The First Counters: Edward O. Thorp in Las Vegas, 1962By Russell T. Barnhart
(From Blackjack Forum Volume XX #1, Spring 2000)
© 2000 Blackjack Forum
In the early 1960s much publicity occurred concerning a 28-year-old professor of mathematics, Edward O. Thorp, first of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at Cambridge, then of New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, finally of the University of California at Irvine, who was making blackjack history.
I read articles about him in the New York Herald Tribune (January 29, 1961), the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune (by Tom Wolfe, December 9, 1962), the Atlantic Monthly (January, 1963), Time (January 25, 1963), Sports Illustrated (January 13, 1964), Life (March 27, 1964), The New York Times (April 3, 1964), and so on.
What was the wherefore of all this publicity? Here’s how the Time article explained matters:
The Plan that Made Blackjack History
As an individual who has always had trouble finding even the On button both on a computer and in life itself, naturally all this intrigued me. Hence before Beat the Dealer was published in late 1962, I approached a life-long friend of mine, William F. Rickenbacker (1928-1995), a businessman, writer, and journalist, to whom I referred at the time as Mr. X, and suggested the following gambling plan, which was to make blackjack history.
If Rickenbacker and one or two others would together put up a bank of $10,000, why could not Edward O. Thorp, with his remarkable blackjack system favoring the player, and Mickey MacDougall (1906-1996), with his expertise in protecting gamblers against cheating casinos, along with Russell Barnhart, his humble servant and stake holder, travel to Las Vegas to earn for us all an honest, capitalistic dollar?
Next I telephoned Mickey MacDougall, who lived in Forest Hills, Queens, and if Henri Daniel, founder of the first magazine for gamblers in Monte Carlo, made his living by repairing typewriters, Mickey MacDougall made a far more lucrative one by being a wholesale and retail numismatic dealer. It turned out that, as MacDougall would be in Boston the following weekend to attend the coin show of the American Numismatic Association, it would be convenient for him to meet Professor Thorp at the latter’s home in nearby Cambridge.
Finally I telephoned Professor Thorp, introduced myself politely, and suggested that he might like to meet Mickey MacDougall and me to hear of our tentative plan to go to Las Vegas and win money using Thorp’s new blackjack card-counting system. As Thorp was also amenable to the meeting, the following Sunday we met for the first time at his home in Cambridge.
The upshot of our meeting was that the three of us agreed to work cordially together to beat the blackjack tables on a trip to Las Vegas. That was our optimistic and rational plan, and I so informed Mr. X (not to be confused with the Mr. X of the first trip to Las Vegas, described in Chapter 6 in Thorp’s Beat the Dealer, a gentleman named Manny Kimmel). What follows is what actually happened.
Mickey MacDougall's Role
Now let’s turn once more to Mickey MacDougall. For 20 years, MacDougall wrote for the McClure Syndicate on gambling and other subjects, a national newspaper column, “The Inside Straight,” and what follows is part of a column he wrote after our trip to Las Vegas. Titled, “Even ‘Honest’ Vegas House Cheats,” it appeared on December 2, 1962, in 193 American newspapers, including The Sunday Star-Ledger, Newark, NJ:
Of all Mickey MacDougall’s articles on crooked gambling casinos, perhaps one of the best, explaining both the founding and operation of the State of Nevada Gaming Control Board, the police arm of the State Gaming Commission, as well as sleight-of-hand methods using false dice and cards, is “Why Nevada’s Gamblers Toe the Mark” (Look, October 28, 1958), an article I recommend.
As MacDougall’s article on one Strip casino’s use of an anchor man against Thorp, just quoted in part, wasn’t published , of course, until a few months after our blackjack trip to Nevada, when we three arrived in Las Vegas on Tuesday, January 23, 1962, none of us knew what fate held for us at even the best casinos on the Strip, so our optimism, though tempered, ran fairly high. Our trip lasted until February 1st, when we departed Reno for our several homes.
That First Historic Blackjack Trip
Our first setback occurred when all three of us came down with colds brought on by our ignorance, in the forty-degree cold, of how to operate the heating control buttons in our individual rooms in the City Center Motel on Fremont Street. MacDougall began taking anti-histamine tablets, I visited the local hospital emergency center to obtain sulfa tablets, and Edward O. Thorp tried both. A bad head cold hardly helps to count cards under casinos conditions.
I hired a self- drive car, a light blue Rambler, to drive us from one casino to another. “You’re our wheel man,” declared MacDougall whimsically, who favored the rear seat, the initiative Thorp always sitting on my right so he could see, figuratively and literally, where we were going.
