Denied!

Recently, the NPR show Planet Money had an episode about Edward Thorp, the man who invented blackjack card counting. Thorp is a mathematician, and he saw blackjack as an interesting problem to analyze as opposed to a way to get rich quick. At the time he discovered card counting, the established idea was that there could not possibly be a “system” that would beat blackjack. The odds are what they are, the payouts are what they are, and the casino has a baked-in winning edge of about 1/2%, meaning they take fifty cents out of every hundred dollars wagered, no matter what.

Blackjack is an easy game. You and the dealer get two cards. You see the dealer’s top card, but not the “hole,” or face-down, card. Cards are valued as their numeric value; face cards count as ten; and an Ace can either be one or eleven, your choice. A Queen and a Nine are nineteen, a Three and a Four are seven, an Ace and a Six can either be seven or seventeen. An Ace and a Ten or face card is special: It’s a blackjack, and it pays you 1 1/2 times your wager.

Your job is to take your cards and get as close as you dare to 21, without going over (called breaking or busting). The way you do that is to ask for cards from the dealer when it’s your turn (called hitting), as many as you want, until you feel satisfied with your hand, or until you break by going over 21. So, if you are dealt a six and a four, making ten, you want to hit to get get closer to 21. If you hit and are dealt an eight, say, you have eighteen, and the odds are at this point that you will break if you hit again, so you elect to stay or stand. All players are playing against the dealer, not each other, and when all the players have played their hands, the dealer plays his. Dealers have no choice in what they do. Different casinos have slightly different rules, but the dealer always follows whatever the rules are. In most casinos, dealers must play until they get to 17 or better, or bust.  If the dealer busts, every player who didn’t bust wins. If the dealer gets between seventeen and twenty-one, each player who has a higher value than the dealer wins. If there is a tie, (called a push) it’s a tie and you keep your bet.

The casino edge varies based on their rules, but it is usually around 1/2%. Edward Thorp realized that this winning percentage was based on discrete hands, considered only as a single hand dealt from a full deck. What really happens is that in real life, the odds of who wins the hand depend on which cards have already been played from the deck. In other words, how a hand plays out is not the same hand to hand, but changes as the dealer plays multiple hands from the same shuffled deck.

For example, if you are playing blackjack with three players and a dealer in a single-deck game, you may have three or four hands between shuffles. When you play the first hand, all the cards played are now out of the deck. Therefore, these cards are no longer available for the remaining hands, changing the absolute odds of the game. If in the first hand lots of “tens” (10, J, Q, and K) and aces are played, these cards are no longer available for the subsequent hands. This lowers the odds for the player, and increases them for the dealer, because the dealer does better if there are more low cards and less aces available to make blackjack for a player. Card counting is the art of tracking which cards have been dealt, thus telling you what cards are left. By doing that, you can recognize the times when the remaining cards are in your favor, and therefore are more likely to win. To take advantage of this, you place a higher bet: two, three, even ten times more than your base wager. Therefore, when you win, you win more. Casinos quickly realized that they were wrong, that card counting was real, and got to the point where they were banning card counters and mixing up the rules to make card counting virtually ineffective.

My father was a mathematician working in the aerospace industry back when Thorp made these discoveries. Back in the ’60s, the only computers available were in huge companies and the US government. There were no personal computers back then. But, he was working in a lab where he had access to a huge mainframe computer, and so he developed a program that calculated the actual odds of blackjack in different betting scenarios and use cases, and he ran the program during “slack” time on his company’s computer. Overall, he simulated over one billion hands. Using the result he was able to validate Thorp and come up with a “basic game” of blackjack: when to hit, when to stay, etc., and the data was used as a basis of his first blackjack card counting system.

Because, yes, my father was Jerry L. Patterson, notorious in the blackjack community back in the day. I introduced him here last month. He wrote a book called “Blackjack: A Winner’s Handbook” in 1979, soon after casino gambling became legal in New Jersey. He started giving blackjack seminars and started to develop and market other systems for blackjack and other casino games. He did well over the years. Some of his systems seemed to teeter on the mystical, upsetting the pure math blackjack crowd. He was even called the “Witchdoctor of Blackjack” by one prominent hard-core card counting guru. My father is in his eighties now, and retired from the gaming business.

