KeithTaft: Blackjack Computer Pioneer
Interview with Keith and Marty TaftBy Richard W. Munchkin
(From Blackjack Forum Volume XXIII #4, Winter 2003/04)
© 2004 RWM
[Note from A.S.: Richard W. Munchkin is the author of Gambling Wizards: Conversations with the World's Greatest Gamblers, and, like Tommy Hyland, a member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame.]
[Note from RWM: Keith Taft is a pioneer, and not just in professional gambling. He built what may be the worldís first microcomputer. He was one of the first to network computers, and with the aid of his son Marty, he was one of the first to use computers to capture digital video.
Is he a Microsoft millionaire, or a dotcom billionaire? Hardly. Keith and Marty Taft focused their technological genius on beating casinos.
Keith Taft started building his first blackjack computer in 1970. It took two years, 2,000 solder joints, and weighed 15 pounds. This blackjack computer, named George, eventually led him to a partnership with Ken Uston.
Uston wrote about these exploits in Million Dollar Blackjack, but here you will get the rest of the story. Building a computer that counted cards at blackjack was the tip of the iceberg. With each new development came a larger edge. For the first time in print you will read about Thor, God of shuffle tracking; Narnia the sequencing computer; and the ďbelly telly,Ē a camera in the belt buckle that sees the dealerís hole card.
Staying at Keithís was a bit like visiting my grandmotherís house. He has a simple home on ten acres in Elk Grove, California. Itís warm, and folksy, with flower prints all over the guest bedroom. We had casserole for dinner, and Jell-O for dessert.
He and his wife Dorothy have been married over 50 years. He stays fit jogging, and playing tennis, while Dorothy occupies her time doing volunteer work and Bible study. Off the garage is Keithís workroom. It is stuffed with racks of electronic gear, computers, software manuals, and doodads. In January of 2004, Keith Taft was inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame.
In the Beginning
RWM: How did you first get interested in being a professional gambler?
Keith Taft: We were on a family trip in our pickup camper. We went over to Reno, and we went to the Harrahís Auto Museum. They gave us some lucky bucks, so we went into the casino on the way back. I asked someone what the fundamentals of blackjack were, so I could spend the lucky bucks. I got a blackjack and wound up with $3.50 profit. On the way home I remembered that Ed Thorp had written that this game was beatable.
RWM: You had heard of Thorpís book?
Keith Taft: Yes, but it had been way back, and I just had a dim recollection. It immediately occurred to me, since I was working in newer semi conductor integrated circuits at my job, that perhaps one could put together a blackjack computing device that would do what Thorp had done in his head, and be more successful.
RWM: Where were you working at the time?
Keith Taft: I was working at Raytheon here in Mountain View.
RWM: Did you then go pick up Thorpís book?
Keith Taft: I picked up every book I could find in the library. I got Wilsonís book, Revereís book, Thorpís book, and on and on. I read them all voraciously. I learned to count. I practiced and got up to speed, and went out to make a few bucks counting cards.
RWM: Were you successful?
Keith Taft: No. It seemed like every time I pressed, I got beat. I overextended my bankroll, and my wife got very discouraged with my luck. Thatís what really drove me to revisit the idea of building a computing device.
RWM: What year was that?
Keith Taft: It was 1969 when I played those lucky bucks, and early 1970 when I began to work in earnest on it.
RWM: At that time there werenít computers anywhere, were there?
Keith Taft: Thatís right. There was no such thing as a microcomputer.
RWM: Not all universities had a computer at that time, am I right?
Keith Taft: Thatís probably true. They were very large, and I think it was a 1600 IBM that I worked on initially. They used punch cards for the programming.
RWM: What made you think you could build this device small enough to take into a casino?
Keith Taft: I was aware that Texas Instruments had come out with a 4-bit ALU (arithmetic logic unit) that would be the heart of a computer. I designed a 16-bit machine that would power down when it wasnít making any calculations to conserve battery power, since it would have to run on batteries.
I was building some memory chips that were solid-state memory. They were small enough, and dense enough that they would serve as the random access memory. Also, there were programmable memory devices out there which it turned out would allow a thousand bytes of instructions to be hard wired into the machine.
RWM: Were you doing some of this development at Raytheon?
Keith Taft: Not really. I was involved in manufacturing-in the process area. I wasnít involved in testing these devices. I took a couple of courses in logic design when I was still on the East Coast. Just by reading and planning I was able to design a computer that would be fast enough, and powerful enough, to get the job done.
Then I changed jobs. I became a section head in R&D, at Fairchild. They had computers available for me to use. That was a big help in developing the software algorithms.
RWM: What was your background?
Keith Taft: My undergraduate was a double major in music and physics. Then after I taught music for five years, and physics for three, I got my masters completed in physics.
The First Blackjack Computer
RWM: How long did it take to build the first blackjack computer?
Keith Taft: It took two years before I went into a casino for the first time. I named the computer George. It was pretty bulky. It was about as big as you could stand to put on your body without it being ridiculous. It was made in sections about the size of a book. If you imagine three books around your midsection, and the batteries were above it. They were a bit slimmer so it tapered my body shape, but I looked a bit portly.
RWM: How much did it weigh?
Keith Taft: It was quite heavy. My concern was that I would have radio frequency interference, or give off radio waves that the casino would pick up. I made it out of brass plate, and it weighed about fifteen pounds. It was operated by my big toes. There were four switches, one above and one below each big toe.
RWM: Itís interesting to me that you chose to do it that way, rather than a hand keypad.
Keith Taft: My first thought was that the hand would be difficult to conceal without them thinking you were doing something suspicious, whereas if you put it in the shoes, no one would be suspicious, and your hands would be free to play the cards.
RWM: What happened the first time you wore the computer into a casino?
Keith Taft: This was 1972, and Marty went with me. He was just out of high school. We went to Reno, and I got all wired up in a parking lot that was about a block and a half from the casino. I hadnít gone but a short distance when I had to return because the switches were not quite adjusted right. It was painful.
They were little button switches, and I had taped them onto my toes. I got them adjusted, and went into the casino. I was quite nervous of course. I played a short session for small stakes. I donít recall the result right now. I remember a casino person coming over, and placing his hand on the small of my back. At one time I had thought of wearing the computer on my back, so I was very thankful I didnít have it back there. Of course I was also thankful he didnít pat me on the tummy.
RWM: You donít remember the result, but obviously it was promising enough that you moved forward. Did you start playing regularly with the machine?
Keith Taft: Yes, I played for a short time, and then was interrupted because we had a home built in Ben Lomond, and moved up there.
Then I started back in earnest in the fall of 1972. I played twelve weekends in a row, and won every time. I was playing for small stakes, and decided to increase my bet levels. I had a bank of $4,000, and I told my wife I would either win $10,000 or lose $4,000. That weekend I raised my bets, and I lost all my prior winnings plus another couple thousand. That was a devastating loss, so I stopped.
RWM: In retrospect, do you think you hit a bad fluctuation, or do you think that when you started betting more money you were cheated?
Keith Taft: A mixture. Itís very difficult to know for certain if youíve been cheated. Iíve read books on the things you are supposed to watch for, but I think it was mostly a bad fluctuation.
RWM: What happened after the loss?
Keith Taft: I quit, and I thought about writing a book about the experience. I didnít do anything about it for a couple of years. In the summer of 1975 I decided to go public with the story. I called a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News. He came out to the house, and wrote a story that was on the front page, and was picked up around the country. The reactions were rather interesting. Most of them were quite humorous. Their take was, this guy has this computer, wiggles his toes, does all this weird stuff, and still loses.
Marty Taft: One of the papers called him ďThe Fastest Toes in the West.Ē I had the readout as little LED lights in the upper rim of his glasses. That captivated them.
RWM: The later computers didnít use that technology. Why not?
Keith Taft: One reason was, if you looked at me you could see the reflection of the LEDs in my eyes.
Marty Taft: They were also very fragile, and were hard to build. There were lots of wires coming from the lens. They were hair fine wires, so they broke easily.
RWM: When you first started all this, what did your wife think?
Keith Taft: She was supportive. She wanted me to go ahead and realize the dream. I had a snake-oil sales pitch that this was going to be the thing that would bring happiness and money. I would be able to concentrate on inventing, which is what I had always wanted to do in life.
She begrudgingly went along with it. But one of the serious aspects of this was that I was working full-time at an engineering job, I was working evenings and all weekend long running my routines on the computers at work, and I was gone from the house virtually all the time. Then I went into the construction phase on the computer. I did 2000 solder joints on the back of this computer, and it took an immense amount of time. I wasnít spending time that a father should spend with his family. She was winding up with the load. We had four children who were teenagers at the time.
RWM: Was Marty helping you at that point?
Keith Taft: Not in the beginning. It was hard on my wife Dorothy, and one of my daughters I think had the worst time of it. She went through a rough time as a teenager in high school, and Dorothy was catching the brunt of that, dealing with her rebellion.
RWM: Once it was completed, was she worried about it being dangerous?
Keith Taft: She was very concerned about that.
The Second Blackjack Computer and Playing with Ken Uston
RWM: Didnít I read that you said God didnít want you to be a millionaire?
