Blackjack has been on a hot streak lately, glamorized in best-selling books like Ben Mezrich’s “Bringing Down the House” and its upcoming movie adaptation, “21,” both chronicling the exploits of MIT teams that took the casinos for millions in the 1990s. How they beat the odds and made a small fortune in the process has become the stuff of pop-culture legend.
Until recently, though, the blackjack world had puzzled over one lingering mystery: Whatever happened to the legendary Four Horsemen, a group of young US Army researchers who published the first groundbreaking guide to winning blackjack more than 50 years ago?
None had gone on to become a professional gambler or recognized blackjack authority. Yet together they revolutionized the game with their 1956 analytical study, published in the Journal of the American Statistical Association, and their book “Playing Blackjack to Win,” issued in 1957 and long out of print.
“Everybody sort of knew who we were, but nobody really knew,” says James McDermott, sitting in his Cambridge apartment. “When I e-mailed a well-known blackjack expert on the 50th anniversary of our book, his response was, ‘My God, you guys are still alive?”’
Not only are the Horsemen alive, albeit now in their late-70s, but they’re taking a well-deserved victory lap, too. Last month, McDermott, a retired IBM executive, was inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame along with co-authors Roger Baldwin, Herbert Maisel, and Wilbert Cantey. Only Maisel failed to make the ceremony, held at a private club in Las Vegas and attended by scores of the game’s elite players. McDermott, Baldwin, and Cantey signed autographs and received a standing ovation.
Meanwhile, their book is being reissued this summer with a new introduction by Edward O. Thorp. Thorp’s 1962 bestseller “Beat the Dealer” drew heavily on the Horsemen’s research and is credited with doing more to popularize the game than any other single work. Thorp and McDermott met in Los Angeles after the Las Vegas event, with Thorp inscribing McDemott’s copy of “Beat the Dealer” thusly: “Thanks for your paper, which ultimately led to this book.”
“I expected to find more of the green-eyeshade, Rat Pack types, but these guys all had highly technical backgrounds,” McDermott says of his encounters with blackjack’s best and brightest. He adds, “I was amazed when several said our book had changed their lives.”
Shrouded by myth, the story of the Four Horsemen is a classic American tale of an oddball mix of academics and amateur card enthusiasts matching wits with the gambling establishment — yet never cashing in by beating the casinos at their own game.
They met in the early 1950s as Army enlistees at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. McDermott and Baldwin had done graduate work in mathematics at Columbia University. Maisel, who later taught computer science at Georgetown University, was part of a team assigned to analyze such problems as weapons trajectory. Cantey, a sergeant, was the ranking officer among the foursome and its only African-American.
Baldwin and Cantey were card players as well, mostly of the penny-ante variety. During a game of dealer’s choice, blackjack was called. Baldwin knew the game’s basics — players try to draw hands totaling as close to 21 points as possible, without going over — but did not know that casinos forced dealers to draw on 16 (or less) and hold on 17 (or more).
Baldwin thought it possible to lower the dealer’s advantage (around 5 percent) by formulating a betting strategy based on precise mathematical modeling. Using desktop calculators, the four plotted the probabilities for thousands of hands, recalibrating the odds as each theoretical card was played. In doing so, they effectively created the first card-counting system, a forerunner of more sophisticated systems later used by the MIT teams and others.
After crunching numbers for 18 months — Thorp later borrowed their notebooks and validated their findings on an IBM 704 computer at MIT — Baldwin visited Vegas to study how casinos worked. Back at Aberdeen, he continued the modeling that led to the JASA paper in which, the authors wrote, a “player’s strategic problems are analyzed with the objective of finding the strategy maximizing his mathematical expectation.”
Their study created a buzz in gambling circles and a book deal for the authors. With a foreword by Charles Van Doren, the quiz-show star soon to be tainted by scandal, “Playing Blackjack” retailed for $1.75. It included a pullout strategy chart with sections on “Draw or Stand,” “Doubling Down,” and “Splitting Pairs.” What it did not include, recalls Maisel, was an authors’ cover photo.
“We were a Protestant, a Catholic, a Jew, and a black man,” Maisel says. “There was concern that putting a black face on the cover would hurt sales in the South, so the photo got pulled.”
Unlike the JASA article, the book was written for nonstatisticians. Five thousand copies were printed, hardly enough to make the authors rich or famous, even though a copy recently went for $300 on eBay.
“I think I made a total of $28,” says McDermott with a laugh.
Says Baldwin, “It was a slow-motion gold rush, trying to make money off this. But nobody made reservations for Las Vegas.”
Why didn’t they? “I calculated the house still had the advantage in the long run,” Baldwin says. “Because I was the only one who’d set foot in a casino, my opinion was dominant — and incorrect. I didn’t see any future in what’s now called card counting.”
Life goes on
While pleased to see the Horsemen get their due, Thorp, who now heads a California-based investment firm, says the four had neither the time nor the tools to develop their research into a comprehensive gaming strategy. “They didn’t have a winning system, a way to cut the odds,” Thorp notes. “They didn’t realize the game was really beatable.”
Maisel agrees. “In statistical terms, we still had a negative expectation,” he says. “Unless you got lucky, you’d still lose in the long run.”
Baldwin returned to grad school, eventually leaving mathematics to work in applied statistics and data processing. McDermott worked for the federal government before spending 32 years with IBM in market research and business planning. Cantey abandoned plans to become a preacher and pursued a career in government research.
The four stayed in touch, though, getting together once every decade or so. But until the Internet came along, says McDermott, nobody showed much interest in their whereabouts. For that matter, the four didn’t pay much attention to the world of blackjack, either.
“As I said in my [Vegas] speech, my knowledge of blackjack ended with the first edition of ‘Beat the Dealer,”’ says Baldwin.
McDermott skimmed Mezrich’s books about the MIT blackjack teams but thought they dwelled too much on characters who “cared more on the action than the game itself.” In Vegas, where casinos take a vigilant (and aggressive) stance toward card counters, he didn’t play even a single hand of blackjack.
“I’ve mostly forgotten how,” McDermott says.