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October 21, 2014

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The Inside Straight:

They invented basic strategy

Jeff Haney on the belated recognition of blackjack’s Four Horsemen, who figured out how the game should be played

The four newest members of the Blackjack Hall of Fame never counted cards.

They never gambled for high stakes or won much money in casinos.

In fact, after making their indelible mark on the game, they stopped following developments in blackjack in the early 1960s, around the time Ed Thorp published his influential book, “Beat the Dealer.”

Yet when they were introduced before a roomful of the world's most accomplished blackjack players Wednesday night, they received a heartfelt standing ovation that had to dwarf any plaudits they ever earned during their distinguished careers in business, government or academia.

Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel and James McDermott -- long known by blackjack insiders as the nearly mythical “Four Horsemen” -- were inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame at Max Rubin's 12th annual Blackjack Ball, held at the clubhouse of an upscale gated community in Las Vegas. (The precise location of the invitation-only gathering is kept secret.)

“If it wasn't for them, not one of us would be in this room,” Rubin said.

Using only desk calculators and their considerable brainpower, the Four Horsemen were the first analysts to determine the optimal strategy for playing blackjack. They hammered it out in the 1950s, before modern computers were widely available, while serving in the Army at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

Thorp, who relied on their research in writing his book, tested their strategy on computers at MIT and found it to be accurate within a couple of hundredths of a percentage point.

“These were really the first guys who ever figured out how to play blackjack the right way,” said Stanford Wong, a charter member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame (2002) and author of “Professional Blackjack.”

Thorp's work inspired later blackjack giants such as Wong, Ken Uston and the MIT card-counting teams of the 1990s and others engaged in the noble pursuit of using their mental acuity to extract money from casino card games.

“Thorp never would have got there without the work of these guys,” author and hall of famer Arnold Snyder said at the ball. “If Thorp never got there, I don't know that any of us would be here. I don't know how many millions of dollars just the people in this room have made as a result of the work that these guys did.”

It started in 1953 when Baldwin, then a private in the Army with a master's degree in mathematics from Columbia University, was playing poker in the Aberdeen barracks.

One player selected blackjack in the dealer's choice game, and a discussion of the rules ensued. In Las Vegas, someone said, the dealer has to stand on 17 and hit to 16.

That was news to Baldwin, who until then had played only in private games where the dealer could make his own decisions.

“As soon as he heard there were rules for how the dealer had to play his hand, it started wheels turning in his head,” Snyder said.

After scribbling a few rudimentary formulas, Baldwin realized he had a long-term project on his hands. He approached a sergeant at the facility, Wilbert Cantey, and asked to use the base's desk calculators -- they used to call them “adding machines” -- in his blackjack venture.

Fortunately, “Wil didn't tell him to go peel potatoes for the next two weeks,” Snyder said.

Cantey, who opted to pursue math after he was encouraged to leave the seminary because of his hustling at pool and cards, also had a master's degree and an interest in gambling.

They enlisted the help of McDermott, who had a master's from Columbia, and Maisel, who later became a professor at Georgetown. For the next year and a half, the Four Horsemen of Aberdeen spent their free time punching numbers into their calculators and figuring out blackjack's basic strategy.

Their newly devised strategy was virtually perfect. It looked nothing like any of the incorrect strategies floating around at the time, and contained “shocking” maneuvers such as splitting 8s against 9 or 10.

Cantey, who would go on to become a government researcher, recalled how he appreciated the way their project combined risk, numbers and intellectual rigor.

“It was an honor, in so many ways, to be able to use mathematics to figure out the game of blackjack,” said Cantey, who had to “wrestle” with his family and physician to gain permission to make the trip to Las Vegas this week.

Baldwin and McDermott also traveled from the East Coast for the ball. Maisel, the fourth Horseman, stayed at his Washington home to tend to his wife, who is recovering from an operation.

Baldwin, who came to the ball from New York by bus and train, spent part of his trip reading Snyder's “Big Book of Blackjack.”

“I must confess that my knowledge of blackjack history had been limited and really only went through the first edition of ‘Beat the Dealer,'” Baldwin said. “I was amazed and very impressed at what had happened since.”

A lot has changed, he said, since the Four Horsemen published their findings in a 1956 edition of the Journal of the American Statistical Association, and a year later a 92-page book called “Playing Blackjack to Win,” long out of print. The book, with a cover price of $1.75, contains a foreword by Charles Van Doren, later disgraced in the TV quiz show scandals.

McDermott, who made a grand total of $23 in royalties from the book, and his fellow Horsemen had little contact with gambling in the ensuing years.

One time, many years ago, a Las Vegas casino had planned some sort of “tribute to the pioneers of gambling” -- but the event was abruptly canceled and quickly forgotten, McDermott said.

That was about it until McDermott fired off an e-mail to Snyder.

“I was looking around on the Internet and saw our names kept appearing on some of these sites,” said McDermott, a longtime IBM executive from Cambridge, Mass. “They were calling us the ‘Four Horsemen.'

“I didn't know Arnold Snyder from a hole in the wall, but I decided to write to him because he seemed to be up on the history of gambling.”

Snyder recognized McDermott's name immediately, but was surprised to hear from him.

“I was just astonished he was still alive, that all four were alive, that they occasionally got together to talk about the old days,” Snyder said.

Snyder proposed inducting the Horsemen into the Hall of Fame, which is at the Barona Valley Ranch casino in San Diego, during this year's Blackjack Ball, and his fellow hall of famers endorsed the idea.

McDermott, meeting blackjack's luminaries for the first time Wednesday, was half expecting to encounter a bunch of shady characters from an old, bad riverboat-gambling movie.

Instead, he was impressed by the professional demeanor of the players, many of whom carry high-level academic credentials. (“There are wise guys and there are smart guys,” Rubin said. “These are smart guys.”)

“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were death, famine, pestilence and war,” McDermott told those in attendance at the Blackjack Ball. “Let's hope those are the names the gambling casinos give to you guys. Let's keep it going from here.”

Jeff Haney can be reached at 259-4041 or at [email protected]

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