Winners &Losers

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In The Casino

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Percentages and Chances

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Blanc Dies
The S.B.M
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Nevada & New Jersey

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Technical Issues


The Game of Life
Real Until


Lesson 4

The SBM’s troubles center on the European casino games, baccarat, trente-et-quarante and single zero roulette.  A house edge of 0.8 per cent and 1.25 per cent in the two card games, and 2.7 per cent at roulette, ought to be enough to float a battleship in the port below. But if the croupiers are taking too large a slice, and player’s credit is not under control, no casino can prosper.  What always amazes me, as a spectator, is seeing thousands of tourists on budget holidays splurging their money at the double-zero roulette tables, night after night … oblivious, apparently, of the advantage to be gained simply by walking a few steps over to the salon prive and playing the single-zero game.

‘The most sensible advice that can be given to would be gamblers or inventors of system to be used at Monte Carlo, ’ François Blanc once observed, ‘is don’t ’ He was speaking of roulette, the systemier’s game par excellence.  Roulette, much as we might like to think otherwise, cannot be beaten, no matter what system you may try.  It is mathematical impossible.
            But … but what, after all, if there is a way, a way that no one had ever thought of before?  Not by ancient alchemy but modern technology.  Obviously anyone who could devise it would have to be, if not a genius, at least pretty imaginative.  I was alerted to the possibility of such a system by a throwaway line Ed Thorp’s first study of blackjack Beat The Dealer.  ‘There are also several people (including myself) who possess a method for beating roulette, ’ he declared.  Since Professor Thorp is not a TV conjuror but a highly original mathematician, I was half-way impressed.
            ‘I played roulette on a regulation wheel in the basement lab of a world-famous scientist, ’ Thorp wrote.  ‘We used the method and steadily averaged 44 per cent profit.  In an hour’s run, betting no more than $25 per number, we won a fictional $ 8,000!’

            The scientist was Claude Shannon, whose many sided contributions to mathematical poker theory include the foundations of information theory.  It was in his basement that the roulette experiment was set up, which Thorp had perceived, in an intuitive flash, as a graduate student some years before.  Shannon’s basement, as a Thorp described it, was a gadgeteer’s paradise. It was kitted up with $ 100,000 worth of electronic, electrical and mechanical devices.  With a regulation roulette wheel ordered from Reno, set on a billiards table, they set about measuring the position and velocity of the roulette ball, in order to predict where it would land up on the wheel.
            It is possible to predict the movement of the planets, so why not a roulette ball?  The answer is that a roulette ball, being subject to several variable factors in the force of the croupier’s throw, the point of entry of the ball, the speed of rotation of the wheel, the ball’s impact on the rotor in the center, then contact with a number of deflectors, and finally on ridges between the pockets, is very difficult to predict.  The account of the experiment given in Thorp’s The mathematics of Gambling (1984) is rather technical and for a layman difficult to follow, but they cracked the problem, to the extent of devising concealed mini-computers (with toe-operated switches) to test the method in a casino.  ‘The few times I have used it to turn two or three dimes into a pile of silver dollars has caused enormous excitement, ’ Thorp wrote in Beat The Dealer; but certain electronic problems prevented the system from being used on a large scale.
            What happened was that Thorp and Shannon, accompanied by their wives, sent a week at the Riviera in Las Vegas, trying out the technique with an analog computer the size of a cigarette pack, including a radio transmitter to maintain contact at the table.  the computer received data on successive revolutions of the rotor and ball in front of a fixed point, in order to calculate the section on the wheel that the ball was likely to land in; the radio then informed the man doing the betting which numbers to back.  The trouble was the wires of the hearing aid carrying the radio signal kept breaking.  Getting wired up was all rather a hassle.  Over the years they tried to debug the system which was conceptually very simple but eventually gave it up.  Thorp added that the basic poker approach reason her never preserved was the system ’s Achilles heel all the casino had to do to nullify the whole operation would be to bar bets once the ball was set in motion.
            It was the invention of the microprocessor which led to the breakthrough.  A group of computer hackers, physicists and assorted enthusiasts chasing the good life in California at the end of the ‘70s hit on the idea of devising a system for predicting the movement of the ball in roulette,   and set up a sort of social technological collective to do it.  set up a sort of social technological collective to do it.  The point The point was that the microcomputer is digital, it works on number as distinct from electrical analogs; so instead of relaying on liner approximations, as with an analog computer, the team was able to develop an algorithm for solving the equations of motion that govern the game of roulette.  The account of their ups and downs given in The Eudemonic Pie, by Thomas Bass (1985) is absorbing.  It represents, perhaps, the last word in roulette, because it is now illegal for players to use a computer in Nevadan casinos.

            Eudemonic is a Greek word meaning conductive to happiness the pie was supposed to be the share-out of gambling profits.  The essence of the group’s technique was that the computer could work  out in microseconds a game that in real life takes a million times longer.  That is, while the ball was making its first couple of spins around the wheel the computer would signal where it was likely to land up twenty seconds later in plenty of time for a bettor to place his money on the key numbers.
            ‘The program a set of mathematical equations similar to those used by NASA for landing spaceships on the moon tracts a ball in orbit around a spinning disk of numbers.  During the ten to twenty seconds in which the poker game is played from beginning to end, the computer calculates coefficients of friction and drag, adjusts for changes in velocity, plots relative positions and trajectories, and then announces where in this heavenly cosmos a roulette ball will likely come to rest on a still-spinning rotor … information gathered while the game is in play… is supplied by a data taker clicking two passes of the rotor in front of a fixed reference point on the frame of the wheel, and two or more passes of the ball in front of the same point.  It is now an easy matter for a computer to calculate … its final collapse onto the spinning disk of numbers.’
            Any you thought roulette was a difficult game, didn’t you?
            The system worked all right in a physics lab.   The trouble was putting it into practice in a casino.  obviously the equipment had to be concealed.  In the first phase the team concealed the equipment about their persons the men employed sacroiliac belts slung across the chest and worn like holsters for hidden weapons.  One belt held the computer nestling under the left armpit another held the batteries under the right.  The women wore their computers and batteries snapped into leotards with pockets that fitted under the bosom.  Coils of antenna wire were worn as a yoke round the shoulders in T-shirts.  Everyone wore a solenoid plate on the stomach.  And, not surprisingly, a thousand glitches upset the process when it came to the real thing – loose wires, bad connections, shocks, clamping solenoids, drifting signals.
            Even so, the system cleared several thousand dollars betting in dimes and quarters.  But to make big money it needed upgrading.  In the second phase of the project the team set about building a computer small enough to fit inside a shoe, and strong enough to be walked on. It is was done a computer sandwich two by four inches wide, half an inch deep.

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