Keith Taft: Yes. The losing streak I had was very unusual. I ran a simulation very early on, before I built the computer, to prove that it would have a good edge. The streak I went through wasnít statistically likely at all.
Anyway, I worked at a consulting job for a year. Then I went back out counting cards for lower stakes, and was fairly successful. I again thought it was ridiculous to not be using a machine. Now there was a microcomputer available which would make the job of building the machine much easier. It would also be much smaller, and easier to conceal. It seemed silly not to build a more modern version of the machine. I set about doing that in the fall of 1976.
I went down, and got the very first board using the Z80 chip. This was a close copy by Zylog of the 8080, which was really the first 8-bit microcomputer that Intel made. The Z80 was a little bit superior, and used the same instruction set. The first prototype was built in a calculator, so if I were discovered and searched they would just think it was a calculator.
I completed it in December, and about that time I got a call from a man named Art. He was thinking about building a computer for Ken Uston. Ken was a fairly well-known team leader and blackjack ďguru.Ē He wasnít well known to the general public yet, but he was to the insiders.
Art talked to me after the article came out in the Mercury News. He came to my house, and we spent some time together. I thought it was ridiculous for Art to go through all that development time when I had everything right there. He put me in touch with Ken, who was quite interested. I went up to Lake Tahoe, and played with the finished product to see how usable it was. That went quite well. [This is the same ďArtĒ mentioned in the Darryl Purpose interview last issue.]
RWM: Was this machine called David?
Keith Taft: We still called this one George, but the refinement of the new machine we called David. [Named after David, who slew Goliath.] I took the machine to Las Vegas, and demonstrated it to Ken. He liked the possibilities.
RWM: Did you give any thought to whether this was legal or illegal?
Keith Taft: I thought a lot about that. It seemed the computers were clearly legal in the sense that I was strictly making use of the same information that was available to any other player. I wasnít marking the cards, or manipulating the outcome of the game in any way. It seemed 100% defensible legally. In fact, my biggest worry was, if there were Mafia interests behind the casinos they might seek retribution by harming me.
RWM: At that time that was a very legitimate concern. Where did you meet Ken Uston?
Keith Taft: The Jockey Club, room 628. He was very excited about it, so we decided to work together. He was just breaking a bank with his team. I believe it was the 21st trip the team had completed. He had been trained, and really everything he knew had been taught to him by Big Al. [Big Al Francesco was interviewed in the Summer, 2002 issue of Blackjack Forum, and was the first player inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame.] Big Al was a pseudonym given him by Ken in a book called, The Big Player that had not been published yet.
In fact, Big Al was rather unhappy that Ken was going to disclose his methods. Ken had parted with Big Al, and Ken really was the reason the team had to fold. Then Ken formed his own team, and had been playing for seven or eight months. While I was there they broke their bank. There were about ten people on the team. They would train to use the computers.
RWM: You were just going to provide the equipment?
Keith Taft: Exactly. We had a deadline, and we scrambled. We had to seal the computer boards in epoxy in order to insure that nobody could get into them and steal the design. It took a few weeks for Marty, my other son Dana, and me to build five machines.
Ken didnít like the toe input. He thought that would be too difficult, and cause too many errors. We decided to go with a hand keyboard. We designed a keyboard that you could strap to your thigh and operate through a hole in your pocket.
Instead of operating the computer, and playing, we wanted to signal a big player. We had to design a receiver for the big player to use. Some people call them Gorilla BPs, because they donít have to have any skills. They just have to know how to put on a good act, and bet the money.
We developed a transmitter about the size of a pack of cigarettes. That would send the information from the computer to a receiver concealed in the heel of a shoe that the BP would wear. The output device was a tapper, and the signals were a series of short buzzes, or long buzzes.
We accomplished all that in a few weeks. I brought all the equipment back to Ken, and stayed around to maintain and improve it while he got the team going. They trained, and then they played. They didnít do well, and they hadnít gone far before they were quite disgruntled.
Ken felt that suddenly he had this hammer under his control. He wanted to fashion a very favorable deal for himself. Those people on his team were now getting less of a share, and the only way they were going to be happy was if they had done fabulously well. Since they were struggling they didnít see the profit in it, and basically mutinied.
RWM: What was your share supposed to be?
Keith Taft: Ten percent. Itís hard to believe.
RWM: With no reimbursement for the cost of the equipment?
Keith Taft: No.
RWM: When Ken Uston ís team mutinied, what happened?
Keith Taft: He called me, and was very depressed. They pulled out, and at the same time three of my four children had come to me saying they wanted to be involved. By this time Marty was married. He convinced his wife that she should think about it, too. They had already talked to me, and I wasnít excited about it at all. Then when Ken called I suggested a solution. Within a few weeks they polished their skills and we all went down to Las Vegas. Ken got some BPs, and we started training together.
RWM: Did you input, too?
Keith Taft: Yes. It was my three children, Martyís wife, and me. He had the big players to bet the money.
RWM: Had you played for big stakes before?
Keith Taft: No, in fact one of the things I did on a previous trip with Ken was to go out as a big player. Frankly, I didnít work out very well. I played a couple of sessions, and I got a lot of heat. I was too professorial, and studious. I didnít look right.
RWM: You mentioned that your second major was music. Music has been a big part of your life, and was a big part of Kenís life. Did you play together?
Keith Taft: We had one big jam session. One of the BPs had a friend visiting. He played a mean banjo. We went to a room upstairs, but it didnít have a piano, so Ken played the string base. I played guitar. We had a good old time, but we didnít have any other opportunities to play together. Our music tastes and backgrounds were totally different. Ken liked to go downstairs, and sit in when a visiting band would come through at the Jockey Club. He played a good jazz piano. He didnít have formal training, just a natural aptitude. He loved the song ďMisty.Ē Errol Garner was his favorite.
Blackjack, Faith and Family
RWM: There have been three important things in your life; blackjack, music, and the church. Did you feel a conflict between your active role in the church, and your work with Ken? Did the people at your church know what you were doing?
Keith Taft: No, we kept it a secret. We wouldnít have been countenanced well by the church. There are a lot of hard-liners that only see black and white, even though the Bible doesnít actually condemn gambling. There is a thought somehow that gambling is evil. There was deceit involved there, and that really bothered my wife in particular. It has always been an issue.
I personally havenít had much wrestle with it because I came to realize that man is basically evil, and except for the grace of Jesus Christ we havenít got a chance. Weíre doomed. Whether the sin is one thing or another, it is still a sin. Gambling per se isnít a sin. The love of money is a sin. Itís like trying to rate sin. Can you put one sin over another?
Jesus made it clear that when the Pharisees talked about having sex with a woman out of wedlock, the fact that you had lust condemned you equally. To gossip about someone, or to lie to someone, these are all human failings we have.
Gambling is just another in a long list of things that are ripe for abuse. To get more to the question, Kenís lifestyle-that is the real world. As Christians we are to be out in the world, and be witness to the world. For some, we will be the only bible they ever read. It was an opportunity to witness to Ken, and we had some very good conversations about faith and such subjects.
RWM: How did you feel about bringing your children into that environment?
Keith Taft: I had no concern. Weíve been very pleased with our children, and the choices they have made. It never worried me that they would decide that was a neat lifestyle.
RWM: Marty, was this the coolest thing in the world-to have your Dad get you on this professional blackjack team?
Marty Taft: It was. We were quite excited about it. It looked like an opportunity to make some money and do some interesting things. When youíre a kid you are in this grind with school, and this looked like a way to break free from all that. It started for me with helping to build the equipment, but then it became a big financial opportunity.
RWM: You were what, 24? I would think it would be so exciting, almost, ďIíll pay you to do this.Ē
Marty Taft: It was very exciting.
RWM: What happened when you went out to play?
Keith Taft: Things went very well. One of the interesting sidelights of all this was the difference between the inputters, which were my family, and the BPs. It was like two different universes. This phony act was second nature to these BPs. It was difficult to communicate with us technical people who were used to black and white, and ones and zeros. There was some conflict.
People would come back from a session, and the BP would have one view of what happened, and the inputter had an entirely different view. The good news was they were generally bringing back money. There were not a lot of problems putting down the play. It really was pretty slick. The BPs didnít have to look at the cards. They either drank, or pretended to, and put on a good swashbuckling act. They attracted large galleries of people, and it was a happy time for everybody.
RWM: How long did it last?
Keith Taft: We started in April, and broke the first bank in fifteen days. It was $35,000. We started another bank immediately of $50,000, and doubled that in about ten days. We got some heat. My son Dana was quite sure he was followed out of a casino. There were quite a few casino bosses staring at him on his last session. I went in to relieve him, and I sensed there was some tension, too. We decided to let Vegas cool off. We took a break, and then reconvened in South Lake Tahoe.
Marty Taft: We were there a couple of days, and we were winning some.
Keith Taft: My son Dana had a religious issue, and talked to his sister and another counselor. He decided gambling wasnít something he should be doing. He left, and we got this young lawyer. He was inputting at Harrahís, and there had been a win at Harrahís the day before.
RWM: Do you think Tahoe had been called from Vegas with some suspicions?
