Ask any blackjack player who the godfather of card counting is and they will likely tell you it is Edward O. Thorp. No one has been responsible for introducing more people to counting cards in blackjack than Thorp, who wrote the landmark book Beat The Dealer in 1962. The book ultimately sold over 700,000 copies and is still considered to be the first manual of card counting ever published.
Thorp was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1932. His background is steeped in mathematics and probability, and a study of his history reveals many insights about what it takes to be successful in blackjack. Thorp’s first career was as a mathematics professor and he served on the faculty of many prestigious universities throughout the United States. Thorp taught mathematics at New Mexico State University, the University of California at Irvine, and MIT. Thorp’s association with MIT is somewhat fascinating because in the years after his groundbreaking work in the field of card counting a group of MIT students used the Thorp principles to beat blackjack for massive amounts of money. Their story was popularized in the motion picture 21.
The development of Thorp’s card counting method was a long and arduous process. He initially based his research on a paper by John L. Kelly which was published in 1956. Kelly had developed something which came to be known as the Kelly Criterion. The Kelly Criterion is actually still applied by many blackjack players and other gamblers today.
Edward Thorp sought to improve upon the method. A study of similar pioneers in the field of card counting will reveal that this is how card counting systems are always born. Someone seeks to improve upon the method devised by someone else. Thorp’s method, however, involved an element that held a dangerous potential were it to be discovered by the casinos. Thorp included the use of a computer.
In 1961 Thorp perfected the first wearable computer. The IBM 704 served as his research model. The computer was designed to be worn and operated in a discreet fashion, undetected by casino personnel who would have immediately banned Thorp had he been caught. The computer, however, only served to help Thorp test and validate his own method of card counting. After much trial and testing, Thorp was ready to test his principles in live blackjack play.
The casinos of Reno, Lake Tahoe, and Las Vegas were all fair game for Thorp’s blackjack tests. There was no question that more than one casino and more than one location had to be used. If Thorp were to be discovered in his research it was almost certain he would wind up in Nevada’s Black Book of gamblers who had been caught cheating or otherwise defrauding the casino. At that time casinos shared this information among one another. Being caught in one casino meant getting banned in all of them.
In order to test his card counting methods Edward Thorp needed capital. In other words, he required a gambling bankroll. There was no way he could afford to play blackjack on the salary he was making as a mathematics professor. Thorp managed to convince Manny Kimmel, a high roller with mob connections, to invest $10,000. The two of them took off for Reno and Lake Tahoe first because it was a smaller gambling venue than Las Vegas. There was less chance the two would be discovered playing blackjack in the small casinos there.
After an initial weekend of testing, Thorp and Kimmel had raked in over $11,000 in profit. They were convinced that the method worked but they still wanted to test it in Las Vegas. Over the next few weeks Thorp and Kimmel tried their card counting method in the Las Vegas casinos with tremendous success. Some additional measures were required in Las Vegas, however. Thorp had to frequently don a variety of disguises in order to avoid discovery. These disguises included fake beards and an assortment of glasses. At the same time that Thorp was playing blackjack, he had another team that was testing his strategies for baccarat. They were also having massive success.
Despite any attempt to keep the card counting method a secret the word soon got out among serious blackjack players. Thorp became a celebrity virtually overnight among the blackjack crowd. He saw the interest and responded by publishing his landmark blackjack book.
Throughout the years many methods of card counting have come and gone, but the principle developed by Edward Thorp remains the foundation behind almost all systems available. The science and mathematics that were used by Thorp to master the art of card counting have proven that blackjack is a game which remains beatable by the educated player, despite continued attempts by the casino companies to stamp out card counting.