He realised that the one feature of blackjack that made it different from other casino games also made it possible to beat. In 1962, Thorp published Beat the Dealer – A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty One. To win a round, the player has to draw cards to beat the dealer’s total and not exceed a total of 21. The dealer must draw cards until a total of 17 or greater is reached. Thorp calculated that as the game continued and cards were removed after each round, if the remaining deck became richer than average in certain types of cards, it became advantageous to the player. 1.14%. So a £100 bet will yield on average £101.14 in return, playing a single deck game. The controller would secretly signal to a ‘big player’ who would then join a table and place a massive bet at exactly the right moment. The big player simply looked like a rich, arrogant young gambler who got lucky on a single bet. He was approached by the mysterious ‘Mr X’, a gambler and businessman with strong links to the underworld, who was eager to see whether his strategy could make real money. The computer was able to calculate precisely the advantage or disadvantage each card gave to the player, and thus accurately predict the optimum playing strategy.
He decided to develop a portable computer that could count cards for him. With his son Marty, he built ‘George’, probably the world’s first portable computer, specifically to count cards at blackjack. Keen to capitalise on their success, the father and son team set up a home workshop to design and build new computers, which they sold for $10,000 apiece. In the mid-1990s, a team of American science students took on the might of the Las Vegas casinos, and came home with millions of dollars. Their exploits only came to an end when Griffin Investigations, a private agency hired by casinos, identified the members of the MIT teams after months of surveillance. The game was blackjack, and the students were from the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Dealers and pit bosses learned how to spot card counters, and asked anyone suspected of counting to play another game or leave the casino. Hardworking engineering students during the week, they became high-rolling gamblers by the weekend and proved that, in one game at least, the house doesn’t always win. Previous gamblers had realised this fact, but no one had the insight to come up with a practical system to take advantage of this phenomenon.
Although the winning margin is still subject to the luck of the draw, this meant that using perfect strategy, with a large bankroll and playing enough hands, the player was more than likely to come out on top. They increased the number of decks, they shuffled more often and at one point even changed the winning payoffs. Winning streaks or losing streaks may occur, but they are only one possible result from the set of all possible outcomes. Casinos and bookmakers make certain that the odds are always stacked slightly in their favour. Then by keeping track of the cards leaving the deck, they would determine a point when the odds switched in their favour and lay down larger and larger bets as the deck became more and more favourable. MIT counters played in teams, usually of three or more. Unaware of Mr X’s mobster links, Thorp agreed, and playing according to his strategy in Reno casinos, managed to more than double his bankroll in two days of play! The casinos, terrified of losing money, decided to change the rules to make life harder for the card counters. The basic rules of blackjack are simple.
They are effectively removed from the pool of available cards in the next round. Thorp realised that because of the unique way blackjack was played, the odds were not always the same in every round. Semyon Dukach, Katie Lilienkamp and Andy Bloch were all studying at MIT when they heard of card counting as a way to make extra money. MIT had a history of card counting. Card counting became a hazardous and unprofitable occupation. In 1971, Keith Taft, an electronics engineer from California, was frustrated at his low winnings from counting. Facial recognition technology, computerised blackjack tables and rule changes are slowly eating away at the small advantage possible through counting. The odds are the same on every roll of the dice or spin of the wheel. Thorp announced his strategy at the American Mathematical Society in 1960 and news quickly spread. Indeed, Ed Thorp himself had developed the original system whilst at MIT, using one of the most powerful computers in the world at that time.