera, where he feels "they have every reason to know me." He was coaching Dinah Shore, who sat in for a game after her show. "We started doing spectacular things," he recalls. "Luck was with us, too. I'd say, 'You've got a 15, hit it once,' and she'd draw a 6 for 21. Or I'd say, 'Bet heavy, 10 coming up' and she would and the 10 would come up. The pit bosses finally recognized me, but they had to tolerate me because of Dinah. We were not playing big, but after an hour they implied they would be just as happy if we quit. She won about $60. I won $100. The dealer said, 'You would have won thousands if you had been betting big.' I told him, 'Are you kidding? If I had been betting big there would have been no game.' "

As far as Thorp is concerned, the game of blackjack is licked. He has issued an open challenge in his book to any skeptical operator for a head-on game, i.e., one player against the house. His stipulations are 1) "not too much" house cheating; 2) no shuffle until five or 10 cards from the end; 3) the usual house rules unless others are agreed to; 4) play until 10 days elapse or someone wins or loses $10,000. "And I have an even rasher challenge," he says. "The house can take the 10s, 9s and 8s out of the deck—all good cards for the player—limit me to the same size bet each time and shuffle up after every hand. But no cheating."

Superficially, it sounds like bye! bye! blackjack, but casino men are gambling they will win out in the long run. Human nature, they say, is on their side. The wide circulation of the Thorp system is attracting a lot of new gamblers who are psychologically incapable of applying it, and, curious as it seems, there is evidence that a system player who cleans up on blackjack is apt to turn right around and blow the whole bankroll on some other game at which he has no edge and no chance.

But Edward Thorp and his computer are not done with Nevada yet. The classiest gambling game of all—just ask James Bond—is that enticing thing called baccarat, or chemin de fer. Its rules prevent a fast shuffle, and there is very little opportunity for hanky-panky. Thorp has now come up with a system to beat it, and the system seems to work. He has a baccarat team, and it is over $5,000 ahead. It has also been spotted and barred from play in two casinos. Could it be bye-bye to baccarat, too?

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