I take after dad in a number of ways, one of which is that I have a good feel for numbers. When I was younger, I decided to try out card counting and some of the other techniques. I quickly found out that it would be difficult to make a serious living as a pro blackjack player, and even if I could, it is a lot of work to get really good at the techniques and stay on top of the casino counter-measures to these techniques. I also know the odds well enough to know that if you screw up even a little, you will lose fast. Casinos only seem friendly; their real job is to suck you dry if they can, and they are good at it.

I visited dad a while back and thought it might be a fun thing for him to review his books and training materials and come up with a retrospective of his best systems in a new book – but alas, the copyrights belong to the publishers. But recently I thought, well maybe I could do it, be a sort of “Patterson plays Patterson” and take two or three of his best systems, learn them, and then see how they do now, now that casino gambling has spread far and wide across this land. He has systems for blackjack, craps, and roulette, and really, the games haven’t changed that much, so theoretically, the techniques should still have value with maybe a few tweaks. It also gives me an excuse to go to Reno and Vegas – with the bonus of being able to write off the trips as research. Then, I could put together a book about the experience. Win or lose, there’s a story here.

Well, I decided to run this idea by dad. “No way!” he cried. “That’s a terrible idea! There’s no way you can make money at it, and the casinos are wise to it now, and anyway it’s hard to learn it, and there are much better things to do with your time!”

I must admit, I was taken aback. He was adamant about it! I reminded him that casinos are not that savvy – remember Phil Ivey cleaning the clock of the Borgata. Remember that there are many more casinos everywhere, with varying levels of maturity. And, I told him, it would be fun!

“No way!”

We discussed this for a full forty-five minutes. He never wavered. I told him “but dad! You already gave me the first chapter! ‘The Book They Didn’t Want Written!  Patterson denies his own son!” It was all falling on deaf ears.

I tried to peel off which were his favorite systems. His legacy is his craps system, but he said “no, they’ll toss you out! They know about it now!” I told him, well, if they toss me out, at least I can’t lose any money.

Oh well, I tried. But, you know, I’m going to do this over the next few months. It is just too juicy not to. I don’t really have to ask him, because, you know… I have his books.

I’ll keep you posted.

 

Sit Down at a Typewriter and Bleed

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” –Ernest Hemingway

Or was it Ernest Hemingway?

When I realized that Donald J. Trump was going to be the GOP candidate for president, I realized that anything I say would probably not change people’s views on the guy. The press and Trump’s supporters were deriding or hailing Trump (as the case may be) as being a new phenomenon. However, as a lay student of history and politics, I knew that Trump and the reasons he was selected were not new. Rather, Trumpism and populism and fear and loathing are as old as politics itself. People tend to think that the world they are in now is an unprecedented world. That the problems facing people in the twenty-first century have never been seen before. That the ’80s, or the ’70s, or the ’60s, were a more innocent time. The ’10s are so much more complicated.

The election of 2016, to me anyway, had parallels in the election of 1964, when Barry Goldwater was running against Lyndon Johnson. I was way too young to remember anything about that election, but we were a Republican family, and the underlying thought for years after was that Goldwater was a good man and should have won. I do a lot of chores around the ranch, and so I have time to listen to recordings and podcasts while I work, and I listened to Goldwater’s speech at the ’64 convention – you know the one where he said “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Ah – what a bad word choice. It was a contentious convention, which I did not know, and I was struck by the number of cigar-chomping delegates who were frowning and fidgeting as Goldwater spoke. I was surprised by the clarity of what Goldwater was saying – it was Conservatism 101, and actually not “extreme” at all, especially when looked at from a vantage of fifty years later, and after the Reagan Revolution and the downfall of the Soviet Union. Goldwater will always be tainted in the eyes of Democrats, especially, but he was a remarkable Republican, and one thing is for sure: we would never have had Nixon if Goldwater had won.

