Beat the Dealer

I have mentioned this book in a previous post. Fifty years ago I was getting books through a book club, and this book came as a set along with The Compleat Strategist by J.D. Williams. I have retained these books all this time, during my college days, living in Austin, Dallas, New York, Dallas again and now San Antonio. Looking back I see I have not kept wives as steadfastly as I have kept these books. That’s the way it is with books.

The Williams book deals with a subsection of game theory, particularly zero-sum games, and it concentrates on games involving two parties. Blackjack is a card game played in casinos, and it is, in its simplest form, a two-person, zero-sum game. However, blackjack, as played in casinos does not lend itself to game theory.

The reason you can’t apply game theory to blackjack (also known as twenty-one) is that the dealer is not allowed to play a strategy. For any given state of a hand of blackjack, the dealer is not allowed any options. For example and as explained in the book: When the dealer’s hand is 16 or below, the dealer must take another card. When the dealer’s hand is 17 or above, he may not take another card. There are exceptions to this rule, but in all cases the dealer never has any options.

The time was practically at the dawn of the computer age. People did not talk about my computer. They talked about the computer. Very few individuals owned a complete computer.

Edward O. Thorpe was teaching at the University of California Los Angeles when a colleague told him about a paper that dealt with a strategy for playing blackjack. The journal reference is:

Baldwin, Roger; Cantey, Wilbert; Maisel, Herbert; and McDermott, James, “The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack,” Journal of the American Statistical Association, Vol. 51, 429-439 (1956)

The summary of the paper is that a person playing against a casino has a 0.62% edge when a certain strategy is employed. As the book recounts, the authors later found a mistake in their computations, and the players actually have only a 0.32% edge. The book is a bit unclear on this. On page 15 the author states the house edge is 0.62%, but in the footnote at the bottom of the page the house edge is referred to as -0.62%, which would mean a 0.62% edge for the player. Likewise, the footnote corrects the house edge to -0.32%.

To simplify the scheme, on average, when playing against the house, if a player bets the same all the time, the house is going to win. However, if the player keeps track of cards that have been played out of the deck, thereby obtaining knowledge of cards remaining in the deck, then the player can make small bets, and obtain small losses, when the situation is not favorable to him, and he can make large bets, and obtain large gains, when the situation is favorable. Implicit in this is that the player must play every hand to stay in the game. The dealer will reshuffle the deck or obtain a fresh deck anytime a player joins the game. A reshuffle erases any special knowledge the play may have had about the remaining cards to be played.

Beat the Dealer is the story of Thorp, who with the backing of some rich players, played $10,000 and beat the Las Vegas casinos. He also mentions what may be amusing to modern readers, his thanks to M.I.T. Computation Center for the use of an IBM 704 computer. This powerhouse of computation had 18,432 bytes of RAM and could execute up to 4000 instructions per second. How would you like to have one of these babies built into your microwave oven?

If you saw the 1988 movie Rain Man, you will recall the crucial episode is when Charlie Babbitt uses his autistic brother Raymond’s ability to count cards and to take home a sizable amount of cash from the casinos, thus saving his business and the plot. Also, you will recall that in the movie the casinos were less than enthusiastic about losing in a systematic way, and they not very politely disinvited the pair from ever playing in the town again.

Thorp’s was the first use of the strategy to beat the casinos, and they were less polite with them than with the fictional Babbitt brothers. Specifically, prior to forbidding Thorp to play, they brought in cheating dealers to dissuade his endeavors. This after employing frequent reshuffles and multiple decks to defeat card counting. These are, after all, for-profit business, not charities.

Thorp has gone on to greater things since his book. He teamed with Claude Shannon to win additionally at casinos (presumably in disguise). From Wikipedia:

Since the late 1960s, Thorp has used his knowledge of probability and statistics in the stock market by discovering and exploiting a number of pricing anomalies in the securities markets, and he has made a significant fortune. Thorp’s first hedge fund was Princeton/Newport Partners. He is currently the President of Edward O. Thorp & Associates, based in Newport Beach, CA. In May 1998, Thorp reported that his personal investments yielded an annualized 20 percent rate of return averaged over 28.5 years.


The Thing

This has got to be one of my all-time favorite sci-fi flicks. When it came to my small town theater in 1951 my parents would not let me go see it (too scary). I must have seen it anyhow, because this was long before the motion picture industry would allow hot releases to be shown on TV.

The full title is The Thing from Another World, and it is based on a story originally published in 1938 by John W. Campbell, titled Who Goes There? At this point the similarity nearly vanishes. In Campbell’s story The Thing has the ability to absorb other living creatures and to transform itself into their likeness. Scientists isolated at an Antarctic base discover The Thing in a spacecraft locked in ice for the past 20 million years. They thaw it out, and it transforms itself into one of the sled dogs. And then the trouble begins.