In the Tables on pages 14 and 15, I list the amounts that we won or lost at blackjack at each gambling casino, reserving my text for a brief discussion of what happened to us at each of these so-called temples of chance in both Las Vegas and Reno. At all casinos Thorp played his Ultimate Strategy of counting aces-tens- and-others, which he explains at length in Beat the Dealer.
As all of us were quite tired from traveling to Las Vegas, on our first evening we ate down the street at the El Cortez Casino and then decided, for our financial backers, Mr. X and his partners, to test the waters with only small stakes, so at the El Cortez, Thorp sat down and played his count system for an hour. In wagers his spread was from $1 to $5 as we note in the first entry on page 14. Already suffering from a worsening head cold, MacDougall kept on his overcoat and usually sat on Thorp’s right to watch for any cheating by a dealer.
In contrast, when MacDougall was working as an undercover agent for the Gaming Control Board, he would naturally never sit, even when alone, and stare with even casual suspicion at a dealer’s hands as the latter dealt the cards. Instead, as he explained to me, to catch any cheating he employed only casual, peripheral vision. “There are fifteen different ways they can cheat you at blackjack,” he explained. “I sit there and casually bet and, in my mind, just go down my list, eliminating one by one the methods the dealer isn’t using until I come to the one I see him or her using — if any.”
This brings to mind an amusing experience MacDougall had on another trip at the Desert Inn.
“It was late in the evening, and I was playing blackjack for minimum stakes,” the Gambling Detective recounted to me. “I wasn’t winning or losing much, and the dealer, though odd in mannerisms, hadn’t been cheating so far, so possibly to draw him out, I said...
“‘I’m glad this is an honest house. I didn’t do so well at the Sands though I suppose it was just bad luck.’
“‘We’re an honest house because the Gaming Control Board sends in undercover agents to watch us to see if we cheat.’
“‘Yes. One of their main agents,’ he whispered confidentially, ‘is a man called Mickey MacDougall. So every night I keep a look-out for him on my shift.’
“‘What does he look like?’ I whispered back.
“‘I’m not sure. They say kind of tall...’ [Note: MacDougall was actually a rather short man whose appearance was mundane. He had the air of an ordinary businessman — as that’s what he was.]
“‘There are lots of guys that look like that. How’ll you know which one is he?’
“‘By the way he bets. I can always tell an agent.’
“I told you — by the way they bet. Agents always bet like shills — only one dollar at a time. They just buck us to death.’
“Naturally I reported this conversation to the Gaming Control Board,” concluded MacDougall, “and from then on,every agent has been given enough money so he can spread at least a little bit — no more ‘bucking them to death.’”
Be that as it may, while Thorp and MacDougall sat playing blackjack cooperatively at the El Cortez, what was I doing? I just wandered around this small casino room as unobtrusively as possible, betting small amounts on red and black at roulette, or on two dozens with my Creep Along system, while keeping a weather eye on the pitbosses and various dealers, none of whom paid me any heed.
But why should they have? I did nothing unconventional, being, after all, the most unimportant individual of our gambling trio. Indeed, inconspicuous was my appropriate manner in all subsequent casinos though I often joined MacDougall to peer over Thorp’s shoulder to watch the master play and see if I could detect any cheating on the dealer’s part.
After an hour of warm-up play at the El Cortez we’d lost $33. So for a second hour of play we went down to the Fremont Casino, where Thorp spread from $5 to $50 and lost $100. Then we went for a quarter of an hour to Benny Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, where the Professor of Mathematics spread again from $5 to $50 and won $40.
At this point, as all our colds had worsened, we decided to call it a night and returned to the City Center Motel for a restless sleep in the deep freeze. All told, by the end of our warm-up night, we had lost $93.
The foregoing figures comprise, for our first day of gambling, the results I’ve listed in the Tables on pages 14-15, to which the reader may refer as I discuss matters concerning our remaining eight gambling days in Las Vegas and Reno.
Methods of Casino Cheating at Blackjack in 1962
As Mickey MacDougall demonstrated them to Thorp and me, here are the main ways that the casinos used to cheat us frequently on our trip to Nevada to play blackjack. The reader will find more extensive elucidation comprising Chapter 7, “How to Spot Cheating,” in Thorp’s cited book on blackjack, Beat the Dealer, whence my own name was omitted by Thorp at my personal request, for to become known hobbles further learning and winning.
(1) The anchor man. This method was explained in MacDougall’s article quoted earlier in part. See also Chapter 7 in Beat the Dealer, in which reference to Mickey MacDougall and our blackjack trip begins on p. 133.
(2) The peek and deal. MacDougall elucidated this method as he saw it during his three subsequent trips to Hot Springs, Arkansas. The six illegal casinos were run by the New Orleans mafia according to MacDougall; I myself visited Hot Springs twice.