Marty Taft: Donít know. But I know my sister had been playing in Harveyís the night before I went out, and when she heard I was going to Harveyís she said, ďNo. It was so hot in there, I didnít think I would get out.Ē There was one rogue BP named Roxi. They had won $4,000 in quarters at Barneyís [now Billís], and then they went over to Harveyís. They really got attention. Roxi said, ďThere was no heat.Ē So Ken said, ďThere was no heat.Ē I told my sister, ďI believe you. I will really watch.Ē
We went in, and there was no heat. The casino had pulled back, so everything was really calm. We played for a while, and we were down a couple thousand bucks. I went to the bathroom to change batteries, so an hour or hour and a half had gone by.
I came back, and I hadnít been there too long when someone came over and tapped me on the shoulder. He said, ďWill you come with us?Ē I said, ďOkay,Ē and as we walked along I realized they were going to go up some stairway in the back. I wasnít going to go up there. I turned around, and there were three guys who just pushed me up the stairway.
They took me up to the security office. They threatened me, and tried to intimidate me. They knew what I had because they had gotten the player across the street at Harrahís about an hour before me. They had taken their time with us. They wanted to get the whole thing because they only got the inputter at Harrahís.
They dragged Roxi in, and she was screaming her head off. Finally when they got her in the back she was crying, ďDonít hurt me, donít hurt me.Ē It wasnít very pleasant. It was quite a shock. They wanted to kill us for playing cards successfully.
RWM: Except you lost money.
Marty Taft: Thatís right. We were still stuck. In fact, we had lost so much money that we couldnít bail ourselves out of jail.
RWM: Did they threaten you while you were in the security office?
Marty Taft: Oh yeah. They stripped me, and took photos. They looked at the antenna wire and said, ďLetís plug him into 220, and see how he likes it then.Ē They tried to rattle my cage with, ďLetís take him for a ride.Ē
RWM: How did you react to all this?
Marty Taft: I was upset. This thing that we had worked so hard on was over. I figured it would be big news, but it wasnít. It was all kind of hush, hush. They repeatedly stressed how much trouble I was in, and that I would get at least five years in jail. One of the biggest things I was thinking about was, my wife Rosie was doing this at the same time. I was thinking, ďIf they have her, Iím really in trouble.Ē When I got to jail, and she wasnít there, I was really happy.
RWM: Was Oscar Goodman [currently mayor of Las Vegas] your lawyer?
Marty Taft: No, he was Ken Uston ís lawyer. Ken had some lawsuits at the time. We didnít get a lawyer. We talked to a couple of lawyers. One of them talked to Steve, the other guy arrested, and wanted him to take some kind of plea bargain. We talked to someone else, and he said, ďAh, let them try to prosecute. There is nothing here.Ē Sure enough, it dragged out for several months, and was dropped.
RWM: Didnít they send the computer to the FBI, and the FBI said it was not a cheating device?
Marty Taft: That was the claim, but who knows? That was the story they put out. We were never arraigned, and the charges were dropped.
The Magic Shoes
RWM: Did this cause the team to disband?
Keith Taft: Yes. We were all spooked by it. It wasnít very long though before we went back. Not Marty though, because he was still in this legal situation. I made sure he wasnít even aware of what we were doing.
What happened was, Al Francesco came back in the picture. He and Ken were willing to work together again. Al was really excited. He had over twenty people he had solicited, and got them busy training to input with their toes. Kenís book is in error when it implies these were Kenís people. Al is the one who brought them in.
We were very impressed with the people he brought. We got one of Kenís old teammates to do what Marty had been doing. He did assembly and repair work full-time. Because I was concerned about the heat, I decided the way to do it was to build the computer into the shoes. I didnít even want the wire to go from one shoe over the crotch to the other shoe.
Instead, I worked out a method of communication with an IR similar to your VCR remote. One shoe had a little LED that would shine an invisible red light to a photoreceptor in the other shoe. Now the computer in the right foot would pick up the inputs from the switches in the left foot. The batteries were in the heel, and all you had were these magic shoes. They were laughable. I should show them to you.
Marty Taft: We used to call them Frankenstein boots.
RWM: How did you fit the batteries in the heel? I would think they would be bigger than that.
Keith Taft: We used AAs. Because they were difficult to get to, and we didnít want them carrying extras in their pockets, we put twelve AAs in the heel of those shoes.
RWM: That has got to be a big heel.
Keith Taft: It is. Then the computer, which was a full size David, fit under the sole. So it was a good-sized platform as well. The switches were built in for the toes. I put them in RTV, which is a hard rubber when it sets. That sounded like a good idea because it had sponginess, but it turned out to be a fatal mistake because it allowed flexing. That meant that over time the wires would flex until they broke. We had a lot of repair problems.
With all these projects there are constant repair problems, and it is a constant struggle to find better materials, better switches, etc. Gradually we were able to get things to be fairly reliable. Not with these shoes though, because we didnít really get the opportunity. They started playing in Reno, and werenít doing very well. This was probably from inputting errors.
It was a fairly short time, and then Ken decided they should go to Las Vegas. Kenís ulterior motive was that he had started a team where they would recruit known losers from the casinos. He would approach them to provide a counter who would signal them how to play so they could win. He fashioned a deal where Ken was only going to win money, and couldnít lose if the player lost. He needed more play callers, so he was quickly moving our inputters over to this team. They ended up moving over to do that, and were working on a roulette computer project. They abandoned Big Al and me totally.
RWM: I donít remember reading about a roulette project.
Keith Taft: I donít know that Ken wrote anything about it. There was a guy weíll call Doc, who was a well-known orthopedic surgeon. He was a big loser at Caesars. The thought was to have him train with our shoes, and have him go in and really kill Caesars. We knew he could get a big bet spread, and wouldnít get any heat.
He trained, and when he went to Las Vegas he talked to this guy with the roulette concept. The guy didnít have a working machine, but he convinced Doc that the future was rosy enough. I believe Ian Andersen was involved in that project as well. [Ian Andersen is a well-known name in the blackjack world. He is the author of Turning the Tables on Las Vegasand Burning the Tables in Las Vegas.]
They decided to pursue the roulette project instead of our magic shoes. Doc got real strange, and they aborted that operation as well.
RWM: Were you building the roulette computer for them?
Keith Taft: No, that was another guy. I didnít know anything about it until later. This caused them to drop the magic shoe operation altogether. I had money invested as well as all my time. That was a write-off. Poor Big Al. He put in a lot of time and money into that project.
RWM: When I interviewed Al Francesco he said that the loss on the project was about $75,000. In Kenís books I think he claims to have won over a hundred thousand with the computers. What is your recollection of the amount of money won or lost?
Keith Taft: We won $120,000 with the first team, and the second team was definitely a losing operation. Ken was also talking about when he had a computer team just before the law was passed in 1985. He wrote about playing right up until midnight on the last night. I think he claims he did all right, but his team members say otherwise.
RWM: Was he using your machines in 1985?
Keith Taft: I think so, but I think he obtained them from someone else.
RWM: Wait, he used your machines, but didnít come to you to get them?
Keith Taft: Probably. I definitely didnít sell them to him.
Marty Taft: I thought he had renounced all use of electronics, and was all into the cerebral thing.
Keith Taft: He did, but then he came back and renounced the renouncement.
Marty Taft: I remember talking to one of the guys on his team at that time. I said, ďI hear you guys have been really successful.Ē The guy said, ďNo, we never made a dime. All the profits went up Kennyís nose.Ē Ken was always a big self-promoter, but the actual numbers generally werenít good at all.
Keith Taft: Again the computer lay dormant until I was approached by a PBS show called Secrets. We had this secret that fit right in with their format. We went to demonstrate it in South Lake Tahoe. I actually resuscitated the original George, the big brass job, and wore that into the casino. They filmed this, and interviewed a pit boss on scene. While I played they asked the pit boss if someone could play with a secret computer. The boss said, ďImpossible. Our security is too good.Ē
The interviewer asked me what I would do if someone asked me to build him one of these machines. He talked about it being a cottage industry. I stressed that I wouldnít sell them to some guy with a gas station who thinks he can buy it and get rich. I knew the difficulties, and it wouldnít be fair to someone.
I thought I would sell it to professionals that were playing already, and wanted an additional edge. It would be a way to get additional income. I decided to do that, and I thought I needed to make the computer a little more user friendly. I enlisted one of Big Alís teammates, named Tom, to work with me full-time. Marty was working a full-time job, but he helped during his off-hours.
We put an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle, and called the computer, ďDavid.Ē We werenít getting much response, but at that time a guy from Sports Illustrated came out to do a story about Ken and me. He went with us to gamble with a David. He talked with Ken separately in Las Vegas, and then he wrote a big article. [Sports Illustrated, April 16, 1979] We started a team at the same time to play low stakes.
RWM: When the article came out it showed your ad. I would think that would have spurred your sales.
Keith Taft: It made two significant contacts. The more notable was, I got a call from Rats Cohen. He came by and bought two computers. At that time he was working for the Stanley Roberts School of Blackjack. He said he had an address book full of card counters he had trained at the school that would be potential computer buyers. He became a sublicensee to sell David.
Now things started to happen in a number of different directions. Rats started selling computers for us. We were playing on that small bank, and decided we should go to Atlantic City. We didnít have the money to bank it, but we called a friend who was willing to bankroll us. Six of us went to Atlantic City, five men and one woman. The five men lost $15,000, and the one woman won $42,000. She told us we should have played on the beach instead of gambling. She was a neat gal.
