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Edward O. Thorp: The Mathematician Behind Card Counting

blackjack table

Casino games broadly break down into two different types – skill based games, and luck based games. With luck based games, such as our selection of slot games, the only way to gain an undue advantage is to rig the equipment. That might be skewing the bingo machine or cheating by printing your own ticket – but you can’t legitimately increase your chances of winning versus anyone else.

With skill based games, the more skilled you are, the more money you should expect to win – especially when playing against an average opponent. This is a significant difference, and one that allows people who put in hard work training and upskilling in different games to reap the rewards of their effort.

But with some skill-based games, unlike their chance counterparts, there are ways to gain an advantage. Step forward a method known as card counting, a practice widely considered to be cheating by many casinos, and a strategy so successful and hard to detect that the casinos have had to adopt other methods to try to stop it working. Edward O. Thorp is the man responsible for introducing card counting to the world, and simultaneously causing a lot of headaches for casino operators.

What is Card Counting?

Card counting is a technique deployed in card games like blackjack, where players keep count of the cards that have already been dealt or discarded, in order to form opinions about the probability of the dealer’s hand. In blackjack the dealer’s hand is an unknown quantity, and knowing whether the dealer is likely to have a stronger hand than you makes a massive difference to how you bet in different situations.

Rather than betting on the strength of your own hand, card counting aims to allow you to discover whether the dealer is in a mathematically advantaged position, based on the cards that remain unknown. This doesn’t work flawlessly, and sometimes, a card counting technique will leave players losing a hand they might have otherwise won. However, over the long-game, this is a mathematical strategy that is actually skewing odds towards your favour, and as a result, the casinos very much do not approve of the technique.

cards and money

That’s not to say it’s a simple trick anyone can use – far from it. While there are shortcuts, the proper process of card counting as explained by Edward O. Thorp requires more sophisticated modelling in your mind, and you need to be sharp to put this into practice in a live game situation.

Edward O. Thorp’s Story

Edward Oakley Thorp is the man credited with introducing the concept of card counting to the world. An academic, professor, investor and laterally highly successful author, his gift for mathematics would allow him to expound the theory in his international best seller, Beat the Dealer, still the definitive text on card counting for those who are intrigued to find out more, and maybe to practice their skills a little.

Edward Thorp was formerly a senior professor at several Ivy League universities in the US, and carried a prestige and academic credence that is too often drowned out in gambling circles. Using his close understanding of mathematics and probability, Thorp was able to condense his work on blackjack into a volume that could be more easily digested by casual players, and would go on to spark a raft of card counting attempts at casinos worldwide.

To this day, Thorp’s methods are still deployed by blackjack players at casinos and private games, each trying to get an edge on the house based on a better knowledge of the probability of the dealer’s hand. As a result, there have been some impressive wins from players implementing card counting when playing blackjack.

Card Counting Today

Card counting is not illegal, and most people would consider the practice an example of impressive mental agility and skill, rather than cheating in the ordinary sense of the word. The casinos take a different approach, and as you’ll know if you ever get too successful in a casino, they’re not long showing you the door.

winner

Casinos have a right to refuse bets from anyone at any time, as a private business with their own decision making ability. If a casino notices someone card counting, and thereby gaining an advantage over their dealer, they can and do cut them off. This is to preserve profits, and some casinos are ruthless in their enforcement of these rules.

For this reason, card counting isn’t exactly something you should try on a Vegas blackjack table tomorrow. At least, if you do attempt to put this into practice, be prepared to be given short shrift on your prompt exit from the casino. Nevertheless, players can and do successful still deploy Thorp’s methods.

As well as a distinguished career for himself, he’s also helped a lot of people win a lot more money than they would have through their blackjack play.

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