The Smartest Guy in the Room

Article excerpt

Byline: R.M. Schneiderman

Why was a math professor pushing 80 the top draw at an ultrasecret blackjack ball? A look into the rise of a card-counting mastermind.

Dr. Edward Thorp doesn't look like one of the world's most notorious gamblers. At 79 years old, he sports braces and large, wire-rimmed glasses.

But on a recent Saturday night in suburban Las Vegas, 70 of the world's best card counters--people who memorize cards on the blackjack table to determine the probability of a good hand--nervously fluttered around Thorp inside a banquet hall. There were real-estate investors, television producers, even a group of evangelical Christians. Some donned swishy track pants and fake names like "Diamond Mike." Others wore suits and arrived with beautiful women. Surprisingly, not all were good at math.

Known as the Blackjack Ball, the event began 16 years ago when Max Rubin, a Las Vegas-based card counter, threw a party to share some tricks of the trade. Today, it's sponsored by the Barona Resort & Casino. Those in attendance have agreed never to play there, but everywhere else is fair game, so a burly bouncer guards the guest list. They're competing for the title of the world's best blackjack player. Yet Thorp, whom several in attendance described as the "Godfather" of card counting, is the big draw.

Fifty years after Thorp's bestselling book, Beat the Dealer, was released, blackjack has transformed from an obscure game offered only in Nevada into one of the most popular attractions at casinos worldwide. Today blackjack can be played at roughly 2,000 gambling houses, including some 700 in at least 34 states, according to casinocity.com. It has received the Hollywood treatment--from Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, the 1988 Oscar-winning film, to 21, Kevin Spacey's 2008 movie based on a card-counting team from MIT.

All this extra attention has convinced casinos to employ a host of strategies--from extra decks to facial-recognition software--to identify card-counting wizards with fake IDs and absurd disguises. Yet because card counting is not illegal, most casinos can only ask players to leave. And with more venues likely to open, card counters still smell fresh blood.

There are many ways to count cards, none of which a novice attending the Blackjack Ball could pick up right away. But in its simplest form, the theory is this: when there are a lot of low-numbered cards in the deck, you bet small; when most of the low cards have been played, and there are a lot of high cards left in the deck, you bet high. The result will net you a statistical advantage over time.

Thorp first got the idea that blackjack could be beaten in 1958 when he stumbled across an article about basic strategy, a blackjack theory developed in 1953 by four men in the Army. One of the men, Wilbert Cantey, was black, and because his friends couldn't go out with him to bars in Maryland--the state was still segregated--the four played blackjack in the barracks. In the process, they figured the odds of every combination of hand using adding machines.

A math Ph.D. at the time, Thorp wrote to one of the authors of the article and asked to see his original math. Using an IBM computer that he programmed himself, Thorp developed the first-ever card-counting strategy. The next hurdle was getting someone to pay attention.

In 1961, he presented his findings to the American Mathematical Society. Many in the gambling world scoffed at his theory, but his claims attracted, among others, a young reporter named Tom Wolfe, who wrote about his strategy in an article for The Washington Post. …