(3) The turn over. When the dealer holds a deck in his left hand, he openly places discarded cards cumulatively face up under the face-down ones on top. As he picks up these discarded cards, however, he secretly stacks them in an order later favorable to himself. Between hands the dealer slowly inches the pack down in his left hand and out over his left fingers preparatory to the rapid sleight-of-hand move. Then as he reaches with his free right hand to pick up the discarded cards of some last hand, he snaps the deck leftward extremely quickly, thereby invisibly turning it over.
According to MacDougall, this sleight occurs often about half way through a whole deck deal, and the warning tip-off is the inching down of the pack, which one may perceive. Thus the stacked cards, formerly uselessly face up, are now face down on top, ready to be dealt out to the dealer’s advantage. I saw this method of cheating used subsequently at the illegal Automobile (gambling) Club in Nashville, Tennessee.
(4) The high-low pick up. As the dealer overtly picks up the cards discarded from each player’s hand, he covertly and unobtrusively stacks them in the following order favorable to himself: high-low, high-low, high-low. After a false shuffle, if there be an odd number of players, everyone, including the dealer, will get a bad hand consisting of one high and one low card, for a mediocre total like, say, 15. Naturally everyone will ask for another card, and the next high card will put him over 21.
True, the dealer must bust too, but as all the players have lost before him, he’ll thereby win. If there be an even number of players, knowing the stacked high-low order, the dealer, through sleight-of-hand, merely deals the second card from the top, thereby righting the order, rendering it favorable to himself. See Beat the Dealer, p. 132, in which Thorp states that, in his opinion, during our nine-day trip to Nevada the high-low pick up was “the most widespread single method of dealer cheating.”
(5) Marked Cards. MacDougall elucidated on this method as used during his three trips to Hot Springs, Arkansas. To both Thorp and me he confessed that, as an undercover agent in Nevada, he often saw casinos using the Bee brand, sort-edge deck, both along the Strip, in downtown Las Vegas, as well as in Reno and elsewhere in the state, like Winnemucca, Elko, etc.
(6) The Kentucky or seven-card step up (and variations). Ahead of time the dealer stacks the following eight cards thus: 9, 10, 10, J, and 10, 10, Q, A. After the usual false shuffle, the dealer crimps or bridges lengthwise the deck. If the player cuts to the crimp or bend, then on the first hand, he gets 19, while the dealer gets 20. On the second hand the player gets 20, while the dealer gets 21.
While picking up the discards on both hands, the dealer rights their order and crimps again the last card, thereby readying the stack again for the next deal. On the other hand, if the player doesn’t cut to the crimp, no matter, for when the dealer perceives during the deal the crimped or subtly bent card, he may adjust the order of the stack if need be by skillfully dealing the second card one or more times. Remember that, to himself, the dealer often deals a good hand or, to the player, a bad hand, letting chance deal a favorable second hand to himself. In other words, he doesn’t employ the second deal compulsively.
To Thorp and me MacDougall explained that the Kentucky step up was invented by a crooked dealer name Charley in an illegal gambling house in Newport, Kentucky (near Covington). “He was very proud of his invention,” declared MacDougall.
I asked MacDougall if he’d ever seen the Kentucky step up in the casinos in Hot Springs, Arkansas. “No, never,” he replied, “just the peek and deal.”
(7) The Nevada step up. Ahead of time the dealer stacks thirteen cards of various suits in the ordinary serial order thus: 2, 3, 4, 5... 10, J, Q, K, A. Although this step up may be obviously substituted for the Kentucky step up, its great drawback is that, owing to its obvious regularity of order, the dealer may not use it a second time in a row.
(8) The short shoe. This method of cheating wasn’t used against us three gamblers in our January, 1962, trip to Nevada, because at that time almost all blackjack games were dealt from a single deck held in the dealer’s hand. When a casino wants to use several decks — commonly 4, 6, or 8 — it employs a regular dealing shoe, and these became common in Nevada in the 1970s. According to MacDougall, the Gaming Control Board advocated the use of shoes to preclude the sleight-of-hand cheating methods which had theretofore become rampant.
After Mickey MacDougall explained the short shoe to me around 1975, with his permission I explained it in turn to Edward O. Thorp, because its elucidation would require mathematics way beyond my ability and training. So besides writing a magazine article on the short shoe, Thorp included his computational results in Chapter 2 of his book, The Mathematics of Gambling (Lyle Stuart, 1984), which I recommend.
According to MacDougall, the short shoe remained the favorite way of cheating by a casino whenever it chooses to deal from several decks.
Blackjack History, Day 2 (Or How Professor Thorp Missed MacDougall's Exit Signal)
Let’s return to what happened on my trip with Professor Thorp and Mickey MacDougall in January, 1962. For the extent of Thorp’s spread and the sums of our wins and losses, I again refer the reader to the Win/Loss Tables, pages 14 and 15.