Movie poster from Wikipedia

In the 1951 movie the scientists working at an Arctic base summon the Air Force after they observe a UFO crash on the sea ice. The search party finds the crash site and recover the pilot, frozen in the ice. They hack out a block of ice containing the critter and bring it back to their base. An accidental thaw of the ice releases The Thing. And then the trouble begins.

The Thing is different from Campbell’s creature. It is a humanoid, but biologically more plant than animal. It needs blood.

A 1982 remake of the movie swings back to Campbell’s original plot concept, with a minor twist. This movie opens with a Norwegian team chasing and trying to kill a sled dog. The chase arrives at an American base, where people mistake the intent of all the shooting and kill the Norwegian shooter. Then an accident with a weapon destroys the Norwegians’ helicopter and (almost) the truth about the sled dog. The American’s take the dog into their midst. And then the trouble begins.

Back to 1951, the American crew of military and scientists is isolated with a creature from another world a thousand miles from civilization. They are the creature’s only source of blood. The lead scientist (Robert Cornthwaite) wants to preserve the creature, to study it and learn from it. The Air Force captain (Kenneth Tobey) is concerned only with the survival of the human crew and human civilization in general. There is a conflict. While the captain works on schemes to protect the people and to dispose of the creature, the scientist secretly undertakes to grow new copies of the creature using parts of it recovered from its early encounter with the sled dogs. Two of the scientific team are killed and drained of their blood by the creature before things come to a head.

The Air Force captain is a red-blooded American pilot who has the hots for the science crew’s secretary (Margaret Sheridan). She is about as sexy an American girl can be at an Arctic base. I am sure the sales of close-fitting sweaters jumped noticeable in this country by the end of 1951.

Douglas Spencer is a news reporter who has come along to cover the UFO story in his greatest movie role ever. James Arness is The Thing in complete disguise. Arness was a decorated veteran of World War II, and at 6 feet seven inches he was ideal to play the huge creature. His role in this film would hardly qualify as a speaking part, and it was about the last time he would have such a minor role. Four years later he started as Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke on television.

This production is excellent in quality of the photography and directing.  Christian Nyby is credited as director, but Howard Hawks has his fingerprints all over.

The Thing is now considered by many to be one of the best films of 1951. The film holds an 89% “Fresh” rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus that the film “is better than most flying saucer movies, thanks to well-drawn characters and concise, tense plotting”. In 2001 the United States Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.[19] [20] Additionally, Time magazine named The Thing from Another World “the greatest 1950s sci-fi movie.”

The Naked City

You readers know me too well. You know I am not talking about the TV series. I am talking about the 1948 movie that inspired it and also the tag line “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” Of course this movie is in black and white.


For all you Barry Fitzgerald fans, this is your movie. He’s a crusty Irish (what else) cop on the case of a beautiful young model who has been murdered. Detective Lt. Dan Muldoon is assigned to the case and organizes a team of beat cops and investigators. They work through the intrigue behind the murder and uncover the criminal organization behind it.

The story is told in documentary fashion with external shots on location in New York City. It received Academy Awards for “Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, William H. Daniels; Best Film Editing, Paul Weatherwax.”

I am not sure whether I saw the film when it first came out. I did watch it on Turner Classic Movies and recorded it on DVD. This should be a candidate for the Friday night movie.

The Last Roundup

Git along
little dogie
git along
git along.
Git along
little dogie
git along!
I’m headin’ for the last round up.

The time has come.

This post is mainly for my daughter and my grandson. If you are looking for something news worthy, then skip on to the next post.

Growing up in a small town I never had a real job. I saw my friends working part time in high school and making real money. But not me. I told my dad I wanted to get myself some work, but he said he needed me at home. There was always some kind of construction work going on around the homestead, and I was a cheap source of labor while my dad was off at the airplane factory making some real money.

Then one day somebody offered me a real job. We lived a couple of block from the post office, and one of my duties was to walk up the hill and get the mail. One day a letter was for me. It was from the Navy. They wanted me.

I was finishing up my junior year in high school, but I was old enough. The Navy Reserve would let me finish school before I had any active duty requirement, and in the mean time I would have only one weekend drill at the naval air station a month. But first I had to show them I was qualified.

My dad was agreeable, and he drove me to NAS Dallas for my evaluation. There was a medical exam and an intelligence exam. I had to take a multiple choice test with 85 questions. I got 83. I think it was for this reason they overlooked that my eyesight disqualified me for all but the most routine duties in an aviation squadron.

