SI Vault
Ray Hennedy
April 16, 1979
Keith Taft, a devout Baptist, and Ken Uston, a high-living ex-stockbroker, blackjacked Vegas casinos for a small fortune with the help of a computer
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April 16, 1979

The Odds Couple

Keith Taft, a devout Baptist, and Ken Uston, a high-living ex-stockbroker, blackjacked Vegas casinos for a small fortune with the help of a computer

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Fact is, a gambling fever is upon the land. The gross revenues for all Nevada casinos last year were a record $1.85 billion, up 21.6% over 1977. And there is no doubt as to the spark for the boom. It's blackjack, which has surpassed craps to become the most popular casino game by a runaway margin. Over the past decade in Nevada, the gross revenues per year from the game have increased from $117.3 million to $519.6 million, a growth of more than 400%. In Reno the number of blackjack tables has tripled to 2,700 in the past decade, and schools and seminars teaching card-counting systems have opened in 10 major cities around the U.S.

The highly addictive appeal of blackjack is that it is the only casino game that can be consistently beaten by strategy. That is because it is not subject to the law of independent trials, a mathematical edict meaning that in games like craps, roulette and keno, one play is unrelated to the next. For example, the odds that a crapshooter will roll a 7 are 1 in 6. And though a shooter might roll seven 7s in a row, the odds that he will do so again on the eighth roll are still 1 in 6, just as they were on each of the seven previous rolls. As they say in the pits, the dice have no memory.

Blackjack hands, however, are very much dependent on what cards have already been played, and the odds for or against the player fluctuate accordingly. Next to aces, no cards are more beneficial to the player than the 10-value cards—jacks, queens, kings and the 10s themselves. Primarily, that is because the rules require the dealer to continue drawing until he has a total of 17 or more. Thus, when the deck is "hot," or rich in 10-value cards, it is to the player's advantage to stand on a "stiff" (any hand totaling 12, 13, 14, 15 or 16) and let the dealer take the risk of drawing one of the 10-value cards and busting. In such instances, the player's advantage over the house can rise to 5% or more.

One of the first to discover, codify and cash in on this statistical windfall was Dr. Edward Thorp, the godfather of counters. In 1961, when he was a 28-year-old math professor at MIT, Thorp used an IBM-704 computer to plumb the mysteries of the 34 million different combinations in which the cards can be dealt. His conclusion: given a bet limit of $500, the game could be consistently beaten at the rate of $125 an hour.

Thorp had a far better return when, while field-testing his system in Lake Tahoe, he and one of his two millionaire backers won $17,000 in one two-hour whirl. And when he revealed all in his 1962 bestseller, Beat the Dealer, Thorp became to blackjack what Einstein is to relativity. In no time, his book was the most-requested volume in the Las Vegas public library and the casinos were invaded by players clutching the sweat-resistant, palm-size strategy charts that came with Beat the Dealer.

The casinos' initial reaction was overkill. They instituted rule changes that restricted various strategy options and significantly increased the house advantage. But so many average players went elsewhere for their kicks that the old rules were soon reinstated. Thereafter the casinos relied more on the fast shuffle and began replacing their single-deck games with four-deck shoes, affectionately known as "perfesser stoppers," on the theory that 208 cards are harder to keep track of than 52. Looking on bemusedly, Perfesser Thorp said, "These new rules show that the casino owners still don't understand the system."

Multideck play is more difficult for counters but only slightly so, since they have replaced memory with a counting system. As a case in point, the fact that all of Resorts' blackjack games are multideck did not exactly make them immune to a counter attack. More than anything, casinos prefer the multideck shoe because it delivers up to three times as many hands an hour. Player acceptance has been grudging, though, and today about 25% of the blackjack games in the U.S., most of them in the Reno- Tahoe area, are still single-deck.

The common misconception about professional counters is that they have photographic minds and somehow memorize the deck. This was true with one deck, but not with four. There are dozens of system books for sale, most of them beneficial only to their authors, who charge up to $395 for their "secret formulas." Whatever the exotic name—Aus the Boss, Wong High Low, HI OPT—all are based on the Thorp method of ascribing a plus or minus value to the cards.

In a basic, simplified system, for example, the low cards 2 through 6 are counted as plus one, the high cards 10 through ace are minus one, and the middle cards 7 through 9 are zero and not counted. Thus, by adding or subtracting the plus or minus value of each card as it is dealt, the system player keeps a "running count." The higher the plus count, the more 10-value cards remain in the deck, and the player increases his bet accordingly. The lower the minus count, the more low cards remain, and he bets the minimum.

Because the player only has to remember one number, the running count, he can do so as easily through four decks as one. Not so easy is developing the speed to keep up with the rapid-fire pace of play. Practice makes perfect in card counting only when the player can keep an accurate running count while flashing through an entire deck in 20 seconds.

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