Marty Taft: She would come back from sessions with the most amazing stories. They just stretched your imagination, but she always came back a winner. She had strange body chemistry. Her toe switches would corrode in a matter of hours. Yet my sister would have the same switch last a whole trip with no problems.
RWM: Was she eating a lot of kimchi or something?
Marty Taft: I donít recall her eating anything different from the rest of us. I would do failure analysis on the switches. Switches are a key part of your operation. They have to work perfectly. Iíd tear them apart trying to find out what the problem was, and they were just corroded like you wouldnít believe.
The Shuffle Tracking Computer
RWM: You were playing in Atlantic City with Davids, which were really designed for single-deck.
Marty Taft: They could play up to 8 decks.
RWM: They could, but your edge using it wouldnít be much better than counting in your head.
Marty Taft: But that was back in the days of early surrender so we did have help there.
RWM: How much do you think you gained over just counting in your head?
Marty Taft: Good question. I donít think it would have made much difference. It was such a boring game to play. Looking back we probably should have just counted in our heads.
RWM: You had mentioned that you were keeping all this a secret. When these articles came out in the paper and Sports Illustrated, were there any repercussions in your personal lives?
Keith Taft: The pastor in our church said he picked up the paper, and his eyeballs fell right out on the floor. The church secretary said her first thought was ďThis guy has the same name as Keith Taft. That is Keith Taft.Ē There wasnít any ostracism.
RWM: What happened after this bank in Atlantic City?
Keith Taft: That was the trip where I saw that when they shuffled the cards they were preserving different segments. You could know the content, or richness of various segments. This opened up the possibility of a larger edge, and more importantly would allow you to play in a manner that would not look like card counting.
There was a lot of paranoia on the part of the casinos in Atlantic City. They were barring card counters at that time. We went right to work in earnest on building a computer to shuffle track. We called it Thor. We met with our team members on July 16, 1979, and tested the new computer. We met again in late August, and started them learning the new skills. They had to estimate the size of the dealerís grabs when they shuffled.
Marty Taft: I think we started in Las Vegas, just to practice. You had to estimate how many cards the dealer grabbed in each hand. You had to input which way the hands went. Did the top go to the left or right?
RWM: I would think that would be very easy to confuse.
Marty Taft: We had a code for everything. Every move the dealer made we had to input. Sometimes they would break the shoe into six piles. Then they would grab from different piles to shuffle a segment. Each pile was numbered, so we had to enter-pile three went with pile six, and they grabbed X number of cards from pile three, and Y cards from pile six. You were busy trying to follow all this. Thor would take all your estimates, add them up, and see if that matched the total number of cards that were supposed to be in the shoe. If it didnít match then it would scale them so it would.
RWM: Did you, Marty, get into the software end of things?
Marty Taft: That was Keith. I handled more of the hardware.
Keith Taft: That fall we were working out the bugs, and went back to Las Vegas. We caught fire. We had a very successful trip, and then went to Atlantic City in December, and had a great trip. We didnít take that many trips. We spaced them out, and then they took out early surrender in May of 1981.
RWM: You really got this new program up and running quickly.
Keith Taft: We did, yes.
Marty Taft: We had to make hardware modifications, too, because the program got bigger. We were always stretching the limits of the machines. We needed more EPROM, and more RAM. We tried to make the processors faster now that it calculated a lot more stuff. About that time I taught a friend to program, and he had input into Thor as well. We had a very successful experience with Thor.
RWM: Finally you were making money.
Keith Taft: Yes, and enjoying it. We called ourselves the Big Six. We had a rough time when they took out early surrender in Atlantic City.
Marty Taft: It seemed like we never won much after that. It was a lot of fun to play with Thor. It was like playing four or five single-deck games. As you crossed the boundary from one segment into another anything could happen. You would get end-play in each section. Your bets were all over the place, and we made wild plays. We were doing things way outside the norm. As a result, we didnít get barred much.
RWM: Did you have any problems with barrings?
Marty Taft: I donít think we were ever barred with Thor. Thor would tell you where to put the cut card. It was too aggressive, and as time went on we toned it down more and more. Our woman player had some big bets out, and she had hard 17. Her boyfriend was watching her play, and he could tell she was reinputting her hand, because she didnít believe what it was telling her. It said hit, but she decided not to.
Sure enough, she hit her next hand and caught a four. It would tell you to hit hard 17 a lot. The strategy plays were always a chancy kind of thing. You had to know when to give up. You thought you were in a rich segment, and you thought certain cards were remaining, but you might be wrong. You probably were wrong about some of them.
If you were playing down to the last eight cards, a lot of times it thought those cards were significantly different than they really were. It was always a wrestling match, how much to go for. Thatís where a big part of the edge is too. Itís edge, and errors, and greed, and fear.
Keith Taft: We decided that this was working pretty well for the six of us-letís expand. That was a turning point in our team experience. Up to that point we had people we knew quite a bit about. It was a very harmonious team. We had time and performance as criteria for your share. Everyone shared alike, except we had a technology share off the top.
Marty Taft: We started this expansion, and it was a long, losing grind. We hung on for months, changing everything we could think of. We did more testing, making sure everyone was operating correctly. It was very discouraging. One problem was a built in protection we had. I remember being at the Dunes, and being up $5,000. I split eights, and after that the money evaporated in a very short time. I was thinking, ďAll these calls seem wrong.Ē I went home broke, and a little later we found that when you split eights, Thor went into a protection mode and gave you all wrong decisions.
RWM: What was this protection mode?
Marty Taft: We built in a little hair fine wire in the board, so if someone tore off the epoxy they would break this wire. It wasnít on the Davids, just Thor. The program would go look for this connection, and then it would know it was in the right hardware, and act properly.
Somehow in the program the flag didnít get set properly under certain conditions. If you split eights it would look for this connection, find it, but not set the flag right. It went into opposite mode where rather than having an edge, it gave you the worst possible decision.
RWM: I assume you built this in because of Rats Cohen ripping you off on the Davids?
Keith Taft: No, we didnít know that yet. We were just thinking ahead.
Marty Taft: We knew that some of this stuff would be vulnerable sooner or later. I remember throwing away that $5,000, and we could have really used it at that time. Iím sure that happened to some of the others. I donít know how long that bug was in there, but it was a while.
RWM: Here you had a project that was finally making good money, and yet you sold it off and moved on to something else.
Marty Taft: Well, it didnít make money after that.
RWM: After you discovered the bug?
Marty Taft: Right. At the end there were ten of us left out of the original twenty. The others had dropped out after a time. We had $5,000 left, and we decided that each of us would go play with $500, and play nickels. We all came back, and every last one of us tapped out. We lost every penny we had.
We were not chunking it out. We were cutting back, and trying to be careful with the money. Every single person lost every penny. You could have given the money to ten drunks, and at least two or three would have come back with something.
RWM: Why do you think that happened?
Marty Taft: We had no good explanation. We thought God was telling us to get out of this. And we did stop. That was the end of it for a while.
Keith Taft: We sold off the rights to Thor, and the buyer promptly had some programming changes made. He called it Dil Thor for Diluted Thor. He thought we were looking too much at the end of segments, and if we diluted it Thor wouldnít make these radical plays, and it would play better. The edge would be derived more from the betting than the playing. I still remember one of the players saying, ďDil Thor, it plays just like it sounds.Ē
This same player opted not to go with the new Dil Thor team. He wanted to play on his own. We provided him with a Thor, and he played for years with it.
Marty Taft: At low stakes he made a thousand units over a few months. That is a significant win. He was always making several units per hour. Clearly the machine had its moments.
Keith Taft: We skipped over the fact that we worked on roulette a little bit. Another guy had given us some money to work on that project. We ended up building some Thors for his repayment.
Marty Taft: We gave him almost all the money from our buyout as well.
Network Computing at Single Deck
RWM: Why did you give him the money from the buyout?
Marty Taft: We were nuts. We wanted him out of our lives. He said if we would give him back some of the money he gave us, heíd go away. So we did, and didnít hear much from him after that. He was a strange guy with a lot of problems.
This is when we came up with the 7 Up idea. We wired everyone together at the table, and played single deck hoping to get two rounds.
RWM: Wait a minute, explain this.
Keith Taft: We had five players take over a single-deck table. We played all seven spots.
Marty Taft: They were all connected together by hair-fine wires. They each had a computer, and it was a network. The computers all shared the information.
RWM: You invented network computing?
Keith Taft: Thatís right.
RWM: Were there network computers at this time?
Keith Taft: Not that I know of.
RWM: Do you know how much money you could have made if you became Microsoft instead of pursuing blackjack? What year was this?
Keith Taft: 1982.
RWM: So you built a microcomputer network, housed on five bodies, connected by hair-fine wires?
Keith Taft: What we called the master is called a server today.
RWM: You guys were like a chain gang, all connected together?
Keith Taft: Yes.
RWM: Didnít that look kind of funny walking into the casino?
Marty Taft: We wired up in pairs, and one guy wasnít wired at all. We would walk in and sit down. The guy not connected to anyone would sit in the middle. He then connected to the two pairs. The way we did that was, one of each pair had two quarters glued together with a wire, and an insulator between them. That way you had a plus and minus.