I was struck by the Conservative surge in ’64. Goldwater had quite a movement going, and Johnson was vulnerable due to corruption in his administration and to the old, FDR ideas the Left was known for and still pushing for. Johnson was no Kennedy. I was also struck by the tensions in the Conservative movement itself. Conservatives at the time had two factions: the Libertarians, and the Traditionalists. Libertarians were basically for a reduced government, and more individual freedom, which meant fewer rules, fewer laws, and fewer restrictions on what people do. Traditionalists were all about doing the tried and true: we’d seen it all before, we have answers that apply, there is no such thing as a new man, and the current upcoming generation is like every other generation that came up before, and should be treated that way. Religion played a huge part as the holder of the Moral Compass. Goldwater seemed to me to bridge the gap between the two factions.

I also listened to a 1962 debate between Goldwater and Norman Thomas, a prominent socialist who makes Bernie Sanders look like a reactionary. In it, Goldwater did a masterful job of defining what “conservatism” means. Goldwater defines conservatism in this debate as, essentially, learning from the past to find solutions to current challenges and to avoid making mistakes in order to progress society into the future. Conservatism in his view was not about stopping progress or returning to some mythical “good old days,” but to boldly, yet prudently, progress.

Just as Trump was disruptive to the GOP of 2016, Goldwater was disruptive to the GOP of 1964. Trump is a businessman, and Goldwater was a businessman. And that’s about as far as it goes. Goldwater was a senator, and had experience with government. Goldwater also had a serious demeanor: you knew he had a lot going on in his head, that he thought seriously about the issues, and that he methodically drew his conclusions based on reasoned reflection. His attitude in the debate with Norman Thomas was respectful and gracious – even when Norman Thomas was being rude. Goldwater was a fascinating, intelligent man. Trump, on the other hand, is not. And I thought the GOP could use a refresher in what it really means to be Conservative – because Trump is not conservative in any manner.

It is rubbish that the ’10s are somehow more complicated or different than the, say, innocent ’60s. I’m sorry, coming within an inch of a massive nuclear annihilation as we did during the Cuban Missile Crisis is not innocent by any definition. I decided therefore to provide some context to the election in my own way. Rather than pontificate, I thought that the best way to provide historical context and “space” was to choose appropriate quotes by intelligent people related to the issues of the day. So, I decided to publish one or two quotes a day as public posts on my Facebook feed. The first two were by William F. Buckley and Goldwater:

“Truth is a demure lady, much too ladylike to knock you on your head and drag you to her cave. She is there, but people must want her, and seek her out.” – William F. Buckley, Jr.

“Can any of us refute the wisdom of Madison and the other framers? Can anyone look at the carnage in Iran, the bloodshed in Northern Ireland or the bombs bursting in Lebanon and yet question the dangers of injecting religious issues into the affairs of state?”- Barry Goldwater

Don’t they seem a little timely? Post-truth is not a new thing. Neither is religious extremism.

So I started my quote campaign, and I ran into a problem: I could find a nice juicy quote attributed to someone, and then find out that the quote was not from that person at all! And yet, all the best quote sites had the quote: “Brainy Quote,” “Goodreads,” and a boatload of other quote sites popped up the same fake quote as if is was whelped by the Gibraltar of Truth. These quote sites crowd out the actual source of a quote (if there is one). Results from these crowd-sourced and frequently incorrect quote sites show ahead of the source document or news story on searches. As a result, a quote looks legit, but is not. Just as this quote at the top of this post by Hemingway is not by Hemingway. But it sure sounds good, no?

Therefore, I decided to avoid using the internet to find quotes, and instead, I bought a used The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. I like it much better. Even though many of the quotes are the same, the editors added history, sources, and cross-references to the quotes, so that a quote by Dorothy Parker (“Sorrow is tranquility remembered in emotion”) has a reference to Wordsworth (“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”) I just love this! This alone is worth the price of admission. And it provides a reason to use known sources rather than just assume some random site on the internet has any real information at all.

There is a relevance to the “Hemingway” quote, by the way: it is still a great quote, even if misattributed. My intention was to have it lead into an explanation of this writing project. I intend to write this year, and I intend to write from the soul, and instead of bleeding onto a typewriter, I’ll bleed onto my keyboard. Stay tuned.

