Margaret Wertheim is a science writer and author of books on the cultural history of physics.
Halfway through Edward O. Thorp’s lark-filled account of his pioneering career as a gambler and inventor of stock-trading tools, he tells us that “gambling is investing simplified.” So by reverse, investing is gambling complexified. A good deal of Thorp’s life has been devoted to proving that the same kinds of mathematical skills that come in handy counting cards can also be fruitfully applied to “the greatest casino on earth”: Wall Street.
Thorp has won in both arenas. As a young mathematician at MIT in the early 1960s, he developed a theoretical framework that showed how a blackjack player could beat the house advantage, despite centuries of mathematical reasoning that had supposedly proved this impossible. Once he published his “high-low” system in his bestselling book “Beat the Dealer” (1962), it unleashed an army of math nerds who brought such an onslaught of science to bear on the game that it forced casinos to change their rules, including moving from one deck of cards in a shoe to several. Legions of professional blackjack teams using Thorp’s system have engaged in a Darwinian war with casinos ever since, among them a legendary MIT team whose exploits inspired the film “21,” starring Kevin Spacey.
Thorp’s experience with the mathematics of blackjack, and later other casino games such as roulette and baccarat, prompted him to start applying his talents to the stock market. Here, too, he found ways to beat the system by discovering and exploiting pricing anomalies in securities. “Betting on a hedge I had researched was like betting on a blackjack hand where I had the advantage,” he writes, only instead of $500 a hand, the stakes were now “$50,000 to $100,000 per hedge.”
Although Thorp didn’t invent hedging, he made significant theoretical contributions to its development and thus became one of the quants who revolutionized Wall Street. At one point his Princeton/Newport Partners was beating the stock market by more than 20 percent. For those lucky enough to have what eventually became a $10 million minimum, Thorp could almost guarantee brilliant returns: PNP “never had a losing year, or even a losing quarter,” he states.
With his Rockyesque rounds of beating the odds, Thorp has led a remarkable life, but what strikes me most about his story is what happened before he set foot in a casino. As he describes his early years and the obstacles he overcame, we have a narrative arc with some of the same qualities as that of Louis Zamperini, the Olympic track-star hero of Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken,” who grew up just a few miles from Thorp in a disadvantaged suburb of Los Angeles County.
Before he got the gambling bug, Thorp had been pursuing a life in science, and what a life!
Born in 1932, Thorp grew up a Depression-era son of caring, but hugely overworked, blue-collar parents, who often labored on night shifts and, of necessity, largely left their two sons to raise themselves. During World War II, his mother worked as a riveter at Douglas Aircraft, and his father, who’d attended college for a year on the GI bill, was unable to afford to complete his degree. Both hoped Edward would be able to partake of the education they’d been denied.
Left to his own devices in a C-grade school district, Thorp was a self-starter who taught himself chemistry and built a homemade lab in which, like the young Oliver Sacks, one of his chief lines of research was blowing stuff up. He learned to make gunpowder and used it to launch rockets and rocket-powered sleds. He progressed to gun-cotton and nitroglycerine and nearly blew off his hand before wisely deciding to stop. Like Sacks (in his memoir “Uncle Tungsten”), Thorp understands the horror these exploits will induce in the minds of contemporary parents and is grateful for the freedom that gave him an education that couldn’t be learned solely from books.
As a high school junior, he decided to enter a chemistry competition in which the prizes were scholarships to leading universities. Having skipped a grade, he was just 15, and most of the competition would be 17- and 18-year-old seniors. But, since his parents couldn’t help him with college fees, a scholarship was the only way he might realize his dream of becoming a scientist. Unfortunately, he couldn’t afford a proper slide rule, so he was unable to complete enough calculations during the exam and only came in third in a field stacked with kids from L.A’.s elite schools. The next year, he taught himself physics and was one of 40 finalists, out of 16,000 entrants, in the national Westinghouse Science Talent Search, which won him a scholarship to Berkeley.
There, too, he encountered unfairness, causing him to switch fields from chemistry to quantum physics, and finally to a PhD in math at UCLA. His trajectory reflects the movements in a pinball machine, and Thorp acknowledges that in other economic circumstances, his career might have been different. Financial difficulty helped fuel his attraction to gambling, though he insists he wasn’t in it for the money: “What intrigued me was the possibility that merely by sitting in a room and thinking, I could figure out how to win.”
There are several questions opened up here: What if this beautiful mind hadn’t been hampered by pecuniary problems? What else might Thorp have achieved? With a decent slide rule, he’d probably have won the chemistry competition and a place at Caltech. “Science [was] my playground,” he says, and one rather mourns the loss to science. How many other Thorps are being thwarted?
And why does it take gambling to ignite enthusiasm for mathematics among publishers? When Thorp began his blackjack calculations at MIT, he was a post-doc in one of the world’s great math departments. We get endless details about card-counting and not a hint about his research. I wanted to know about his day job. Thorp remained in academics until 1982, professing a love for research and teaching, but the financials finally took over — as they have done for an increasing number of mathematicians. This seems to me an enormous loss, not only because the quants have already brought us once to the brink of ruin, but because so much IQ is being channeled away.
The second half of Thorp’s book is a history of the financial world over the past 50 years, with its growing reliance on math, and it makes for pretty unsavory reading. By his telling, the rewards will be deeply divided between the rich and the rest. Along with Warren Buffett, he urges us to put our money safely into index funds. Just as most gamblers can’t beat the house, most of us can’t beat the market. “Gambling now is largely a socially corrosive tax on ignorance, draining money from those who cannot afford the losses,” he writes in his closing pages. “Most of what I’ve learned from gambling is also true for investing.” It is to Thorp’s credit as a human being that he lands his final punch straight.
By Edward O. Thorp
Random House. 396 pp. $30