The guy in the middle had to stick the quarters into holders in his pockets. They had to go in the right way, so when you handed him the quarter it had to be heads up, and the head side had to go away from the body when he stuck it in the connector in his pocket. In his pockets he had a sentronic plug. The quarter fit into it just right, and made contact on both sides. There it was, a serial link. We were so paranoid about the wires that we made them really thin. They were literally the size of a hair, and almost invisible.
RWM: Did the wires come out the pant legs?
Marty Taft: They came right out of the pocket.
RWM: How much slack was there between the pairs when they were walking?
Marty Taft: About three feet. One time two guys were wired together, and one of them saw a pretty girl and said, ďOh, let me get the door for you.Ē She walked between them, and snap, there goes the wire.
Sometimes they would get too far apart. If it didnít break the wire, it might pop the quarter out of his pocket. There was the quarter dangling behind the guy. You would see the quarter bouncing along on the carpet. It was fun though. It was easy to input because you were only inputting your hand.
Keith Taft: And we were acting like we all knew each other.
Marty Taft: Rather than you alone against the casino, you had a group. Psychologically that helps. You didnít have to watch the cards, and you were flat betting, so there was no heat.
RWM: Was everybody betting the same amount?
Keith Taft: No, everyone had his own amount to bet, but it was heavier betting toward third base.
Marty Taft: One time one of the guys caught a hole card from one of the dealers. We had programmed a hole card feature into the machine. We had told everyone that if this happened you might get some very strange plays, so use some judgment.
Well, one guy gets the hole-card, and the dealer was stiff. The first guy has a pair of fives, and rather than double down he gets a call for a split. He backed his cards out and reentered them into the computer, and got the same result.
He split the fives. My dad is over there going, ďOh my Golly, what are you doing?Ē He was trying to get him to stop, but no. He split the fives. He gets another five, and splits it again. He winds up stiff on all three hands. The next guy splits tens. He winds up stiff on his hands. Iím thinking, ďHow obvious can this be?Ē The guy who saw the hole card is thinking, ďI wish I hadnít done that.Ē
Sure enough the dealer turns over the stiff and breaks. The pit boss came over and said, ďYou know, weíre not running a candy store here.Ē We decided we had better take a hike, and have a little strategy discussion.
Keith Taft: The 7 Ups was another idea that was basically workable that we abandoned. It involved quite a few people, and we didnít have a lot of bank money. We were winning, but it wasnít that profitable. It was something that we left that could have been made to work.
Marty Taft: But then they started preferential shuffling on us. If the count was negative they would deal a second round. If it was positive they would shuffle up. We tried calling them on it, and they said they could do whatever they wanted to.
Video Hole Carding
Keith Taft: I had always been really concerned with doing things that were patently legal. I realized when they started preferentially shuffling that they were not going to play the game by the rules. That is when I said, ďThe gloves are coming off.Ē Thatís when we started thinking about using video.
RWM: What gave you the idea to use video?
Marty Taft: We had kicked the idea around before. I had thought of cutting a hole in the side of a motor home and using a satellite dish. This was before we really knew much about any of this stuff. I thought of using that to get transmissions out of a casino. But that isnít how we started.
RWM: How did you start?
Marty Taft: We had a Hitachi camera first, but that was bulky. I took a standard camera, and started digging into it. I took the head off, and was able to tilt it 90 degrees. The belt buckle seemed like the logical place to be looking out. It was the right height when you were standing. We put some material in front of the lens. It actually looked very good. You couldnít tell.
Keith Taft: We had to find special filter materials for the belt buckle. It was IR [infrared] so it looked red to the human eye but was transparent to the camera.
Marty Taft: They didnít have electronic shutters then. We cut a little pie piece out of a metal disk, and put it on a motor that was synchronized with the frame rate. This disk would spin, and freeze the motion.
RWM: This is all built into the belt buckle?
Keith Taft: The camera was up on your stomach. The batteries were on either side of the camera, so it was fairly bulky.
Marty Taft: The head of the camera was taken off and turned 90 degrees. That is the lens and the sensor, which is a CCD chip. That chip usually has a few electronics on a small board.
That is then usually connected to the rest of the electronics board in the body of the camera. The cameras were about six inches long, by two and a half, by two and a half. That Hitachi wasnít very light sensitive, so Sony came out with a CCD camera that was quite a bit more light sensitive. I did the same thing with that camera, and I think a 25mm lens was the right focal length. The lens and chip were about one inch long, so that is how far it stuck out behind the belt buckle.
RWM: Were these big rodeo type belt buckles?
Marty Taft: No, they were about an inch tall with a gold frame, and a little red symbol in the center. It just looked like a gold buckle with a red jewel-like center. It was very trim. The final version looked very good.
Keith Taft: My brother and I took a trip, and played several casinos. I made a few trips with a couple of different models. By expanding a Thor we were able to have enough memory to capture 11 frames. I would hold a toe switch down, and the belt buckle camera took pictures continuously until I let up on the switch. When we saw the hole card tucked, I would lift my toe. It would then pop back about 5 frames. I had a little one-inch monitor in my shirt pocket, and it would play back those frames, and I could see the hole card there.
RWM: Doesnít this make you a pioneer of digital photography? You were capturing digital images back in 1983. This had to be technology way ahead of its time.
Keith Taft: Thatís true.
RWM: Did you have to make this one-inch monitor, or could you buy one at that time?
Keith Taft: It was actually the viewfinder for one of the early video cameras. We took apart the camera and I carried that little black-and-white monitor in my shirt pocket. I wore dark glasses that had a right angle prism in the left lens. When I looked straight ahead my left eye would actually see down into my pocket.
RWM: Why did you abandon this method?
Marty Taft: I was up on a balcony looking down on him playing. I could see the monitor glowing in his pocket.
Keith Taft: Also you had to wear dark glasses to put the prism in. That looked a little suspicious. There were probably ways around these problems, but we decided it would be better if the person doing the viewing was away from the table. We talked for years about putting that stuff into something you could carry into the menís room. We never wound up doing that. We always put it in a vehicle outside.
We started experimenting to see what could be seen. We came up with an idea to put a right angle lens into a belt buckle. We looked at many different belt buckles. We experimented with how to operate it. We looked at various frequencies for sending the signal back and forth.
We looked very early on at satellite frequencies. It sounded much more appealing to use standard channel frequencies from 60 MHz on up to 800+ MHz where you get into UHF bands. We looked at all of those, and built some equipment to take into the casinos to test it. We would practice something at home, and it would work perfectly. Then we would get to the casino, and as soon as we got inside, the signal would die. It really puzzled us. We knew that people operated TVs in casinos with just rabbit ears. I donít fully understand why that is a fact.
Marty Taft: We did an experiment where we parked right across from the casino. I could see him. He was only 20 or 30 feet from me. He would step into the doorway, and the signal just disappeared. Heíd step back outside, and Iíd get it right back.
Keith Taft: Marty and I had a big argument on the way home from one of these disastrous experiments. Marty insisted that satellite frequencies-which are 4 GHz-were the way to go. He finally convinced me that was right. This involved putting a six-foot dish in the back of a double-cab pickup truck. It had a rather unusual looking frame around it, which was transparent to radio waves. We converted the back seat, and put in the capture device, which was a video recorder that had special controls. It had a shuttle so you could quickly review frame by frame.
RWM: What happened when you started playing with this?
Keith Taft: We were down to our last dollars. We went out on the first trip with $700, maybe less, but this thing was a money machine. It started cranking right away.
Marty Taft: I remember one of the first plays. I was out in the truck, and my dad went inside. He started winning, and they changed dealers on him. The new dealer was very fast, and snapping the cards around. Because she was angry she actually gave me a better flash than the first one.
We continued to win, and she was getting more and more angry. We had time limits. We would only play 30 or 40 minutes. He finally packed up his chips to leave, and a tear came down her eye, because she wanted to beat him so bad. It was freezing one time in Sparks, and I remember my dad wanted to grind on.
RWM: I thought he was only supposed to play 30 or 40 minutes.
Marty Taft: Yeah, I donít remember why we were grinding on. I guess we wanted to get one more play in. Anyway, it was cold in this truck, and I could hardly keep my eyes open. The screen would come to life and flick, flick, flick, as the propeller would wind up. When you turned on the camera it was up to speed, but that little motorized device with the disk would take a few seconds to rev up and synchronize with the frame rate of the camera.
It was never perfect. You would lose a frame every ten, or you would sometimes lose a critical field. He was playing, and all of a sudden everything went black. I thought, ďOh no. What kind of equipment failure did I have?Ē Not too far away I hear this big diesel motor start up. Then I hear Dad over our two-way radio, ďOh, looks like we had a power failure in here.Ē All the lights went out. Thatís why my screen had gone black.
RWM: When Keith was inside with the camera, you were in constant radio communication?
Marty Taft: He had a separate switch that allowed him to turn on a radio to talk to me. That same radio I used to transmit to him.
Keith Taft: We used taps and buzzes though, because we were worried about them intercepting voice transmission.
Marty Taft: Thatís right. His radio was tied to a buzzer with a phase-lock loop.
Keith Taft: He could override it with a mic if he needed to talk to me.
