Fable: The Gambling Professors

There was once a very great man who was a Professor at MIT.

With his friend, the Professor of Maths at MIT, the VGM built a wearable computer in 1961 which was designed to beat the house at roulette.

The input/output worked by tapping a shoe, the computing was done by a box strapped to the belt, and the signals went to an earpiece.

The two Professors visited Las Vegas several times to test out the device and ended up making a fortune.

Moral: Mathematica Vincit Omnia

1. Thorp relates how they became very good at judging when to scarper, zeitghost.

2. Sounds like a good way to end up buried in the desert to me.

The book “The Newtonian Casino” relates the story of a similar device using a 6502.

3. Well, according to Poundstone, Mike, the roulette strategy was Thorp’s idea. He had it in 1955 while existing on \$100 a month at UCLA as a graduate physics student needing extra money. However he shelved the roulette idea to pursue blackjack which, as you say, was more amenable to memory and maths. Five years later, in 1960, Thorp met Shannon, and told him his blackjack strategy. Shannon asked if he was working on anything else in the gambling area and Thorp told him about his roulette strategy, Shannon liked the roulette strategy better than the blackjack strategy because it involved building a gadget and Shannon loved building gadgets. They agreed to build the machine together working at Shannon’s house.

4. Sounds a bit haphazard. As two mathematicians I would have thought they preferred the more predictable cheat by card-counting at blackjack

5. Exactly right, Terry. In ‘Fortune’s Formula’, William Poundstone’s account of the Shannon/Thorp scam, Poundstone writes: “The device they (Shannon and Thorp) built was the size of a cigarette packet. It contained twelve transistors and slipped into a pocket. The user needed to measure the initial position and velocity of the two moving objects, the ball and the rotor. To do that, the user mentally picked a reference point on the stator. When a point on the rotor passed this reference point the user clicked a toe-operated switch concealed in his shoe. He clicked again when the rotor point passed the reference point again having made a full revolution. A third click signalled when the ball passed the reference point and a fourth when it had made a full revolution. From this data the device predicted the segment of the wheel in which the ball was likely to land. The device’s predictions were accurate only to within about ten pockets.” The system only made money, of course, because the house allowed bets after the ball had been thrown.

6. The device worked at roulette, from what I recall they would place bets at the very last second, after the ball had been thrown into the wheel. By tapping the foot in a certain way to indicate the rotation of the wheel and where the ball was thrown in they could predict which sector it’d land in, not with perfect precision but enough to shift the odds into their favour away from the house.

7. Well Ed Thorp was the Professor of Mathematics, Mike, but the VGM was Claude Shannon. And their device was used to play both blackjack and roulette – to the best of my knowledge. They actually bought an old Vegas roulette wheel to test out their methods.

8. Edward Thorp. And it was blackjack, not roulette. A computer won’t help you win at the wheel.