The Godfather of Counting Cards

Blackjack is a rather simple game when observing from afar. All you have to do is try to get your cards to add up as close to 21 as possible, without exceeding that number. What people from afar fail to realize is how much more is involved to be successful at this game. Before the deal begins, each player has to decide how much they want to bet. This largely depends on the type of player and how skilled they are, but if you are on a roll you will be more willing to roll the dice and go big. There are numerous different strategies that players utilize to try to increase their chances of success. First off, whether or not a player should hit or stay has a lot of thought process behind it because it largely depends on what number their cards are added up to and the cards the dealer has. A few more strategies that players have are splitting pairs, doubling down, placing insurance bets, and ultimately just deciding on how each hand should be played. On the other hand, one highly controversial strategy that a hand full of players have done in the past, and probably still do, is counting cards.

One of the most notable blackjack players to count cards is Edward Thorp. Thorp is known as the godfather of counting cards because he published a book called Beat the Dealer in 1962, and he was the first person to mathematically prove that blackjack was beatable using counting card techniques. Thorp used the IBM 704, which was the first mass-produced computer with floating-point arithmetic hardware, and was basically the only computer that could handle complex math at the time, to investigate the probabilities of winning while developing his blackjack game theory. His theory is based on the Kelly criterion, also known as the scientific gambling method, which is a formula for bet sizing that leads to higher wealth compared to any other strategy in the long run. Additionally, Thorp learned Fortran, which is a compiled imperative programming language that is especially suited to numeric computation and scientific computing. He used this to program the equations needed for his theoretical research model on the probabilities of winning at blackjack. As a result, Thorp analyzed the game of blackjack using these techniques, while developing card-counting schemes with the aid of the IBM 704, and especially focused on the cards at the end of the deck that are not reshuffled after every deal.

Thorp decided to travel to Nevada and brought along with him a professional gambler by the name of Manny Kimmel. They first visited casinos in Lake Tahoe and Reno, where they won $11,000 in one weekend. They then traveled to Vegas where they continued to be quite successful. In an effort to hide their identities so they would not be compromised, they disguised themselves with wraparound glasses and fake beards. This was essential at the time because if anyone in the casino were to recognize Thorp, they would probably kick him out immediately since they already know he is a card counter. After his experiment proved to be a great success, Thorp decided to put his knowledge into writing and released Beat the Dealer, which taught amateurs how they could profit from blackjack. This book immediately became a New York Times bestseller after selling 700,000 copies. In addition to counting cards in blackjack, he also was successful in roulette because he wore a mini-computer that calculated the wheel and ball velocity. He used this to predict the ball’s resting position and then places bets based on this information. At the time, roulette computers were legal to use, but casinos still tried many different approaches to try to stop him. They even allegedly messed with his car!

The main aspect that makes Thorp’s ideas so creative is that he essentially found a loophole to the game of blackjack. With extensive research and assistance from technology, he was able to figure out a way to successfully beat the odds of the house advantage. This is a very unique example of a creative crime because he is working in the grey area of blackjack. What he did was an extremely creative way to figure out how to beat the odds in blackjack. Additionally, he technically is not even committing a crime by his counting card technique. It is not against any federal or state laws to count cards, but since casinos are private establishments, they have the right to refuse any customers or kick anyone out. For example, if it is known that a guy is counting cards in a certain casino, one, he will be kicked out if caught during the act, and two, he most likely will not be allowed back into the casino. This is mainly due to the fact that card counters are basically scamming the casinos of their money because they have such an advantage over the dealer and all of the other players. It essentially is a form of cheating, and casinos try to limit this as much as possible, but it is difficult when there is nothing that can be done to punish the cheaters. As a result, people like Thorp go from casino to casino, dressed up in disguises, and win a bunch of money with the help of technology and counting cards. I find card counters very interesting solely because they are engaging in an activity that has a negative connotation around it, which is what makes it seem criminal, but in reality, it is perfectly legal. I would consider the act of card counting a criminal act because they have an unfair advantage over everyone at the table and people and the casino are losing money because of it. Furthermore, I think that it should be illegal because guys like Thorp can earn millions off counting cards in blackjack, and if the casinos do not allow it, then it would just make sense to be against the law. It is kind of like going up against a cheater in competitive video games. All of the other players that are playing honestly and the right way get screwed over by the guy cheating. Then the cheater gets banned, makes a new account, and continues cheating. That’s essentially the exact scenario with card counters.

In my eyes, card counters are cheating, which should be a criminal offense. However, I will give them credit because it definitely takes a lot of skill to do and the only thing that’s controversial about it is the technique they use. This is why it is not against any laws because it is just a technique, but it is a sleazy strategy to use and ultimately a dishonest way to play. In Thorp’s case, he is a wickedly smart man that devised a technique to beat the odds of blackjack, and for that, I can only tip my cap to him. I know it is controversial, but that is unbelievably creative and I honestly think he earned everything that he made.

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Ryan Grove

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