RWM: So life was good. You had a money machine.
Marty Taft: We were pushing hard. We were out there grinding away, trying to make money. Things were finally starting to click. I think we stayed out on one trip a little too long. These guys were tired, and they did some dumb things.
RWM: There were two others on your team, right?
Keith Taft: Yes, my brother, and my brother-in-law. They went to play at the Marina, and there was a culinary strike going on. [The Marina was located where the MGM in Las Vegas is today.]
RWM: Hadnít there been a bomb threat?
Keith Taft: Thatís what we heard.
RWM: Did they play?
Marty Taft: They tried, but there were some problems. He came back out to the truck to change his boots.
Keith Taft: The boots were uncomfortable, so he was changing into his other shoes.
Marty Taft: The security guards came over. They thought it looked a little strange because the engine was running. They started asking questions. They wanted the registration on the truck, and our guys couldnít find it. They were suspicious, and they didnít like the looks of the truck. It was pretty heavily modified. They found the camera, and then the police got there.
RWM: This wasnít the police? This was just security guards?
Marty Taft: Right. Our guys were inexperienced. If they had just said they were leaving.
RWM: What did the police find?
Marty Taft: Satellite dish. Practice tapes that showed the hole card going under.
Keith Taft: There was a loaded 9mm handgun under the front seat.
Marty Taft: That was the only thing we got back at the end. They took everything else, including all the money, which was a substantial amount.
Keith Taft: The police took them back to the hotel. I was sleeping in the next room, and I heard this ruckus. I went outside and knocked on their door. The door was yanked open, and they threw me on the bed, and handcuffed me.
Marty Taft: Put a gun to his head.
Keith Taft: Yeah. They took me aside to talk separately. Ted and Rod were sitting there in handcuffs looking pretty glum. They didnít have anything on me, so they let me go. They took Ted and Rod down to the hoosgow. We bailed them out before too long.
RWM: Wasnít one of them a school principal?
Keith Taft: My brother had been a principal, but wasnít at that time. The other was my brother-in-law. He was a space engineer, and had resigned originally to play with Thor.
RWM: Who was your lawyer?
Keith Taft: I donít remember his name.
RWM: I donít understand how they prosecuted. There were no laws against devices at that time, and they hadnít played.
Marty Taft: A dealer said he had played, and she recognized him.
RWM: Werenít there surveillance tapes?
Marty Taft: They didnít need them.
RWM: If you had a good lawyer they would.
Marty Taft: Yes, then things would have been different.
RWM: What charge were they convicted of?
Keith Taft: Possession of a cheating device.
Marty Taft: They laid all the cash and equipment out in front of the jury, and said, ďThey cheated, they cheated, they cheated. They went too far. Look at all this effort they went to in order to cheat. This is clearly not something that is legal.Ē The jury agreed.
RWM: Did anyone testify for your side?
Marty Taft: No. The dumb lawyer said they hadnít made their case.
Keith Taft: Arnold Snyder was there ready to testify, but the lawyer didnít use him.
Marty Taft: Arnold had all the things in the books, why it was legal, but the jury never heard any of it. The jury just heard one side, and our lawyer didnít think they had made their case.
RWM: Did they appeal?
Keith Taft: Yes. By this time the lawyerís partner took the case. He seemed to be fairly decent, but they upheld the first decision. The first lawyer left the state for some reason. They described it as an evaluation for 90 days. They were in prison for 60 days. It was very traumatic for them.
RWM: I would think for you as well.
Keith Taft: It caused a lot of hard feelings within the family. We got them involved in this thing. My brotherís church was not understanding. He had some bad experiences with the elders, and the pastor of that church.
Marty Taft: Didnít they make him confess in front of the church?
Keith Taft: It could be. Iíve forgotten. It was a bad experience.
RWM: It was because of this bust that Nevada wrote their device laws, wasnít it?
Keith Taft: It was a big factor, but Rats Cohen was running ads at that time in the Las Vegas Sun, and the Los Angeles Times for Caseys. They could see that computers were going to be a big problem. [Casey was the name Rats Cohen gave his computers, after stealing the design from Keith.]
RWM: Ah, we havenít talked about that yet. At some point you found out that Rats had ripped off your machines.
Keith Taft: Yes.
RWM: How did you find out? Was it these newspaper ads?
Marty Taft: Cohen called us. He had a Thor at that time. He said, ďAll these decisions seem to be wrong. Explain why the computer is doing this.Ē I remember Dad saying, ďAha! Youíre copying the frames from our old David, and trying to put the Thor in it.Ē Cohen said, ďNo, I havenít done that.Ē Dad gave him an out saying maybe he had taken a chip out of one and put it in an old machine.
Keith Taft: He also had called up asking how to get the epoxy off the machines. We told him, which was kind of crazy.
RWM: What was his excuse for wanting to get the epoxy off?
Keith Taft: He wanted to do a repair.
Marty Taft: He had been trying to pick that stuff off before. Iíd get machines back where the epoxy had been picked off in sections. He was attempting to open it up from very early on.
RWM: It turned out he eventually got into it, copied your design, and started selling them as Casey?
Keith Taft: Yeah.
Marty Taft: He changed a pin slightly on the output. Everything was the same. I guess weíre really lousy salesmen. One guy called me up who wanted to buy a machine. Somehow he had heard about Casey, and he said that Cohen said he was first. I said, ďNo, we built all this stuff, and he ripped us off.Ē I gave him the whole story, and he wound up buying from Cohen anyway.
RWM: Was his cheaper?
Marty Taft: No, same price. But Cohen was much more convincing than we were. Then, a month later the guy called, asking if I could repair his machine. He said he had a falling out with Cohen. I said, ďNo, Iím not going to fix it. You didnít buy it from us.Ē It was nuts.
RWM: Did you know there is still someone out there selling Caseys?
Keith Taft: I did know that. I talked to the guy, because he and Cohen also didnít get along. This could be someone beyond that, but last I heard he had the exclusive franchise, and had paid Cohen quite a bit of money for it. Cohen was ripping him off too.
The Super Drop
Marty Taft: Then we came up with the idea for the super drop. Iím not sure who had the initial idea.
Keith Taft: I think it was one of those simultaneous things. We were talking about various ideas, and there it was. They started to work on that down in L.A. One guy wore the camera in the belt buckle. He would ask some directions as one of the players was cutting the cards. The player cutting would riffle through the deck before making the cut. [At this time players cut by hand, not by inserting a cut card.] That would be transmitted, and the person in the truck would get the order of the cards.
The BP would stall for time pulling out a lot of money, and getting it changed up. It took about forty seconds, and by that time the person in the truck had inputted the cards, and he would relay the information back in as to how many hands to play, and which strategy to play. They only had to learn an A or B strategy. The BP was just told how many hands to play, and whether to use strategy A or B.
They would get in 2 rounds. By then the camera was out the door, and long gone. The truck was also gone before the action took place. They didnít need to park long. That worked from roughly October to May. We had an actual 57% edge. Thatís not theoretical. They actually won 57%. Now that is a hammer.
Marty Taft: The BP would start pulling money out of his pockets to delay. There was no problem stalling. One time, after he won a bunch of hands, the dealer said, ďI see you didnít come here to gamble.Ē The BP said, ďWhat do you mean?Ē The dealer said, ďYou just came here to change your money.Ē The BP said, ďGo ahead, and fish them out of the box. Iíll take the same bills I brought in.Ē
The one problem I had with that project was that the players had no technical ability at all. If anything went wrong they said, ďCall Marty.Ē Iíd drive five hours to Reno. One time I drove there, and all I had to do was cinch a connector together a little tighter, and that was it. They said, ďGolly, we feel bad.Ē I said, ďWell, I understand.Ē
I drove all the way home, and I just got home and they had another problem. I turned around, and drove all the way back. This time it was a tough problem. It wasnít something they could fix, so it needed my attention. I fixed that, and drove all the way home again. I was really tired. I had to stop and take a quick nap about half way home.
RWM: But that project was a good moneymaker.
Marty Taft: It was, and I was happy to go out and work at things that were succeeding.
RWM: What happened? Why did you stop?
Keith Taft: Ted and Rodís appeal was in the mill. There hadnít been a decision. If they got pulled up it would be hard on them.
Marty Taft: Plus, donít forget they were seemingly getting some heat. When they cashed in their money they were getting a lot of attention. The casinos were asking for IDs. It was about that time they passed the law about reporting over $10,000. It was either that or they really were just trying to find out more about our guys.
The Sequencing Computer
Keith Taft: The other big thing that happened was that I made a trip to Atlantic City, and observed the shuffles. I realized the sequencing possibilities, and went to work hard on building a sequencing machine in the spring of 1985. I figured we should switch over rather than risk using video. This machine I named Narnia.
RWM: Computers were not illegal in Atlantic City at this time?
Keith Taft: Right. The concept was to take a short hiatus while I built Narnia, and put the video aside. We had been very fortunate, and there were no incidents. We thought we would just keep it a secret, and nobody would ever know. That has been true. It was as if it never happened.
Marty Taft: It really pissed our partners off. It was a source of good income for them. They wanted to keep the equipment and keep going. But my dad said, and I think rightly so, there was just too much on the line right now with the court cases. It really pissed them off, and that was the beginning of the end. They held on through development for a while, and then they dumped us.