As I mentioned, on our first evening, in our warm up at the El Cortez Casino, Thorp lost $33, and then at the late Benny Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, he won $40.
On our second day, January 24th, as MacDougall suspected that at the Dunes the dealer was using the high-low pickup, we soon left. “Better safe than sorry” was his admirable motto in these matters, for although it was indeed our goal to seek out an honest dealer in a game in order to gain Thorp’s average plus PC of about 3% from his blackjack count system, by the same token it obviously behooved us to scuttle a dealer and his casino when MacDougall reasonably suspected that dealer of cheating. In other words, we always tried to strike an intelligent balance between, at one extreme, baseless suspicion that carks the soul, and, at the other, an equally absurd and inevitably disastrous faith in a casino’s honesty.
And after MacDougall had demonstrated, on more than one occasion, to Thorp and me the sleight-of-hand and other cheating methods that I’ve already enumerated, we two other gamblers would have had to be blind not to detect them occasionally ourselves when a crooked dealer employed them.
Once, for example, when we three had just come out of a rear door to the parking lot of the Desert Inn, MacDougall turned to Thorp and said, “Go back and look at the dealer shuffling at that last table and then tell me what you think.” In the meantime, MacDougall and I loitered by our light-blue Rambler. After a short interval, a cynically smiling Thorp rejoined us: “I think sometimes he’s doing the high-low pick up, and sometimes he’s not. Then he uses the push-through shuffle.” MacDougall smiled paternally: “That’s exactly what I thought myself.”
So we got into the Rambler and drove down the Strip to the Hacienda Casino. Prior to Thorp’s play the evening before at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, MacDougall had advised Thorp that if he, MacDougall, perceived any cheating, he would poke the mathematical gambler between the shoulder blades and announce: “Let’s get a bite to eat.” That became our signal to leave a casino at once. So when MacDougall saw the blackjack dealer at the Hacienda peeking at his top cards, fearing the next move would be a second deal and another loss to our beneficent Mr. X and his partners, he accordingly poked Thorp between the shoulder blades.
Unfortunately in the heat of his concentrated play Thorp had forgotten that “Let’s get a bite to eat” was a dire signal indeed, so he replied indifferently, “No, I’m not hungry yet.” Again, MacDougall poked the mathematician between the shoulder blades. “I already told you,” replied Thorp irritably, “I’m not hungry yet!” Given this misunderstanding, when we left the Hacienda, we’d lost $60, which sum the reader will duly note as the fourth entry under Day 2 in the Tables.
I mention this trifling misadventure, because it’s most important for us all to realize that at one time or another all of us become fallible under fire, and anon I’ll give much more important illustrations of my own vanity, ignorance, and ineptitude.
Blackjack History, Day 3
On our third gambling day, January 25th, while my two partners were jousting in the arena of aces-tens-and-others, I drove over to meet in his boarding house the elderly host at the Sands, Frederick O. Brown, who’d written an autobiographical pamphlet about his own gambling experiences. Once a year, in the annual Las Vegas Helldorado parade, Frederick O. Brown would stand up in a convertible and, waving to the spectators, lead the parade.
Although I liked the effusive Brown, when I asked him courteously about his claim in his pamphlet that he’d become the confidant of the late King Farouk of Egypt and that both of them, seated side by side at the baccara and roulette tables at the Monte Carlo Casino had been royally cheated there, he admitted having made up the whole episode. He’d never even met Farouk. I mention this trifling incident, because sometimes knowledge of the honorability of a casino arises from some chance remark or fugitive pamphlet like Brown’s and requires verification.
Indeed, I’d like to go on record as saying that I myself have never heard of anyone who could adduce evidence of any cheating whatsoever by the Monte Carlo Casino. In my own opinion, it is now, and always has been, a perfectly honest gambling house — one of the reasons I chose to gamble there.
Meanwhile, back at el rancho Vegas, as it were, Thorp and MacDougall had gone on by themselves to win $180 from the Silver Palace, only to lose back $176 of it to the Stardust, as per the Win/Loss Tables. They told me later that at the Silver Palace, although the dealer had dealt honestly, the pitboss had been visibly upset by their winning even $180.
In Las Vegas and Reno each dealer’s shift lasted for twenty minutes, so my two partners had become suspicious when the dealer hadn’t gone off his shift after the usual twenty minutes, especially after they saw the pitboss go and telephone someone. After thirty minutes with the first dealer they saw a second man burst through the front door of the Silver Palace, and without stopping even to tie on the regulation green apron he came over and tapped the first dealer on the shoulder to relieve him.
