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Edward Thorp and John Scarne

John Scare faces off with Edward Thorp

Card Counting History: The History of Card Counting - Edward Thorp versus John Scarne - History of Card Counting Part III - The Griffin Agency Invenstigations - Shufflemaster Inc.
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This is part II of the History of Card Counting, and it relates the rivalry between John Scarne and Edward Thorp.

Believe it or not, Professor Edward O. Thorp's unbeatable winning blackjack system - which made him world-famous because of the ignorance about gambling of the national communications media and various mathematicians - is really not a system at all... The best thing this strategy can possibly do for the player is to cut down the house's favorable 5.9% to about 3.9%.

-John Scarne, Scarne's Guide to Casino Gambling

John Scarne

When Beat the Dealer was published in 1962, John Scarne was the most well-respected and best-known author in the USA who wrote about gambling and games. Scarne had been writing books about games since 1945. Scarne was often billed as "The World's Foremost Gambling Authority". He was a born showman and served as a consultant to casinos around the world, and testified before the Senate regarding gambling and organized crime, where he was a huge hit with the Senators as he entertained them with stories and card tricks.

Edward Thorp

Edward Thorp was a quiet, bookish professor of Mathematics. He did three things to get on the wrong side of John Scarne:

  • His book, Beat the Dealer, stole some of Scarne's limelight as the foremost gambling authority in the world.
  • The book also criticized Scarne's blackjack strategy recommendations in Scarne's New Complete Guide to Casino Gambling. (Scarne's strategy was incorrect.)
  • Thorp also pointed out that Scarne's strategy was NOT the first blackjack strategy analysis, as Scarne claimed in his book, and he pointed to several examples of others who had provided accurate basic strategy for blackjack.
  • Thorp thanked Mickey McDougall for his help with the book, and Scarne had a long-running feud with McDougall.

Vegas Casinos React

Las Vegas casinos grew more and more fearful of Thorp's card counting methods, and in 1964, less than two year's after the publication of Beat the Dealer, the Las Vegas Resort Hotel Association changed the standard blackjack rules for all Las Vegas casinos.

  • Players were no longer allowed to split aces.
  • Doubling down was restricted to two card totals of 11 only.

The new rules angered blackjack players so badly that the casinos changed the rules back in just three weeks because of the massive decline in action at the tables.

The casinos' next step was to ask John Scarne for help. And on April 28, 1964, Scarne and the Sands Hotel and Casino released a press release challenging Thorp to a blackjack freezeout for $100,000 at the Sands. In the press release, Scarne insisted that Thorp's strategy left the house with a 3% advantage. The catch was that Scarne would be the dealer.

Since Scarne was a well-known sleight of hand expert and magician, Thorp turned the offer down.

The Ed Thorp Challenge

Thorp had made his own challenge to the Las Vegas casinos in his book Beat the Dealer. He had offered to put up $10,000 of his own money, winner take all, against any casino that would play by his rules at his limits. (His rules were standard Vegas rules but had some restrictions to avoid casino cheating.) No casino ever accepted his challenge, before or after Scarne's press release.

John Scarne versus Card Counters

In 1966, a new edition of Beat the Dealer was published, which presented a new, simpler card counting strategy now known as the "Hi-Lo Count". The same year, Scarne's autobiography, The Odds Against Me, was published, in which Scarne claimed to have bragged to Bugsy Siegel in 1947 that he could easily beat a blackjack game using a card counting system.

Since Scarne had claimed vehemently that card counting wouldn't beat blackjack, and he'd not mentioned card counting at all in his New Complete Guide to Casino Gambling, people began to question Scarne's credibility.

Throughout the 1970's, Scarne repeated his $100,000 challenge, aimed now at not only Thorp, but also at other card counting experts, including:

No card counter could ever come to an agreement with Scarne about the rules for the challenge, and at the time of Scarne's death in 1985, he still had never found anyone willing to accept the challenge.

The history of card counting is continued here: History of Card Counting Part III

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