 

Song of the Queen Bee

This poem by EB White was published in The New Yorker in 1945. This is one of my favorite poems — funny, but with stiletto-sharp social commentary.

SONG OF THE QUEEN BEE
EB White

“The breeding of the bee, says a United States Department of
Agriculture bulletin on artificial insemination, “has always
been handicapped by the fact that the queen mates in the air
with whatever drone she encounters.”

When the air is wine and the wind is free
And morning sits on the lovely lea
And sunlight ripples on every tree,
Then love in the air is the thing for me–
I’m a bee,
I’m a ravishing, rollicking, young queen bee,
That’s me.

I wish to state that I think it’s great,
Oh, it’s simply rare in the upper air,
It’s the place to pair
With a bee.
Let old geneticists plot and plan,
They’re stuffy people, to a man;
Let gossips whisper behind their fan.
(Oh, she does?
Buzz, buzz, buzz!)

My nuptial flight is sheer delight;
I’m a giddy girl who likes to swirl,
To fly and soar
And fly some more,
I’m a bee.
And I wish to state that I’ll always mate
With whatever drone I encounter.

There’s a kind of a wild and glad elation
In the natural way of insemination;
Who thinks that love is a handicap
Is a fuddydud and a common sap,
For I am a queen and I am a bee,
I’m devil-may-care and I’m fancy-free,
The test tube doesn’t appeal to me,
Not me,
I’m a bee.
And I’m here to state that I’ll always mate
With whatever drone I encounter.

Let mares and cows, by calculating,
Improve themselves with loveless mating,
Let groundlings breed in the modern fashion,
I’ll stick to the air and the grand old passion;
I may be small and I’m just a bee
But I won’t have Science improving me,
Not me,
I’m a bee.
On a day that’s fair with a wind that’s free,
Any old drone is the lad for me.

I have no flair for love moderne,
It’s far too studied, far too stern,
I’m just a bee–I’m wild, I’m free,
That’s me.
I can’t afford to be too choosy;
In every queen there’s a touch of floozy,
And it’s simply rare
In the upper air
And I wish to state
That I’ll always mate
With whatever drone I encounter.

Man is a fool for the latest movement,
He broods and broods on race improvement;
What boots it to improve a bee
If it means the end of ecstasy?
(He ought to be there
On a day that’s fair
Oh, it’s simply rare
For a bee.)
Man’s so wise he is growing foolish,
Some of his schemes are downright ghoulish;
He owns a bomb that’ll end creation
And he wants to change the sex relation,
He thinks that love is a handicap,
He’s a fuddydud, he’s a simple sap;
Man is a meddler, man’s a boob,
He looks for love in the depths of a tube,
His restless mind is forever ranging,
He thinks he’s advancing as long as he’s changing,
He cracks the atom, he racks his skull,
Man is meddlesome, man is dull,
Man is busy instead of idle,
Man is alarmingly suicidal,
Me, I’m a bee.

I am a bee and I simply love it,
I am a bee and I’m darned glad of it,
I am a bee, I know about love:
You go upstairs, you go above,
You do not pause to dine or sup,
The sky won’t wait–it’s a long trip up;
You rise, you soar, you take the blue,
It’s you and me, kid, me and you,
It’s everything, it’s the nearest drone,
It’s never a thing that you find alone.
I’m a bee,
I’m free.

If any old farmer can keep and hive me,
Then any old drone may catch and wive me;
I’m sorry for creatures who cannot pair
On a gorgeous day in the upper air,
I’m sorry for cows who have to boast
Of affairs they’ve had by parcel post,
I’m sorry for man with his plots and guile,
His test-tube manner, his test-tube smile;
I’ll multiply and I’ll increase
As I always have–by mere caprice;
For I am a queen and I am a bee,
I’m devil-may-care and I’m fancy-free,
Love-in-air is the thing for me,
Oh, it’s simply rare
In the beautiful air;
And I wish top state
That I’ll always mate
With whatever drone I encounter.