Anyhow, I started reporting for weekend drills and getting paid. It was also my first time out on my own. After work at the air station I was my own boss, with no parents wanting to know where I was going and what I was going to do. And we had jet airplanes. Airplanes, and fighters in particular, fascinated me. The were really fast, and they had 20mm guns and racks for bombs and missiles. This was unlike any job I could get in my home town, and it was great. Maybe not so great when summer turned into an icy winter. Working on the fighter flight line in the dead of winter gave me an indication I was really earning my pay.

High school graduation rolled around the following year, and I spent most of the summer at a reserve boot camp at the air station.  In the fall I reported for active duty and was assigned to an aircraft carrier. My dream of adventure had come true. The Navy gave me my orders and my plane ticket, and off I went. By the time I got to the Norfolk Navy Base it was dark, and my ship was tied up at pier 12, at the end of a very long quay in the largest naval installation in the world. I walked up to the gangway and was met by the sounds of an immense machine just resting before its next action. The ship was vast and the sounds of machinery came from everywhere. The whole thing vibrated with a constant hum that never stopped. And a few days later we went to sea.

Big hardware in the navy yard

My active duty ended two years later, and it was off to college, my last work break. My first job out of college was at the university, in the Astronomy Department. They had a telescope as big as a house, and they were in the process of building a bigger one. My first assignment was to run a computer program to analyze the bending deflection of the polar axis for the new telescope.

After that I went to work for an engineering company, and we did the design of a tokamak plasma fusion device. Toward the end of that job we developed the design for a machine that unscrambled 20mm ammunition.

Tony Bell's view, Dr. Robson and the tokamak

I never really had a career, just a series of jobs, some not so interesting, but most on the cutting edge of modern technology. At one company I obtained a patent for a mechanism that applied a band around a stack of 100 bills of U.S. currency. It was for the Federal Reserve system.  At another job I headed up a a software team to develop an autonomous acoustic processor (AAP), and we took the system down to St. Croix in the Caribbean in the dead of winter to test it. Later I developed software for guided missile systems and for electronic warfare. I ended up at that job developing new software for the red telephone that the military uses for urgent and secret communications. Then there was a stint at a French company where we working on high-speed optical packet routers and a satellite communication system. I obtained a patent for a scheme to maximize data bandwidth for video transmission systems. That was my last full time employment.

On my own again at 64 I obtained part time work, typically earning more money than when I worked full time. It was back to developing software for guided missiles, software for the sonar system for a Spanish submarine, software for a new airliner, software for F/A-18 flight simulators and software for military GPS receivers. By that time I was winding down and decided to stick close to home and build a new house in San Antonio. I took a job with a computer company a few counties away, so I could come home for weekends. Barbara Jean and I decided last year that this would be the last.

So, last month as I sat in a testing lab the size of a basketball court and crammed with computers, I realized that I was leaving this life forever. I looked around and knew I would never see anything like this again. I would not be wearing an identification badge that would get me into secure places. I would not be going into places that required me to park my cell phone outside. I would not be heading back to the office after sundown while Abrams tanks lit up the hills with gunfire. I would not be driving around with over a million dollars worth of equipment in the back of my Toyota hatchback. I was heading back to the world of the mundane. I was heading for the last roundup.

The Racketeer

My friend Zack lent me the book shortly after I got out of stir. It’s the latest from John Grisham, and it’s about a lawyer doing time for a crime he did not commit (imagine that).

Image from Amazon

Malcolm was a small town attorney who did some legal work for an anonymous client and was subsequently caught up in the net when his client was accused of racketeering. He is halfway through a 10-year sentence in a minimum security (no walls, no bars), when he hits upon an opportunity to get out with a clear record. A federal judge has been murdered, and Bannister knows who did it. He plans to exchange this information for his freedom.

If you read much Grisham you know the plot is not going to be as simple as that. There are mechanizations with the federal attorney’s office, the FBI, the federal judiciary and the witness protection program. There are also plots and schemes, some detective work and masterful evasions. And in the end there is money. A lot of money. Of course there’s sex.

Read this book,  and you will be reminded of one or more of Grisham’s other plots. In The Firm Mitchell McDeere is a star law school graduate who takes a job with a law firm only to discover it’s a front for gangsters. That plot involves similar mechanizations as McDeere extricates himself and his wife from the clutches of the mob. The Client also involves a lawyer working to protect a child client and his family from dangerous gangsters despite interference from the law. Similarly The Pelican Brief has a young lawyer running from dangerous criminals while striving all the while to keep just beyond the reach of the law. These have been made into movies, and they are all worth a look, especially The Pelican Brief, which features Julia Roberts, who has the ability to make a film on the basis of charm and looks alone. A Few Good Men is another great Grisham tale, but the film based on the book does not draw out the elaborate plot workings found in the other titles.