Feeling that the second dealer was probably a crooked dealer on call — in the cheating trade, called a mechanic — my two partners left immediately, following Mac- Dougall’s prudent motto, “Better safe than sorry.”
[For confirmation of how corrupt this era was, see Easy Money: Inside the Gambler's Mind by David Spanier (London, 1987), and especially his All Right, Okay, You Win: Inside Las Vegas (London, 1992 and 1993); see also the book, Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, by Nicholas Pileggi (New York, 1995) and the movie by the same name about Lefty Rosenthal (at the Stardust Casino).]
At this point, I rejoined them, and MacDougall related to Thorp and me that, as on a trip to Las Vegas six months earlier, when he’d detected the Silver Slipper using the Kentucky step up, he wanted to show it to the two of us as “the epitome of what I’ve been trying to teach you two guys.” So we got into the Rambler and drove back to the Silver Slipper. After my two partners got out of the automobile and went into the Silver Slipper, I had some trouble finding a parking place, taking a bit longer than usual. Then I too got out of the Rambler and began walking toward the casino’s front door.
Lo and behold, out popped MacDougall and Thorp, grinning.
“Hey — where are you two guys going?” I cried. “Mickey — you promised to show Ed and me somebody in there using the Kentucky step up.”
“And we saw it,” exclaimed Thorp.
“But it took me only two minutes to park the car.”
“That’s when we saw it,” explained MacDougall smiling.
Sure enough, the two adventurers had gone into the Silver Slipper and walked directly to a blackjack dealer standing behind an empty table. They didn’t bother even to sit down. Thorp made his two bets standing up. On his first hand he bet $1: he got 19 and the dealer got 20. On his second hand he bet another $1: he got 20, and the dealer got 21.
At that point they thanked the chuckling dealer for his cooperation and left the casino, bumping into me as I was heading toward its front door. So all three of us went over and got back into the Rambler. “It cost Mr. X two dollars,” commented MacDougall, comfortably adjusting himself in the back seat, “but wasn’t the lesson worth it? ‘Seeing is believing.’”
Blackjack History: Professor Walker Joins Team Thorp
On our fourth gambling day, January 26th, as we’d won $738 on the day before, Thorp suggested to me the option of our inviting Professor Elbert Walker, one of his mathematical colleagues at New Mexico State University, to join us, thereby doubling our win rate. Thorp described Walker as being as good a counter as he was.
My new role was to stand behind Walker and spot any cheating. In other words, with Walker I was to take the role that Mickey MacDougall took with Thorp.
I mentioned earlier that I would cite an illustration of my own vanity, ignorance, and ineptitude, and herewith is an outstanding example. For as the official and responsible stake holder representing our beneficent Mr. X and his partners I should have had the mature judgment to hold fast to the single partnership approach which had so far produced tangible financial rewards for us all. And in this regard it must be most importantly borne in mind, that had we not been so frequently and unquestionably cheated by practically every major casino on the Strip, in the Win/Loss Tables the plus figures in the Net column would have been far larger, and by the same token, the minus figures far smaller.
Be that as it may, like a perfect fool, instead of conservatively protecting Mr. X, I acceded, largely through vanity, to the option of Professor Walker’s joining us and flying up to Las Vegas at Mr. X’s expense. Thus from our fifth gambling day, January 27th, through our seventh, January 29th, a period of three days, our so-called syndicate was composed, on the one hand, of Thorp and MacDougall, and on the other, of Walker and Barnhart. [In Beat the Dealer, neither Professor Walker’s name nor mine is mentioned.]
As it turned out, under fire, spreading from only $1 to $10, Walker wasn’t so proficient as Thorp himself, for in the middle of a deal, Walker, alas, would often freeze and forget his count. Yet Walker’s lack of experience under fire wasn’t at all the prime cause, in my opinion, of our debacle — it was my own absurd vanity of considering myself, a mere tyro in the harsh world of card and dice cheating, sufficiently knowledgeable and competent under casino conditions to detect cheating and protect Walker from cheating dealers.
That was the chief cause of Walker’s and Barnhart’s losing money at the tables. Try as I did, I was simply never competent enough to perceive when a dealer may or may not have been cheating Professor Walker. To be as proficient as Mickey MacDougall as a gambling detective requires a lifetime of experience under fire. In considering Thorp’s proffered option concerning Professor Walker I should have immediately admitted to myself my own lack of experience. I did not do so.
