Keith Taft

(d.2006; California)

Introduction to Blackjack

Keith Taft was a music and physics teacher with undergraduate degrees in both subjects. He then earned a graduate degree in physics and worked at Raytheon in California. Taft first got interested in blackjack when, on a family holiday in Reno in 1969, he received a token to gamble with at Harrah’s Casino. A religious Baptist, Taft ventured into the casino warily, but as luck would have it his first three hands were winning ones, the first two 10s, the second dealer bust, and the third blackjack. Taft took the $3.50 he won and left, dimly recollecting on the way back home that Edward Thorpe had supposedly written a book that taught the reader blackjack was beatable and how to win. Upon arriving home, Taft collected all the books he could find on blackjack and set about studying basic strategy and card counting.

The First Computer

Taft never mastered these techniques to a winning degree. He pressed and overextended his bankroll, and had trouble counting without being detected. He resolved that winning money through card counting would be easier if he had a device to do the counting for him. It would be faster, more accurate, and required the sort of technology he was already working with professionally. In 1972 he completed the first version of this computer and named it George. George was a manually programmed and wired, bulky 16-bit machine, and weighed 15 pounds.That same year Taft and his son Marty took the computer for a test drive in Reno. The computer was strapped to Taft’s belly, and four switches were hidden in his shoes, one above and another below the big toe, through which he conveyed informaton about the dealt cards to the computer. The computer conveyed it back through LED lights concealed in the rim of his glasses. (It was this detail that really captivated the public when Taft went public with the story in 1975.)

Initially Taft booked success with his machine, but on a second excursion Taft lost all of his prior winnings and then some. He gave up on the computer for a while and went back to counting cards the old-fashioned way, and later wrote an article about his experiences gambling with his computer. Many of the reactions to this article were humorous, but one reaction put Taft into contact with Ken Uston.

Working with Uston

By this time computer technology had developed further, allowing Taft to develop a smaller machine. The new machine was called David. At the time, Uston had split with Al Francesco due to the upcoming publication of his book Million Dollar Blackjack, which led to Francesco’s team being disbanded, and had started a team of his own. The members of this team trained to use David. This time the system was not used to convey information to the player who provided the input, the focus was on conveying information to the Big Player. Initially Uston’s players defected because they were not making sufficient profits to make playing on the team lucrative enough, with Uston keeping a substantial cut for himself. In part they solved this problem by involving more of Taft’s family members in the project. The team was caught and Marty was one of the team members who was arrested and sent to prison. Later they also worked on a team with Uston and Francesco, who had started working together again for a short period.

More Devices

Taft and his family worked with many different blackjack players, but often found themselves underpayed, receiving only a small cut, and at times even frankly ripped of by some of their associates. However, due to their love of the game they kept designing devices, though some began to include measures to turn the device against a thieving user. Their shuffle tracking device Thor, had such a protection system, but it could also accidentally be triggered by the player’s decision to split a pair of 8s, which Taft discovered through the rapid loss of his entire bankroll one evening. The 7Up system they developed was a set of wires that connected the players up, creating a computer network (this was 1982!). Two pairs of players would come in linked, and the fifth would sit at the table in between them and manually link himself up to the others. In an interview with Richard Munchkin Taft explains how broken links would sometimes lead to silly situations where the coins they used to link up the hair-fine wires would bounce apparently off its own accord three feet behind the unwary wearer. The devices that Taft and his sons developed reflect the battle of wits between advantage players and casinos. Casino’s attempted to turn the tables by introducing preferential shuffling, where they would keep dealing if the count was negative but shuffle the cards if the count turned positive. The Tafts retalliated with the Telly Belly, a camera concealed in the belt buckle that could read the dealer’s hole card.

Keith Taft was inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame for his work in 2004. Until his death in 2006 he continued to tinker with great pleasure with his many inventions in his home in California.