Jess Marcum

Jess Marcum was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on December 30th, 1919. He was a genius pre-Thorp card counter who developed his own system to beat the game using nothing but pencil and paper. His father was a Russian immigrant and a professor at the University of Tennessee, and his mother an Austrian immigrant and a librarian. He studied to be an electrical engineer, and after graduating he worked on a PhD, but Marcum soon became impatient with it and the educational system and quit. He then worked for the Rand Corporation, which employed many PhD mathematicians. However, Marcum managed to become preeminent among them by solving a number of problems none of them had been able thus far to solve.

Introduction to Blackjack

One day in 1949, when still working for the Rand Corporation, a friend asked Marcum to accompany him to Las Vegas over the weekend. Marcum didn’t know much about casino games at the time, but observed especially the game blackjack very carefully. Back then, dealers would use a single deck and deal it all the way down to the last card. Marcum instantly realized that if you kept track of the cards you could beat the game. When he arrived home he instantly began to work out the best way to do so with nothing but paper and pencil. Though Marcum’s notes are lost, Arnold Snyder, who knew him personally, writes that he developed equations that gave him a playing and betting strategy as well as algorithms for keeping track of the cards.

Marcum Hits Vegas

Marcum hit Vegas Full Time in the early 1950s, armed with his unprecedented winning method. He tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, but soon pit bosses became very attentive to Marcum’s playing. They could, however, not figure out how he was doing it. After nine months they had still not figured it out, and simply ganged up with other Vegas casinos to ban him. Marcum then hit Reno, and after six months casinos in Reno hired a detective who found out that he was banned in Vegas. After being banned in Reno too Marcum hit various other gambling hotspots for about a decade, until Edward Thorp‘s book effectively ended that career.

Beat the Dealer

Marcum had always been very secretive about his blackjack technique. However, when Thorp’s book Beat the Dealer hit the shelves and a winning strategy became widely available to to public, Marcum lost interest in pursuing his blackjack career and moved back to California and his scientific career.

The Automat

In 2001 Sam Cohen brought out a biography of Jess Marcum, The Automat: Jess Marcum Gambling Genius of the Century, which was reason for Allan Schaffer, a friend of Marcum, to write an extensive article for Blackjack Forum in which he refutes some of Cohen’s assertions. Cohen was, for personal reasons, hostile towards Marcum, and the biography reflects this. Cohen states, for instance, that Marcum became psychotic towards the end of his life and committed suicide. Schaffer states that none of his friends noticed much unusual about Marcum’s behaviour and believes him to have died of natural causes.

Later Work

Nobody knows how much money Jess Marcum made playing blackjack, since he was always very private about his blackjack exploits. In the 1980s, Marcum became addicted to the sleeping pill Halcion, but made a remarkable and almost complete recovery. He then moved to Reno where he lived in a hotel and consulted people in the gambling industry, including one high profile case for Donald Trump. Jess Marcum died in 1992, at the age of 72.