Ed Thorp – The Inventor of Card Counting Who Was Nearly Killed by a Casino
There are many theories that have been thought up regarding how to beat casino games. Some of these have been built around poker, others around slot games, and some around roulette. However, perhaps none of the theories have been introduced and proven in such a spectacular way as those focused on by Ed Thorp.
Born Edward Oakley Thorp in August of 1932, he became an American mathematics professor, as well as an author, hedge fund manager, and blackjack researcher. He also helped to pioneer the modern applications surrounding probability theory and would also write a book entitled Beat the Dealer. Through that book, he proved by the use of mathematics that it is possible to overcome the house edge in blackjack by counting cards.
He obtained his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California in 1958 and then went on to work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), starting in 1959. This led him into various other positions, including the professor of mathematics at the University of California, Irvine.
In more recent times, Thorp managed to predict the brutality of the COVID-19 pandemic, so he went ahead and stocked up on supplies and went into isolation weeks before it was declared necessary to do so by the authorities. It was in early February 2020 that he predicted the U.S. death toll after analyzing the number of unexplained deaths in Wuhan and putting research into pandemics of the past, such as the Spanish Flu of 1918.
Now aged 88, Thorp can be looked upon as being a genius in the world of casino gaming, too. So, what types of card counting theories did he come up with, and how have these affected the blackjack world today?
Using Computers to Aid His Research
Thorp took to investigating the probability of winning at games of blackjack and utilized the IBM 704 in order to conduct his research. His blackjack game theory was actually based on the Kelly criterion, which he had learned of by studying the paper written in 1956 by J. L. Kelly Jr. This also goes by the name of the scientific gambling method and works as a formula for bet sizing, leading to an almost certain higher wealth when compared with other strategies.
So that he could program the equations that he needed for the theoretical research, Thorp taught himself Fortran – a general-purpose programming language suitable for numeric computation. By using this computer system, he managed to analyze blackjack in a big enough way to devise card counting schemes that would improve his odds of winning. This proved to be especially effective when the end of a card deck is approached, and it isn’t reshuffled following each deal.
Once satisfied with his blackjack theory, Thorp put it into practice by visiting casinos in different areas of Nevada. His research was applied with a starting balance of $10,000, which came from Manny Kimmel – a well-known and wealthy professional bookie.
The first casinos they visited were based in Reno and Lake Tahoe, where they utilized Thorp’s theory while participating in blackjack games. The experiments they enacted proved to be successful, and Thorp walked away with $11,000 after playing over a single weekend at the casinos. As a way of counteracting his techniques, though, casinos now tend to shuffle decks well before the end of it is reached.
During his visits to Las Vegas casinos, Thorp would often go in disguise, and as well as his own blackjack activities, he assembled a team that would go forth and play baccarat. They also experienced wins from using his system.
Thorp became an instant celebrity within the blackjack community as word spread of his card counting methods. It was due to this popularity and the fact that he was always being questioned over his research that he wrote the aforementioned book in 1966. It sold over 700,000 copies and is generally considered to be the very first guide to counting cards. This didn’t sit so well with Kimmel, though, who was disguised as Mr. X in the book, which went on to obtain a place on the New York Times bestseller list.
The research that Thorp conducted is one of the very few instances where the results reached the public domain directly. Usually, an academic peer review is undertaken beforehand.
Thorp’s Success in Roulette and Blackjack Leads to Murder Attempts
While working as a professor of mathematics at MIT, Thorp met Claude Shannon, another mathematician as well as an electrical engineer and cryptographer. Thorp invited Shannon and his wife Betty along to Las Vegas on numerous forays, where they would play roulette and blackjack at the casinos. Thorp was highly successful on these visits, and his team’s roulette gameplay stood out as being the first instance of someone using a wearable computer while inside a casino. That is now, of course, an illegal activity, thanks to the Nevada devices law of 1985.
Of course, casinos didn’t like having to pay out such large amounts, and they still don’t. However, when Thorp was visiting the casinos, he ended up attracting certain unwanted attention. This was especially true after he released his book. Making a statement in his more recent book release, A Man for All Markets, Thorp said:
“I was sitting at a baccarat table, and they offered me a coffee with cream and sugar. I drank the coffee, and before long, my pupils dilated, and I could no longer count the cards. On the fourth night, they offered me coffee again. I put just one drop on my tongue, and it tasted like baking soda. ‘What could one drop do?’ I thought. It was enough to take me out again. They kicked out my two team members, who were told not to come back. On our final night, we went to a different casino, The Sands, where I set the win rate at $1,000 an hour. After two-and-a-half hours, they came in with a gigantic security guard and told us to leave.”
He goes on to recall the journey back home the following day, stating that his accelerator pedal and brake stopped working. He managed to slow the car by setting the emergency brake and turning off the key. However, when someone came by who knew about cars, Thorp was informed that the accelerator linkage had been altered in a way he had never seen before.
Clearly, the casino owners didn’t want to have to pay out anything else to the mathematician due to his card counting. So, perhaps one or two of them formed a plan to take him out as a way of ridding them of that problem!