You are here

Never Split Tens!

Leslie M. Golden
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Peter T. Olszewski
, on

Never Split Tens is a semi-biographical novel that travels back in time to the story of Edward O. Thorp, a probability theorist who revolutionized the casino industry. Dr. Thorp, or “Oakley,” as his children called him, developed card counting systems for the casino game of blackjack in the 1962 and 1966 editions of his book, Beat the Dealer. This book shows how Oakley must consort with gangsters to be able to fund his gambling experiments in all across Nevada, California, and Puerto Rico, presenting theory along the way.

The book is divided into two parts, “Doubling Down” and “Field Trips.” The book grabbed my attention from the first chapter and I think it will yours too, taking you back to May 1964 at Harrah’s Casino in South Lake Tahoe, Stateline, Nevada. The opening scene is set with 50+ patrons standing by the blackjack table where a select few men with $500 and $1,000 chips are enticing a player named Rosette. Golden, the author and son of Oakley, introduces us to his dad in this first chapter. Oakley was at this table. After electing to split, he has four hands on the table. When the dealer, Betty Lou, flipped over her hand, she revealed a nine of Hearts, so she busted. To the amazement of the other players and people around Oakley that night at the craps table, his strategy of splitting the four hands worked. After his winning, the dealer took sixteen $25 chips from the chip tray and placed four next to each of Oakley’s winnings. Betty Lou said, “It’s customary to tip the dealer for continued good luck from the blackjack gods.” Oakley replied, “See, that’s the problem. I’m an atheist.”

As a young professor at MIT, he was given permission to use the IBM high-speed 704 electric digital computer at the MIT computation center. He had taught himself the FORTRAN programming language, which was very common in the 1960s and was designed for mathematical analysis. Some of Oakley’s major results are summarized on pages 73–74: if the dealer’s up-card where 4, 5, or 6, Oakley found, the dealer had a 40%, 43%, and 40% chance of busting, which is nearly half the time! If the up card was a 10-value card or an Ace, the chances were only 21% or 12% of busting; the dealer in those cases had 37% and 52% chance of obtaining a total of 21. With only this knowledge, the player would be encouraged to split and double down more frequently against a dealer showing an up-card of 4, 5, or 6. When Oakley met Julian Braun of IBM in Chicago, he was introduced to more technology, the 7044 computer, which provided Oakley with even more accuracy in his calculations.

There is a lot of romance in the book, not only for Oakley’s love of mathematics but also for his wife, Vivian. This book gives us not only the personal experimentation of a professional theorist over the course of his career, but also the human side of Oakley. The book concludes with an epilogue: “You can get rich doing mathematics.”

Besides telling the story of Oakley, Golden has added a lengthy appendix containing various strategies referenced for gambling, the timeline of the sequence of events of the Thorps on page 221, card-counting systems, and the “Hi-Lo” system introduced by Dunbner.

There are several “cute” pictures in the book, all created by Golden himself. My personal favorites are “The last time a Management Consultant earned his fee” on page 87, “Legendary ‘Blackjack Bob’ Can Count up to 273, 084, 137, 314, 159, 265 Decks” on page 93, and (in the about author section) “Son, someday you will make a girl very happy, for a short period of time. Then she’ll leave you and be with new men who are ten times better than you could ever hope to be. These men are called ‘astronomers.’”

This is a nice book to read and can be read by anyone. As with the story of Oakley, there are many different ways to look at the book. One view is simply on the mathematical side where the reader will be looking for the history and how Oakley did the calculations. On the flip side, there is a journey that Oakley took together with Vivian that can be read by those who want a love story and are into reading novels. In short, even though the book is about mathematics, a wider audience can enjoy it.

Peter Olszewski is a Mathematics Lecturer at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, an editor for Larson Texts, Inc. in Erie, PA, and is the 362nd Pennsylvania Alpha Beta Chapter Advisor of Pi Mu Epsilon. He can be reached at Outside of teaching and textbook editing, he enjoys playing golf, playing guitar, reading, gardening, traveling, and painting landscapes.

See the table of contents in the publisher's webpage.