All of these Grisham plots have been turned into home run films, except his most recent. Please look for it within the next few years. Because of some of its plot peculiarities I will do a subsequent review of The Pelican Brief. Please return to this blog from time to time and search for the review.

Unless you are totally whacked you have noticed a common theme in all of these Grisham plots. They all involve lawyers, and the plots always display a large body of legalese. Go to the back of the room if you have not already guessed that Grisham is a lawyer. You might also think he has spent a lot of time in the Caribbean, as many of his plots involve numerous trips to the islands and often involve the off-shore banking havens that find a home there. Don’t jump too fast, though. The afterward to The Racketeer contains a disclaimer that the writer does very little outside research for his plots. Geographical names and places are likely to be contrived and the names of real people are seldom used. An exception is in The Racketeer, where the author mentions federal judges who have been murdered, including one here in San Antonio over 30 years ago. That’s a little bit of fact that the author can use to string his plot upon.

As Funny as it Gets

Have you ever had one of those times when step in a great mound of humor and want to figure out some way best to share it with everybody? And then you mull for a few days trying to come up with the best way to present it, and then “bamm,” somebody else beats you to the punch. You never have? Then bear with me while I bathe in my gloom.

A few days back I was watching a Senate panel grill Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the botched protection for embassy workers in Benghazi. The State Department was taking heat for falling down on the job, and the buck stopped at Clinton’s door.

The 30,000-foot view shows Democrats giving Clinton credit for doing a great job as Secretary with the Republicans looking for fault at every turn. This scene was not without cracks, however. Senator John McCain

after telling Clinton “we are proud of you” and that all over the world “you are viewed with admiration and respect” — delivered a blistering criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the events in Libya.

This was serious business, and there is not much light to be made of it. And this is where Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky comes in. He is what is called a “Tea Party” Republican and came to the Senate in 2010, never before having served before in elected office. Once in office his public comments have reflected a distance from reality that has come to mark his image. Remarking on the current administration’s handling of the BP oil spill he said.

What I don’t like from the president’s administration is this sort of, ‘I’ll put my boot heel on the throat of BP.’ I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business. I’ve heard nothing from BP about not paying for the spill. And I think it’s part of this sort of blame-game society in the sense that it’s always got to be someone’s fault instead of the fact that sometimes accidents happen.

OK, you get the idea. The image of anybody with a boot heel on the throat of BP tugs at the imagination. And calling it un-American to hold big business accountable has the ring of a redefinition of the word American.

The most recent gaff to fall came in the Senate hearings last week:

In his questioning of Clinton Wednesday morning, Sen. Rand Paul, R- Ky., told her, “I’m glad that you’re accepting responsibility. I think that ultimately with your leaving, you accept the culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11, and I really mean that. Had I been president at the time and I found that you did not read the cables from Benghazi, you did not read the cables from Ambassador Stevens, I would have relieved you of your post.”

What amused me, and so many watching, was hearing Senator Paul put the word I and the word president in the same sentence.

Rand Paul is outspoken and provocative, and there is talk of a run for the presidency. However, when serious people take a serious look at Paul, his problems begin to stack up:

In October, Paul blocked a bill that would provide $36 million in benefits for elderly and disabled refugees, saying that he was concerned that it could be used to aid domestic terrorists.

OK. Enough said.

Anyhow, I wanted to post a little item on this blog about Rand Paul’s exchange with Clinton, and I was thinking about how to do it, when somebody beat me to it. In the Net scape every little device has a cute name, and there are these graphics that are innocuous in themselves, but the user adds an appropriate caption, and these graphics suddenly tell a great story. I don’t know what this particular device is called, but here is one. Somebody posted it on Facebook:

Yes, you get the idea. Rand Paul just does not have the chops to go one-on-one with Clinton and any other capable contender. Will he soon grow up and start to do serious work for his constituents, or will the voters in Kentucky finally get wise and end their embarrassment? Stay tuned, readers. The suspense is building.

The Desperate Hours

Here is another movie I saw when it first came out. Yes, it’s in black and white.

The Desperate Hours hit the screen in 1955, just two years before Humphrey Bogart died of esophageal cancer. Already viewers in the mid 1950s see that the tough guy of the previous two decades was beginning to weather. This may have been Bogart’s last great performance, and it is worth a look.