The wins and losses of Professor Walker I haven’t included in the Win/Loss Tables, probably because I don’t care to look at them again myself. Although Walker was a fine mathematician, a congenial, soft-spoken Texan, friendly and cooperative, for the sake of Mr. X’s dwindling resources, after our three losing days as a second count team I had to see Walker off on a plane back to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
And what of MacDougall and Thorp, Mr. X’s premier count team? As these two men had won relatively large sums at the Riviera Casino, they decided to try it again, preferring its tranquillity and lack of crowds to the Thunderbird, the deafening clamor of whose lounge acts disturbed them. So to the Riviera they went, but it was at this casino that they were cheated by Fatso, the anchor man, who even followed them invidiously from table to table. For details of this casino’s predatory response I refer the reader to MacDougall’s article, “Even ‘Honest’ Vegas House Cheats,” of December 2, 1962, which I quoted in part earlier.
Disgusted with the anchor man at the Riviera Casino, MacDougall and Thorp moved to the Desert Inn, where MacDougall again spotted the Kentucky step up. So although Thorp’s Ultimate Strategy of aces-tens-and-others rarely calls for the player to take insurance when the dealer has an ace showing, when MacDougall spotted the step up appearing on Thorp’s second hand, he warned Thorp against following the correct mathematical strategy, declaring, “You’d better insure — I think he’s got the ten of hearts in the hole.” Sure enough, when the dealer turned over his hole card, it was the ten of hearts.
Disgusted again, MacDougall and Thorp left the Desert Inn, where on their way out, much to their consternation, they spotted, leaving the dealers’ staff room, the next dealer coming on duty, who had the effrontery to be arranging in his hands the very deck of cards he was to use on the next table of gullible blackjack players.
Meanwhile, at the Sands I’d been standing behind Professor Walker, who’d also been playing the aces-tens-and-others count, spreading only very minimum bets of from $1 to $10. Soon another player sat down on Walker’s immediate right. He was a middle-aged man, who kept grinning and chatting loquaciously with the dealer. Overly friendly, effusively affable, the man proceeded to draw and stand in such a way to ruin Professor Walker even though the latter was making the lowest possible bets.
When Walker and I moved to a second empty blackjack table, the garrulous man had the effrontery to follow us there immediately, plopping himself down again on Walker’s right, declaring, “I’m glad you guys moved — my luck at the first table was lousy too.” The man then proceeded to stand on 9 and draw on 18, a strategy so absurd even a beginner wouldn’t follow it. Most anchor men try to be quiet and inconspicuous. At the Sands their anchor man strove to be a garrulous pest. He certainly succeeded. Walker and I left. And remember: Walker was a very low roller.
On our seventh gambling day, Monday, January 29th, while MacDougall went to talk to Butch, the Sheriff of Clark County (containing Las Vegas), Thorp and I repaired on our own to the Stardust, whose 25 blackjack tables in the morning were largely deserted. The two of us seated ourselves at the first table and watched the dealer shuffle the cards suspiciously. When he dealt Thorp the first hand, he used the second deal, which both of us immediately perceived. When the dealer began doing the high-low pick up, Thorp and I got up and moved down to the fifth empty table. (MacDougall later remarked that, in the cheating trade, the high-low pick up is called hen pecking.)
At the fifth table the new dealer shuffled in such a way that the large bottom stock obviously remained unmixed. Annoyed, Thorp asked, “Would you mind shuffling the cards once more — just for luck?” Blushing, the dealer refused to reshuffle. So Thorp called over the pitboss, who made the dealer reshuffle. Just the same, once more the cards had been so inadequately mixed that, again, too many of them came out in the stacked order of high-low, high-low, high-low. In disgust Thorp and I got up and forsook the Stardust.
That night MacDougall rejoined us, and I drove Thorp and him once more to the Flamingo. As the two partners started off by winning, another anchor man soon sat down on Thorp’s right and proceeded to stand and draw to injure Thorp. But in this process the anchor man was so obvious that, incensed, for the first time, MacDougall stood up and declared angrily to the pitboss: “I’m surprised that in a place like this you’d use an anchor man!” The pitboss reddened and just stared in silence at the floor.
When he so wishes, MacDougall may be outspoken, hard-hitting, and to the point, and although Thorp and I obviously agreed with him, just the same, now at least the Flamingo management realized that that so-called businessman customarily sitting next to the blackjack-playing Professor of Mathematics — that businessman, his overcoat folded across his lap, his fedora perched jauntily on the back of his head — obviously knew a great deal more about the gambling world than they have ever suspected; so on MacDougall’s part, his chastisement of the Flamingo pitboss, however justifiable, was perhaps also a moment of imprudent self-indulgence. As the boys would say over at the poker table, “Never tip your mitt.”
That night, at the City Center Motel, we three held a council of war. Although Thorp’s Ultimate Strategy had won for Mr. X almost $2,000 (more precisely, $1,849), we felt that, owing to the rampant cheating we’d received at the hands of the Strip casinos, this sum was ludicrously small. So we decided that on the morrow we’d fly north to Reno, for although Reno blackjack rules were and are comparably less favorable to count systems, perhaps Washoe County might contain, in its untutored, provincial way, fewer cunning rogues.
