BEAT THE DEALER
Back eons ago when I was in grad school in the Bay Area, a small group of us fellow students would take a couple of weekends off each winter and drive up to the Lake Tahoe area where we’d downhill ski all day and play blackjack half the night at a nearby casino.
We had no interest in blindly throwing money away by gambling. We’d come across the book Beat the Dealer by Edward Thorpe, a card counting method for winning at Blackjack. We got excited by the idea of learning his method, and if possible, beating the house odds and making a few bucks in the process.
Thorpe’s method relied on the fact that casino dealers dealt successive blackjack hands from the same deck until few cards were left and a reshuffle was required. Sometimes by random chance, an excess of 10-value cards (including aces) would build up in the remaining deck, favoring the player against the house. Thorpe invented a simplified card counting method in which 10-value cards and taces each counted -1 and all other cards counted +1 each. The player, by watching his own cards and the cards on the table, kept a running tally of the total count. A positive count meant a prevalence of favorable cards remaining in the deck, and the larger the positive count, the more favorable it was for the player. Thorpe’s recommendation was to start with a minimum bet, and raise the bet as the count became positive. This all had to be done in one’s head, as any overt sign of card counting would get the player kicked out of the casino (casinos have no legal obligation to serve everyone).
Before going to Tahoe, we studied Thorpe’s method back at the university. We wrote a computer program to simulate the game, assuming a minimum $1 bet. We soon learned that a player had to have a large kitty to keep from going broke due to random fluctuations, a difficult requirement for us poor grad students. With a big enough kitty, our computer program told us we could expect to gain about $2/hour, which would certainly never make us rich.
So, in principle the player had only to keep track of the count, and raise one’s bet when appropriate. This sounds a lot easier than it turned out to be in practice. The only one in our group who could consistently win after skiing all day and being continually plied with free drinks at night was a fellow student who went on to become a successful high-level Intel executive.
During the time we played, the casinos became more aware of card counting schemes like Thorpe’s, and changed their procedures. Instead of dealing from one or two decks together, down to nearly the bottom, they started with a stack of 3 or 4 decks of cards and reshuffled partway through. This virtually eliminated the possibility of gaining a significant advantage by card counting. That was the end of it for us. Of course the casinos loved having customers who THOUGHT they could win by card counting.
Oh well, we had fun. Edward Thorpe, on the other hand, made out like a bandit. After inventing his method, he traveled all over the country winning at casinos before getting kicked out. Having exhausted domestic casinos, he traveled all over Europe, continuing to make money and get kicked out. When he ran out of casinos that would let him play, he published his book. Finally he took his proceeds and started a stock market investment fund, which made him even more money. He was a man who clearly knew what he was doing.
Best regards, Kurt