Joseph Hayes wrote a novel and a play based on an actual case from 1952, and this was the basis for the movie. In the movie three convicts, led by Bogart, have broken out of prison and invade the home of a family in Indianapolis. They hold the family hostage while they wait for money from the leaders girlfriend to arrive. Fredric March is the father, and Martha Scott is the mother. There are two children living at home. If the home looks familiar to viewers from the outside, it’s because it was later the home of June and Ward Cleaver.

Anyhow, the plot is about how the convicts terrorize the family and how the family fights back. The young son in the movie may remind you a lot of Theodore Cleaver. The father is particularly heroic, and ultimately the convicts are defeated. Enough about  the plot. When you watch the movie you will appreciate the fine direction by William Wyler.

An interesting character is convict Simon Kobish, played by Robert Middleton. He is a brute of a man with the intellect of a grapefruit and seems to be the role model for the Gaear Grimsrud character played by Peter Stormare in Fargo.

I’ve been watching a number of Bogart films recently, so if you are a fan check back during the next few weeks for my recommendations.

Bad Joke of the Week

Jimmy was a crafty burglar. He would sneak into a house at night, steal what was valuable, then sneak out again without being detected.

One night he entered a home through a side window and felt around in the darkness for the door. He always closed the door before using his flashlight. Then in the blackness he heard a voice.

“Jesus is watching you.”

Jimmy froze. He remained completely still, trying to figure out where the voice was coming from. Then he heard the voice again.

“Jesus does not like what you are doing. Jesus is going to punish you.”

Jimmy could stand it no longer. He switched on his light and saw a parrot in its beam. The parrot said, “Jesus is watching you.”

Jimmy was both relieved and surprised to find a parrot that could carry on a conversation. “A parrot!” he said. “Are you Jesus?”

The parrot replied, “No, my name is Moses.”

Jimmy was absolutely flabbergasted. “Just who the hell would name a parrot Jesus?” he asked.

The parrot responded, “It’s a very religious family. They named the cat Noah, and they named the Rottweiler Jesus.”

Bad Movie of the Week

From time to time I have posted movie reviews, partly to entertain readers and to inform potential viewers. Also partly to show off my deep knowledge of obscure productions. Most of the time these movies have been worth a second look, but I also have a taste for really bad movies. I am not down to the level of Ed Wood yet, but I may get there some day. I need to get past Mars Needs Women first. This week it’s going to have to be The Corpse Came C.O.D.


The movie is from 1947, and, surprise, it’s not in color, but it does have sound. It’s all about Hollywood, and it opens with scenes of the great film studios and cameos of the famous industry gossip columnist of the day, including Hedda Hopper. The main characters are rival columnists, played by George Brent and Joan Blondell. Since they are in constant conflict to get the latest scoop, it is obvious from the start that by the end of the film they are going to get it together.

Anyhow, Hollywood is a town of fantasy and make believe, and as the story starts we see two prisoners escaping from prison and getting machine gunned. However they are only actors, and the scene is being shot on the Palisades Pictures Studio lot. The next scene is a man in a business suit being gunned down by somebody unseen, and it’s not on a movie set.

Next we are at the fabulous home of a beautiful and wealthy actress, and a man in a pickup truck delivers a wooden crate. You get one guess what’s in the crate (look at the title again), and yes, the delivery is C.O.D. The actress’s butler opens the crate, and out falls the dead man, so the actress immediately contacts, no not the police, a Hollywood columnist friend of hers.

The plot sort of goes downhill from here, with the hero and his girl friend rival alternately butting heads, rescuing each other and kissing, all the while looking for the meat of the story and solving the murder mystery. It’s about an hour and a half, at least three smooches, three dead bodies, people getting conked on the head, multiple scuffles and fist fights in darkened rooms before the real killer is revealed. Enjoy. I recorded it from Turner Classic Movies. You can borrow my copy.

School Buses From Hell

OK, I got onto this “from hell” theme due to comments of a politician during last year’s election cycle.

Georgia Rep. Paul Broun said in videotaped remarks that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell.”

So now, in order to punch up a bit of comment that might otherwise be unworthy of mention, I just add “from hell” to catch the reader’s attention. I apologize to Congressman Broun for mocking his remarks, which I am sure were made in earnest and to the best of his intellectual capacity, whatever that may be. However, Congressman Broun said it, and he is going to have to live with it.

With that said, here are today’s school buses from hell.

Three buses passed the stop sign in front of my house on Elizabeth Court in San Antonio this morning. Some stopped. Some did not. I am also posting videos of some of my neighbors heading off to work. I note that almost none stop for the stop sign. I am thinking we recommend the city of San Antonio replace the stop sign with an advertisement for shaving creme. Some practical use needs to be made of this space.