As the three of us rose to our feet, I remarked, “Well on the Strip there remain at least two honest casinos — The Tropicana and the Thunderbird.”
“No,” responded Mac- Dougall cynically, “because though the Thunderbird didn’t cheat us, while Thorp and I were playing at our table, I noticed the dealer at the next table doing the high-low pick up. So that leaves just one honest casino — The Tropicana — and how long can they hold out?”
When I said goodnight to MacDougall at his motel door, he stared gloomily down the corridor and, avoiding my gaze, declared: “Do you know why casinos cheat?” “No,” I replied. “Because if they cheat, they make more money than if they’re honest. Goodnight.” With that, he closed his door, and if that’s what the premier agent of the Gaming Control Board said, that’s how I’m quoting him.
Blackjack History: On to Reno with Team Thorp
So on our eighth gambling day, Tuesday, January 30th, we three resolutely boarded an early afternoon plane bound for Reno, Nevada. Our carrier was Bonanza Airlines, owned by the late eccentric billionaire, Howard Hughes, and our equipment was a relatively small turboprop plane, the number of its propellers being just two. Up to that day Bonanza Airlines had never suffered a single fatal crash.
To fly from Las Vegas to Reno, Nevada, is like flying over the moon. Looking down through the passenger cabin ports, the three of us viewed the bleakness of a lunarscape. Toward all horizons we saw nothing but dun-colored mountains, treeless and usually grassless too, interspersed with barren plains: no houses, no people, no animals, nothing. On rare occasions we might sight a long pickup truck slowly jouncing its way over a rutted road leading in the desert from nowhere to nowhere.
Twenty minutes after takeoff, in our cabin I occupied an aisle seat next to Thorp, on my right. Farther forward, on the left side, MacDougall occupied another aisle seat, deep in his old mystery novel, Death in a White Tie. Besides us three, the cabin contained, scattered in seats about its rear, four other travelers, including a middle-aged lady, who kept coughing slightly.
As Thorp and I chatted about blackjack, our attention became gradually focused on the slowly swinging door separating our passenger cabin from the cockpit of the two Bonanza airline pilots. When the turboprop plane tilted gently to port, the door would creak slowly open. When the plane tilted gently back to starboard, the door would creak slowly closed. So half the time, Thorp and I could glimpse the blue-uniformed shoulders of the pilot and copilot, and half the time we could not. The constant swinging and creaking were mesmerizing.
Suddenly I turned to the Wizard of Odds and said, “Just suppose that, the next time the door creaks open, instead of the two pilots facing forward and flying the airplane we see them facing each other, casually playing blackjack, and the pilot remarks to the copilot, ‘Hit me.’”
“Even better,” responded Thorp immediately, “suppose that the next time the door creaks open, instead of the two pilots actually working in their cockpit we see nothing but open sky — nothing but air!”
While guffawing at our own absurdities, we hadn’t noticed that the airplane had become beset with mechanical difficulties. After completely feathering our right engine, the pilot had turned the aircraft around, and we were headed back to Las Vegas. But would we make it? Our problem wasn’t one of insufficient fuel. Would our overheated port engine alone be able to last for the twenty-minute return flight to Las Vegas? Or would it fail too? While dismally contemplating his end, everyone in the cabin watched as the surrounding hills and desert hove closer and closer.
Finally getting up, I walked a few paces forward and tapped MacDougall on the shoulder.
He didn’t even glance up from his mystery novel. “I know,” he murmured, “we’re going to crash. We’ve been losing altitude form some time.” He continued to read calmly.
I went back and took my seat again next to Thorp. Like everyone else in the cabin we too had become silent and grim. I no longer chose to glance out the ports to assess conditions. Why gaze at the dun-colored desert coming ever nearer and bringing only death?
Just as we’d lost so much altitude that everyone aboard the plane assumed his life was near its end, however, the ever-approaching desert suddenly turned into the concrete runway of McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. We’d been saved, but it had been very close.
As we’ve all heard, after an unnerving experience on an airplane, to regain one’s positive attitude toward life, a person should immediately board the next flight — to anywhere. So that’s what we three adventurers immediately did — but not to regain our emotional stability but to reach as quickly as possible the blackjack tables of Reno, Nevada. So in the late afternoon of Tuesday, January 30th, we belatedly touched down in a second Bonanza airplane at the Reno airport.
