Because he was working under wraps, Taft had to teach himself by using the computer manuals like recipe books. For the better part of two years he spent his weekends and evenings in an upstairs bedroom, testing, plotting graphs and soldering more than 2,000 tiny joints. Training sessions were equally intense. While driving, Taft played license-plate blackjack by wiggling his big toes to record the numbers on passing cars. Family members took turns dealing him more than 10,000 hands at the dining-room table while his daughters played their rock records at full blast to simulate the feel of a casino. One recurring problem: the 10,000 toe movements required for an eight-hour session of play gave him painful calluses. Smiling through, he allows that "the thrill of victory is sometimes tempered by the agony of de-feet."
Taft called his first computer George; it was a kind of Cro-Magnon forebear of David. His initial solution to the problem of reading George's output was as ingenious as it was complex. Working with the precision of a watchmaker, he inserted a row of seven tiny light-emitting diodes into the frame of his black horn-rim eyeglasses just above the right lens. The diodes were connected to the computer by a fine wire that was combed into his hair and ran down the back of his collar. When all the diodes flashed on—stand. When they all flashed off—hit. And so on, through a color-coded series of winking lights that covered the range of betting and playing options.
Finally, in early 1972, Taft was ready to plug all the components together for a shakedown trial. Like some suburban Dr. Frankenstein, he turned on the juice and stood in wonder as his patchwork creation blinked to life and responded perfectly to his every command. "I've never been so thrilled," he says.
But George was a monster, sure enough. At the time, the state of computer art was such that what Taft had envisioned as a light, compact unit turned out to be a 15-pound mass of brass-encased computerware, nickel-cadmium battery packs, switches, lights, cables and wires. Suited up, with the whole rig fitted into an apron and trussed to his upper body by an Ace bandage, he looked like something out of Star Wars.
Even so, all systems go, he set out to zap Nevada in a series of weekend forays. Though jittery and limping because of toe fatigue, he went largely unnoticed as he dragged himself through the casinos with the 15 pounds of added bulk pulsing beneath his outsize pea coat. He recalls, "I felt like I was nine months pregnant"—and ready to deliver. According to the meticulous notes he kept, his pulse rate never dropped below 110 while playing.
Not to worry. Blessed with total recall, the magic machine was a born con artist. That is, if a pit boss was zeroing in, it cooled the "heat" by dictating winning plays that were so seemingly foolhardy—stand on a 12 against a 10, hit a hard 18, split a pair of 10s—as to show no discernible pattern other than dumb luck. Moreover, the computer also eased suspicion by freeing Taft for the kind of chitchat that would shatter the concentration of a counter.
"It's just a fun piece of equipment," says Taft, who once asked it a fun question: How much are you worth? Answer: the computer gives the player a 2.5% advantage over the house, or nearly double the win potential of the professional counter. "And during the shuffle," Taft adds, "it'll do your horoscope."
All Taft's signs were in the ascendancy on his first swing through the casinos. Oh, there was a problem with a battery-acid leak that ate through his shirt and into his chest, but the scar is hardly noticeable. Undaunted, he won $500 the first weekend, betting in the $5-to-$15 range. "And I won the next weekend," he says, tracing his progress on a graph, "and the next weekend and the next and the next, and I said, 'Hey, I got it made!' "
But not on the home front. Taft's notes for the period show another, decidedly negative, trend: "Dorothy upset over my gambling.... Dot in pieces again.... Dot on verge of nervous breakdown." She explains, "I was fearful of so many things—of losing a lot of money, of the Mafia, and Keith being harmed in some way. But my worst fear was that he would become a compulsive gambler. He was devoting so much time to the computer that it put a strain on the family. At church I always had to make excuses about where he was, and it was very hard on my nerves. At times the strain was almost unbearable."
Taft attempted to pacify his wife with two lines of reasoning. First, he says, "I, too, consider gambling a vice that leads to the breakdown of society, but I was pursuing it only as a means to a socially redeemable end. Specifically, I want to build industrial robots to free people from drudgery so they can do something more meaningful. In that sense I'm mixing Christianity and blackjack. I'm God's gambler." Secondly, he says, "Gambling implies a chance of losing, and I didn't intend to do that. I was interested in putting in enough hours so that luck didn't count and the statistics would take over. For me, blackjack is not gambling, it's a business." Dorothy, her image of the devil's pasteboards unshaken, replies simply, "It's gambling."