Keith Taft: I met them out in A.C. in August, and demonstrated what I had at the time. It needed some refinement, but in September we went out there and started to train and work. They werenít really winning, and it was pretty frustrating for them. They had expenses, and all. I continued to work on it, and solve the problems. We decided to take a break around November.
Marty Taft: You had encouraged them to take a break. We needed two or three months to work on it, and then we would have it.
Keith Taft: We didnít get back together until February. We flew out there with our latest Narnia. We really had wonderful results, and it was ready for action.
Marty Taft: Our bags got mixed with the bags coming in from Canada, so they were X-rayed. In my bag were some Christmas presents, which were survival knives that were gift-wrapped. I also had a roll of toilet paper because I didnít like that cheap hotel toilet paper. They get my bag open and see these weird computers, and this other stuff. They thought I was some kind of terrorist. They gave me a big hassle, and I had to just sit there waiting. This Customs guy said, ďYouíre not going anywhere until I say you can go.Ē After about fifteen minutes he said, ďOkay, get out of here.Ē
RWM: Boy, in this day and age you would still be in the lockup trying to call your lawyer.
Keith Taft: I arrived there, and our teammates were grim-faced. They said they didnít even want to see the new Narnia. I thought that was strange. They didnít want it demonstrated. They just wanted to split up and go their own way.
They had some other ideas. We also disagreed because they wanted to play poker rooms in California. Iíve always had an aversion to playing against my fellow man with a computer. Maybe this is warped, but I felt it was okay to go after a big casino with computer technology, but not to sit down at a table with another guy who thinks Iím just Joe Blow. We disagreed in that area, and they said they wanted to pursue that.
RWM: What were they going to play with a computer?
Keith Taft: Poker. They wanted to develop a poker computer.
Marty Taft: Plus, they had an excellent trip playing the ďdropĒ without a camera. While we were on the hiatus they made a lot of money. [The ďdropĒ was first discussed in my interview with Al Francesco. At that time players were allowed to cut by hand. The move involved starting to cut, flashing a card to a confederate, and then dropping it and four more cards back down onto the deck. When the dealer completed the cut the team now had exact knowledge of the fifth card from the top of the deck. It is this move that caused casinos to begin using a cut card.]
RWM: Why didnít they tell you that they wanted to split before you got on a plane to fly out there?
Keith Taft: Good question. They said they had been wrestling with it, and had just come to the decision. They had all gone to Hawaii during the hiatus, and I think they had worked this out.
They left us there, just Marty and I. We were low on funds, but we decided we better go out and play with Narnia, and get it going. We played that trip, and we worked out some techniques. We had some discussions about what the best way to use Narnia was. One of the former teammates thought you couldnít jump your bet around or they would bar you as a counter. I felt that you could because you were betting at odd times, not with the count.
It turned out I was right. They looked at our crazy plays, and ignored the bet spread. There was also a question of whether the inputter would stand behind the table or play. We went ahead and worked it out. We were playing low stakes, but did well.
We went home, and called two other players we knew. They had approached Ted, who had been our representative after he was arrested. They stopped by, and we met them. They had nothing better to do, and they were eager to get involved. We gave them a deal, to this day when I think about it I sweat. We promised them $200 per day just to be there. Then they also got a percentage of the win.
RWM: That sounds like a fair deal to me.
Keith Taft: This was an unproved program.
Marty Taft: And we had to borrow $10,000 from one of our former teammates. We borrowed money from him to pay the two new guys.
Keith Taft: We had a few BPs also that we rotated every trip.
Marty Taft: We didnít make money for quite some time.
Keith Taft: We struggled for several trips. We were just making expenses, or coming close to it. Then it all turned around very suddenly.
RWM: Why did it change?
Keith Taft: Good question. Part of it was one of the two guys, who was always a wild man. We always had rules to protect the BP, and make him look right. We had rules about how much to win, and how much to bet. The rules just went out the window with him. Heíd start pushing the money out there, and things were working. He won $17,000 on a play, and things just started to click.
Marty Taft: Then we were going to go back, and make some more improvements. We refined the algorithms, and just ate them up. I say that, but I still remember sessions where we would lose, lose, lose. Other sessions you just looked like a complete genius.
RWM: Did you keep track of individual dealers? Did you find that certain dealers were better because they riffled better or picked them up in order better?
Keith Taft: We did. One of the things I programmed was the clumps. If there were five cards in a row that hadnít been shuffled it switched into clump mode. It assumed the clump was going to keep going, which usually it did for a while. We knew exactly what the next card was. It was feast time. We did a lot of analysis of dealers. We could tell by the sound of the riffle how clumpy they were. But Narnia liked them all.
Then our former teammates showed up with machines of their own. That didnít make us feel very happy.
Marty Taft: Atlantic City had some real bad areas. We went to meet them in Brigantine, and we were going through one of the bad areas, at night, on bicycles. We were on this narrow road, and these four guys came along in a car. They drove by my dad fairly slowly, and this guy leans out the window and says, ďWeíre going to run you down.Ē
My dad, rather than take a hint, and stay away--when they stopped at a stop sign he blew by them and said, ďIím going to give you another chance.Ē They start trying to bump him off the road. They were playing games with him back and forth. He was peddling on one side of the road, and I was on the other. My heart was pounding.
Finally they screeched to a stop in front of him, forcing him to stop. One of the guys jumped out of the car, and in one smooth motion he brought his fist up and stopped it about a half-inch from my dadís jaw. He got back in the car, and they drove off. The adrenaline was pumping through me. He doesnít remember it.
Keith Taft: I donít.
Marty Taft: A mile later we were on the top of the Brigantine bridge, and I was still shaking. I have to give those guys credit. They could have killed us both. I remember telling my dad, if I had a gun I probably would have shot them. He said, ďGee, I feel bad that you are so upset about this--that you took it so seriously.Ē For him it was just a game. For me it was life and death. We just got lucky that it was four guys who were fairly reasonable.
Keith Taft: A lot of it may have had to do with my approach. It wasnít like I was hostile to them.
RWM: It sounds like there were quite a few computer teams playing in Atlantic City at that time.
Keith Taft: Thatís true. There were at least three or four.
Marty, remember the pit boss who was so friendly to you?
Marty Taft: One time with Narnia I had been playing, and Iíd been winning money at Park Place. They decided to send the counter catcher down. The guy comes down, and heís watching all the cards. He engages me in conversation.
I was loading up Narnia, and playing basic strategy. Weíre talking, and he is very respectful, but he knows he is going to throw me out. In the meantime we share this moment of camaraderie. They shuffle and one of the first things out of the shoe I double down 9 against a 7. He turned his back to me, and hardly watched the game. One play and that was it for him. Shuffle tracking provides a lot of cover for you.
The Tooth Inputter
RWM: At some point you devised a way to input with your teeth--how did that work?
Keith Taft: You only have two contacts, an A and a B.
Marty Taft: We had left side contacts, top and bottom, and right side contacts.
RWM: How did you get all the inputs that way?
Keith Taft: The computer generated a series of tones. [At this point Keith sang a series of ascending notes.] Do, me, so, do.
Marty Taft: By the way, he programmed it to be perfect pitch. It wasnít four random notes.
Keith Taft: The right side was an octave higher than the left. The idea was you closed one side, and you listened. As it went up the scale, when you released it that was your number.
Marty Taft: They were in groups of four. The do, me, so, do, represents the numbers four, eight, twelve, sixteen. You fill in the ones on the other side.
Keith Taft: You did the rank first, and the suit next.
Marty Taft: Letís say you put one side together and got do, me, and then released it; that would represent an eight.
RWM: How would you put in a two?
Marty Taft: By going to the right side directly. The tones on the right represent one, two, three, four, and the tones on the left are four, eight, twelve, sixteen. We set it up that way because we hit sixteen quite a lot and wanted it to be easy. Sixteen was a control code.
Keith Taft: You switched back and forth. You had to be careful because you always switched to the opposite side to finish with the suit. The rule for the suit was one tone was spades, two hearts, three clubs, and four diamonds. A two of hearts would be the right contact for two tones, then the left contact for two tones to represent hearts, or one tone if it was the two of spades.
RWM: When I close my teeth both sides make contact.
Keith Taft: Marty did an ingenious job. He got a jewelerís casting setup. He had a dentist make impressions of the teeth. They were designed so you didnít close them down; you moved them side-to-side.
Marty Taft: With your jaw slightly open you could move it slightly left or right to make the contact. There was a little spike that came up from the bottom, and another coming down from the top.
RWM: Were there little wires in your mouth connecting everything?
Keith Taft: Yes. I had a mustache and beard, and these tiny wires came out of the mouth and back through the beard, and down into the shirt.
RWM: Could you drink, and talk?
Keith Taft: Yes.
RWM: This is amazing.
Keith Taft: The concept worked so well that we preserved the tones as the way we recognized suits in Narnia.
RWM: Do you think you were inputting accurately this way?
Keith Taft: Yes, I think the error rate was higher than with a hand keyboard, but it was pretty good. I could run through one deck, rank and suit, in thirty-eight seconds consistently. My record was thirty-three. Thatís not bad. Amazingly, the jaw did not get that tired. It was a pretty reasonable way to do it. It was important to have a good earpiece so you could hear clear tones.