In Las Vegas, with our benevolent Mr. X’s $10,000 bank behind us, we’d managed to win roughly $2,000. During our two days in Reno, how did we do? If the reader glances again at Win/Loss Tables, he’ll note, under the final Reno section, at least three dismal minus figures. In other words, in Reno we managed to lose back to the casinos most of the $2,000 we’d won from them in Las Vegas.
What was the cause of our financial loss in Reno? Did the casinos there cheat us even more viciously than had those in Las Vegas? Not at all. In Reno we found the casinos neither more nor less honest than those in Las Vegas — indeed, MacDougall gave both Harrah’s and Harold’s Club an admirably clean bill of health.
Blackjack History: Assessing the Play
Here are a few of my own comments.
As the responsible stake holder for Mr. X, as I’ve already mentioned, in Las Vegas my own primary mistake was, for me — a mere tyro — to substitute for the experienced Mickey MacDougall, a professional in detecting the cheating methods of gambling casinos. In Reno I continued my purblindness. Thus, on the evening of Tuesday, January 30th, at the Holiday Inn there I foolishly substituted for MacDougall again, and in only fifteen minutes Thorp lost the largest sum of our entire nine-day trip — $600. Although two detectives for the Gaming Control Board later experienced the same cheating methods at the hands of the same crooked female blackjack dealer, whom the Holiday Inn management then fired, her just deserts hardly served to compensate Mr. X, who was out $600!
As for our premier gambler, Edward O. Thorp, according to MacDougall, Thorp had a stubborn tendency to ignore prior warnings, so that instead of making small initial bets to see if a dealer was honest, he would imprudently make large initial wagers. As too often, alas, the dealer turned out to be a crook, Mr. X lost therefrom.
Secondly, like many fighters, Thorp never wanted to admit defeat and opt for a strategic withdrawal, conserving his resources for the morrow. According to MacDougall, “ten o’clock at night was Thorp’s witching hour,” after which fatigue would naturally tend to cloud his judgment, and he would begin losing too much even to honest dealers. Sometimes we had trouble getting him away from the tables. [Retired from teaching at the business school at the University of California at Irvine, Prof. Thorp now runs a hedge fund.]
As for Mickey MacDougall himself, of the three of us I believe he had the most difficult job of all, for as both Thorp and I readily concede, from a technical standpoint it’s excessively difficult to know for sure when a dealer is or is not cheating a player. Just the same, according to us, we’re sure that we both perceived cheating going on when MacDougall insisted that nothing of the sort was occurring.
In the general matter of who ran Las Vegas in the 1960’s and the kind of people who run it today, a matter in which Mickey MacDougall, according to him, had little changed his mind, I think it only fair to give MacDougall the final say. So I quote in part from his second column on our blackjack trip, “Cards Stacked Against Big Vegas Winners,” from the November 29, 1964, issue of The Sunday Star-Ledger of Newark, NJ:
Every so often I read of a “lucky” gambler who wins a fortune in Las Vegas. Sometimes it’s $50,000. Sometimes it’s $100,000. Occasionally even more.
On Thursday, February 1, 1962, at the Reno airport Mickey MacDougall and I bid Edward O. Thorp a most cordial farewell. Although both of us believed he verily deserved one, we didn’t pin onto Thorp’s chest a gold medal for blackjack bravery — perhaps because we feared that, if only to get rid of it, he’d give it right back to us.
So far as the money itself goes, from our nine-day trip how much did we three finally win? For the final results, I refer the reader to the two columns of the Summary Table on page 15, which indicate that from the whole incredible venture, we cleared only $317.
When I got back to New York City, on the following Saturday afternoon, as was my occasional custom, at an eatery off Times Square called the 42nd Street Cafeteria, I joined my fellow amateur magician friends for refreshments and a discussion of the best way to saw a woman in half.
One of the younger magicians, a card manipulator with a side interest in gambling, named Persi Diaconis, now a Professor of Mathematics at Cornell University, approached me and whispered confidentially, “Did you hear the rumor that three mathematicians hit the Vegas blackjack tables?”
“No, I hadn’t heard that. How much did they win?”
“A hundred thousand dollars.”
I wanted to say something about that, but I decided to wait until Russian Louie gets back to town.
Thorp's Card Counting Wins and Losses
The wins and losses at each casino visited by Edward O. Thorp, Michael MacDougall, and Russell Barnhart during their nine-day blackjack trip to Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, from Tuesday, January 23, through Wednesday January 31, 1962.
In Las Vegas
Summary of Wins and Losses
And as 1,982 dollars minus 1,665 dollars equal 317 dollars, that was our final total win for our nine-day trip to Nevada, excluding expenses: +$317.00.
[Note: Read more about Ed Thorp and his pioneering research in blackjack card counting in our article on the Blackjack Hall of Fame. In addition to card counting, Ed Thorp is famous for his success as an investor in the stock market.] ♠
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