The Four Horsemen of Aberdeen
(U.S. Army; Aberdeen, Maryland, USA)
Even before Edward Thorpe appeared on the scene with Beat the Dealer, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, Roger Baldwin and James McDermott, collectively known in blackjack circles as The Four Horsemen of Aberdeen, invented basic strategy using no more advanced tools than desk calculators and their own mathematical prowess.
The story of the four Horsemen began in 1953, when U.S. Army private and mathematics MA Roger Baldwin approached Sergeant Cantey requesting the use of the desk calculators to calculate the odds for blackjack. He was lucky. Not only did Cantey have an interest in gambling, he also had a great passion for numbers and could not resist the lure of mathematical challenges. They soon sought the help of two other interested maths buffs, McDermott and Maisel. Together they spent every spare hour of the next year and a half poring over their calculators and calculations until late in the night.
Finally they had perfected their strategy, which was radically different from the wild theories on blackjack odds that were available at the time in that they were actually sound. In fact, when Thorp ran their numbers through the MIT computers he used for his research, they came out stunningly accurate: to a couple of hundredths of a percentage point. In 1956 they published their results in the Journal of the American Statistical Association in an article titled “The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack”. A year later they published a 92 page book, now long out of print, titled Playing Blackjack to Win: A New Strategy for the Game of 21.
No Rich Young People
They never went on to win big in casinos using their own strategy, however. Maisel explains how their research turned them from that pursuit. “We were going to be rich young people … We worked out the best way to play the game. Unfortunately, we figured out we would lose in the long run.” So the horsemen never pursued the millions later teams would hunt for, though they did continue to get together throughout the years to talk about the old days.
And that, to the four Horsemen, seemed to conclude their big moment in the blackjack world. However, McDermott, when browsing the internet, kept seeing their names come up in articles related to blackjack. He was surprised and amused to find that without knowing it he and his friends were being honoured in blackjack circles with the nickname The Four Horsemen of Aberdeen. He contacted Arnold Snyder, whom he found most knowledgeable on the details of their story and blackjack history as a whole. Snyder was surprised to hear from the Horsemen themselves. According to McDermott Snyder’s initial response was “My God, you guys are still alive?”. Snyder immediately proposed putting them forward to be included in the Blackjack Hall of Fame to other Hall of Fame professionals. All reacted with enthusiasm, and in 2008 The Four Horsemen were officially inducted.
Wilbert Cantey died shortly after, on May 21, 2008.