Wednesday, 7th December, 2016

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Who is Edward Thorp?

Edward Thorp is a famous mathematician, lecturer and blackjack player who is credited with inventing wearable computers which facilitated modern card counting systems which have enabled blackjack pros to win millions of dollars. He also authored the bestselling book “Beat the Dealer” which proved mathematically that card counting could give players an edge over the house.

Edward Thorp’s Rise to Prominence

Thorp was born in August 1932 in Chicago. He received a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California in 1958 and then joined MIT where he lectured between 1959 and 1961. In 1961, he became professor of mathematics at New Mexico State University and then from 1977 to 1982 he joined the University of California, Los Angeles. According to Thorp, he fantasized about using a wearable computer to improve his chances of winning at poker from the time he was 13 years old. While at UCLA Thorp he drew a plan for a computer that could help him win at roulette. His fellow students were skeptical of such a possibility but Thorp was determined to work on it. He did some tests using casino roulette wheels and processed data using a differential analyzer on the campus grounds.

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While at MIT, Thorp worked on the IBM 704, a pioneering computer which filled a whole room, to further his understanding of the working of roulette wheels. At MIT he met world renowned professor Claude Shannon who was instrumental in developing the information theory. Shannon had an advanced laboratory with all the gadgets that Thorp would need at his lake house. The two hit it off and became close friends. They would work at the lab for hours on end trying to perfect Thorp’s roulette computer. After months of work, the two settled on a computer roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes, which allowed the user to time the revolutions of the ball on the roulette wheel and determine where it would stop. They calculated the edge it produced at 44 percent, and in 1961, they went with their wives to Vegas to test the computer in a casino. Although the computer worked well, they could not do much betting because some of its delicate parts kept breaking and they had to keep rushing to the restrooms to fix one part or other. Although Thorps and Shannon’s computer did not enjoy much success, it paved the way for later much more potent wearable computers that would almost break casinos.

The two also considered building a computer for blackjack but Thorp abandoned the idea because he could already count cards so well without it. Although Thorp was not the first player to count cards, the technique was still very crude at the time. He devised a near flawless technique which yielded an edge of 1% over the house and figured out that when players kept track of the dealt cards, they could increase their winnings by making an educated guess on the best time to increase bets. Although Thorp was not the first player to count cards, the technique was still very crude at the time. He devised a near flawless technique which yielded an edge of 1% over the house and figured out that when players kept track of the dealt cards, they could increase their winnings by making an educated guess on the best time to increase bets. Together with Shannon, they traveled to Vegas many times, making thousands of dollars each time. He had several run-ins with casino security due to his devices and card counting techniques but this only served to catapult him to fame. He became a celebrity in the gambling community, which was eager for ways to beat the house. In 1966, he wrote the book “Beat the Dealer,” which taught gamblers to count cards. The book was a major hit, selling more than 700,000 copies.

Aside from his gambling exploits, Thorp used his mathematical prowess and computers to develop algorithms to predict the movement of world securities markets. This has brought him tremendous profit through his hedge fund and it has redefined the way traders approach securities trading.

Thorp, now in his eighties, is still heavily interested in inventions. He has divested from the computer field and is instead interested in biotech, with inventions that could aid eye and brain surgery in sight. He takes pride in his inventions and sees his wearable computer as a precursor to vastly more refined devices available today such as Google Glass. He is known as the ‘father of wearable computing” in some circles. His card counting techniques resulted in far-reaching adjustments by casinos but the art remains alive today with little refinements.

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