Mathematician Co-Authored Guide to Winning at Blackjack

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008

Wilbert Eddie Cantey, a hardworking Army sergeant and mathematician at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland's Harford County in the 1950s, was never one to shy away from a mathematical challenge. So when a private in his analytical office posed a number-crunching conundrum, he took it on. As did two other enlisted men.

Although he was not much of a gambler, Cantey joined with Roger Baldwin, the idea's originator, James McDermott and Herbert Maisel in their quest to figure out the best way to play blackjack -- and win -- in Las Vegas casinos. They spent thousands of hours during nights and weekends over a year and a half pounding numbers into desk calculators and using probability law in their search for a statistically sound, card-playing strategy.

From their research, the mathematicians wrote a 1956 article for the Journal of the American Statistical Association, "The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack," and in 1957 published a small book, "Playing Blackjack to Win: A New Strategy for the Game of 21," which became one of the most widely used references on the subject.

"We were going to be young rich people," recalled Maisel, who went on to teach at Georgetown University and who remained close friends with Cantey. "We worked out the best way to play the game. Unfortunately, we figured out we would lose in the long run."

The colleagues, who came to be known in the gambling world as the Four Horsemen of Aberdeen, never tried to beat casino dealers to garner big bucks from gambling. But they were rewarded this year in Las Vegas for their contributions to the game.

"It was an honor, in so many ways, to be able to use mathematics to figure out the game of blackjack," Cantey told the Las Vegas Sun in January, after he and his friends were inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame.

Cantey, 77, who spent his life working with numbers on calculators, mainframe and personal computers and helping others improve their mathematical skills, died May 21 at Genesis Layhill Center in Silver Spring of complications from pancreatic neoplasm.

The former high school math teacher and government statistician continued to analyze numerical information at Howard University and later at his own consulting company.

In his Northwest Washington neighborhood, he also was a ready resource.

"If anyone in the neighborhood was having a math problem, they knew he could help them," said his daughter, Janalyn Cantey Edmonds. He tutored elementary through high school students.

Harold Blackwell of Washington, his friend since college, said that for all his brilliance in mathematics, Cantey remained a modest "people's person."

Cantey, who was known as Preach -- either for always sermonizing about strategy or for memorizing Bible verses -- was born in Columbia, S.C. He graduated from high school at age 15 and received bachelor's degrees in applied mathematics and teaching and guidance from Benedict College in his home town.

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