RWM: Did you go to this because you thought there was heat on the hand inputting?
Keith Taft: Exactly.
RWM: Marty, did you practice this as well?
Marty Taft: I did, but I never got good enough to play. I didnít put in the time.
RWM: I would think this would be really hard.
Marty Taft: It is hard. Narnia made money for quite a while. The shuffles changed, and the edge started to go down. Those were good times. Eventually the laws changed and it ended.
RWM: Have you been working on inventions outside of blackjack?
Keith Taft: We had ideas for using inputs with the toes, or teeth, for people in wheelchairs. But Iíve found that to succeed at anything you really have to focus. If you are going to break new ground it takes total dedication.
There hasnít been time to ever get to it. I never achieved my initial goal. When I first started I wanted to win $200,000. I thought that would be sufficient to give me lead-time to develop some inventions, and make a living that way. In the early years I never made the $200,000 or came close to it. Of course the price of success kept going up. Iíve had a lot of ideas but never pursued them. I just pursued gambling concepts.
RWM: What are you doing now?
Keith Taft: Iím semi-retired. My backyard needs landscaping in the worst way. We have ten acres, and my wife is hard on my case to work on that. Itís time to make her happy, and be more of a conventional husband. I donít have any dreams of great things to accomplish at the moment.
RWM: Marty mentioned that the real potential for electronics has never been realized.
Keith Taft: That is very true.
RWM: Why do you think that is?
Marty Taft: Too much effort. The kind of people that you wind up dealing with are not disciplined enough. Maybe it is not just them, but the resources, time, and energy we have available donít produce much beyond prototype equipment. Not all the bugs get worked out.
We probably rush it too much. It takes maybe three months of making no money, to make sure it is just right before putting it into action. Sometimes we survived that initial period, and started to make money. Another thing is, no matter what you do in blackjack, once you start pulling the money out, you canít put your foot to the floor with the throttle or you blow up the situation. They start looking for what you are doing. Itís like a spring tension. As you push harder they are pushing back harder.
Usually the opportunities youíre going for with electronics are very specific, and too limited. Maybe it is only in a couple of casinos, because it is some unique thing about the game that you are trying to exploit. I donít think we have ever come up with a device that had universal large edge capabilities. David could play any blackjack game, but the edge was quite low. We had a good opportunity in 1984 with the video. We didnít quite get past the prototype hump. We hadnít worked out all the procedures and disciplines.
I think the weak link in all we have done is the people we worked with.
RWM: Why blackjack? Why casinos? It seems to me your life could have gone in so many directions. Why not insulin pumps?
Keith Taft: None of those other directions have the total self-dependence, and self-determination that blackjack does. With insulin pumps you have manufacturing, and skills that are unknown to me. There is a bit of a hermit quality that tinkerers possess. Like the Bible study that asks, ďWhy did God select Mary to bear Jesus?Ē The answer is, ďShe was available.Ē
With blackjack it looked like if you just did A, B, and C, then success would be assured. There is less risk in my mind than with an insulin pump. Actually we had some other good humanitarian ideas.
RWM: What are you doing now, Marty?
Marty Taft: I work in fiber optic communications. Weíre trying to make the switches that will switch the light waves.
RWM: Do you miss it?
Keith Taft: There are parts I miss, and parts I donít. Some people have been very disappointing. Itís no fun to work on blackjack teams where there isnít harmony.
I really enjoyed the lab work. I liked developing the concepts, and then implementing them. Thatís been more enjoyable than going out and doing it. Thatís always a very hostile challenge. You are always concerned about getting caught, and what that might mean.
Weíve done some things where we were quite successful, but you still have those worries about safety. There is the legal aspect. Some of the things weíve done are very borderline, and there is a question how they would be seen by the law, or by a jury.
RWM: What about you Marty? Do you miss it?
Marty Taft: Oh yeah.
RWM: This seems to have been a good partnership between father and son.
Keith Taft: Excellent. To succeed at a project like this, it involves people, invention, hardware, and software. I wouldnít have accomplished this alone. Marty is one reason we have had the success weíve had. He has been the other voice, and many ideas are his.
RWM: It must be fun working with your son as well.
Keith Taft: Absolutely. It has been one of the great success stories of my life. A lot has to do with his temperament. He has been wonderful to work with. Weíve worked together for over twenty years, and it was always a joy.
Marty Taft: Weíve had a lot of fun together. Itís been a terrific experience. Most sons donít get to know their Dads that well. He has the best ideas, the implementations, and analysis. It is a good synergy.
Keith Taft: With that attitude you can see why we have succeeded. [laughing]
Regarding the trial of Ted and Rod, the Tafts mention that Arnold Snyder was present to testify as an expert witness. Their lawyer decided the prosecution had not made their case, so Arnold never testified. Though they didnít play, and there was no law against this device, they were convicted of a felony, fined $10,000, and spent 60 days in prison. This is what Arnold Snyder wrote in the March 1986 issue of Blackjack Forum.
ďThe jury understood nothing of the legal issues involved. No one ever explained to the jury that front-loading was not illegal. The prosecution stated repeatedly that these things were illegal, and the defense never adequately stated otherwise. They didnít want to admit that Ted and Rod had ever actually done anything in a casino with their device.
The prosecution claimed that the device could be used to gather hole-card information from any dealer, and that this information was not available to any other players at the table. This was not true.
The vast majority of dealers, according to Ted, are not so sloppy as to tip their hole cards up towards players when ďloadingĒ it under their up cards. In many casinos, not a single front-loading dealer could be found.
And those dealers who were front-loaders were not always consistent. There was no sure-win situation with their device. Like all players who try to benefit from the hole-card information provided by occasionally sloppy dealers, Ted and Rod were attempting to get an edge. Sometimes they were successful. Sometimes not. But for all intents and purposes, they were just using a crazy technology scheme for front-loading. Their expectation was solely dependent on dealer errors.
The jury never knew this. Ted and Rod never told their story. They never had a defense. The prosecution described the device, how it worked, what it did. All wrong. Neither Ted nor Rod ever corrected the record. Their silence convicted them.
Keith and Marty Taft were pioneers. Their ploy was actually brilliant. They really had found an ingenious high-tech method to get a legal edge over the casinos.
They werenít cheats. They had read books about front-loading, and knew it was not illegal. They knew devices were not illegal. Both had used blackjack computers in the past, and knew they were within the law. In my opinion, neither of them would ever have considered risking breaking the law to beat the casinos. They knew they were in the right.Itís a tragedy.Ē
Snyder Comments 2004
A few clarifications are in order.
The Las Vegas attorneys for Taft and Weatherford were John Curtas and Stephen Minigal. I believe Curtas is still practicing law in Nevada. At the time I wrote the above comments (BJF March 1986) I was not aware of some of the facts of the case.
There had been a prior case in Nevada (Einbinder/Dalben, 1983) in which two players who were using a ďfront-loadingĒ strategy to see the dealerís hole card were found not guilty. I was under the impression that the Einbinder/Dalben decision had rendered hole card play legal. In fact, that decision had come from a district court and was not binding on any other court in the state.
The state had appealed the decision to the Nevada Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court had upheld the lower court decision; but still, that did not make all hole card play legal.
I was also unaware that Steven Einbinder and Tony Dalbenís attorneys in 1983 were John Curtas and Stephen Minigal, the same attorneys who represented Taft and Weatherford in 1986! So, Curtas and Minigal were well aware of the implications of the Einbinder/Dalben decision.
Tony Dalben was kind enough to send me a transcript of their trial, including the Supreme Courtís ruling on the stateís appeal. In that case, the Supreme Court stated flatly that the lower court decision was being upheld based on the facts of the case, which included the fact that the defendants had not used any devices (other than their eyesight) to obtain the hole card information.
Since this was a big part of Curtasís and Minigalís defense in the Einbinder/Dalben trial, it would have been impossible for them to cite the Einbinder/Dalben decision in their defense of Taft and Weatherford. In a later issue of BJF (June, 1987), I published some excerpts from the Einbinder/Dalben trial, plus the wording of the Nevada Supreme Court decision on the appeal, as well as comments by attorney Stephen Minigal on the legal status of hole card play in Nevada.
As a witness to the Taft/Weatherford trial, I am still of the opinion that Taft and Weatherford were railroaded by the court and were not given a fair hearing, and that the attorneys were ďhandcuffedĒ by the judge in what they were allowed to present in their defense. At the time that Taft and Weatherford were arrested, the simple fact is that Nevada had no anti-device law that would have convicted them.
I suspect their attorneys would have presented the case to the jury differently had they known that the judge would disallow them from making the closing arguments they had prepared, which were based on the exact definition of cheating in the current statutes. But they did not learn that the judge would not permit the statutes to be read to the jury until after it was too late to go back to the witness stand with more testimony.
Essentially, Taft and Weatherford were convicted of cheating, not because their attorneys had failed, but because the judge, Donald Mosley, would not allow a fair trial in his courtroom.] ♠
For more information on Keith Taft and his blackjack computers, see The Electronic Gambler, in the Blackjack Forum Gambling Library.
For more information on professional gamblers, see the Professional Gambling Library
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