One of the least known members of the Blackjack Hall of Fame is Keith Taft. He was inducted in 2004, just two years before his death, after nearly three decades as a self-professed “tinkerer”—a man who produced electronic devices intended to give Blackjack players an edge over the game. Some say that if he had devoted his inventive skills to business pursuits, he could have surpassed Bill Gates and Microsoft. Instead, he became a part of gambling history well worth knowing.
Mr. Gadget Discovers “21”
Born in the 1930s during the Great Depression, Keith Taft was not very interested in cards during the first half of his life. He had done his undergraduate studies in music and physics, a double major that set him up to teach the former for five years and the latter for three. In the early 1950s, he had married his teenage sweetheart, Dorothy, and together they had two sons and two daughters.
After Taft completed his Masters in physics in 1965, he landed a job with the Massachusetts-based defense technology contractor Raytheon and was assigned to their branch in Mountain View, California. That would later lead to a job as section head in the R&D department of Fairchild Semiconductor in Silicon Valley, where he worked on new semiconductor integrated circuit design. At this point in his life, Taft had never even played a hand of Blackjack.
That all changed, however, in 1969. Taft took his family on a trip in their pickup camper to Reno. When they visited Harrah’s Auto Museum, he was given some “lucky bucks” to play in the hotel’s casino. Taft had to ask someone what the fundamentals of the game were before betting his promotional dollars on a hand at the Blackjack table. As it turned out, he got a natural “21” on that deal and left with a $3.50 profit.
Over the next several months, Taft picked up every book he could find in the library on Blackjack, including Edward O. Thorp’s “Beat the Dealer.” He read voraciously, learned to count cards, practiced at home and went out in 1970 to make a few bucks at the tables. But reality infringed on his plan; every time he pressed, he got beat and soon his entire bankroll was exhausted. That’s when the idea came to him—perhaps computer logic could be applied to the game of Blackjack.
From George to Thor and More
Over the next two years, Taft set about creating a miniature computer that would be would be fast enough and powerful enough to calculate the right Blackjack bets and plays. He built his own solid-state memory chips for a 16-bit machine that he programmed using algorithms he developed on his company’s computers. The result device was 15-pound battery-operated device made into three book-sized sections that wrapped around Taft’s waist. He controlled input with switches placed under his big toes and wired to the main unit. He called this contraption “George.”
Taft’s son Marty graduated from high school in 1972. Together, the two took George on a successful test run to Reno during the summer, and in the fall Taft returned for twelve weekends in a row and won every time, piling up $4,000 before he finally hit a bad fluctuation and lost everything back.
Undaunted, Taft would spend the next decade perfecting his technology, making it smaller and lighter using new computer technology and programming it with the “perfect blackjack strategy.” With Marty and a select group of other relatives, Taft formed his own Blackjack team to test and use his new gadgets. He also worked with Ken Uston to create computer gadgets for his card counting teams. By 1979, Taft had developed a device he called “Thor” that could be used for shuffle tracking, and then came the first “networked computer” using fine wires to link five team members playing at a single table. There was even a computerized pair of boots designed to escape detection by casino security.
Taft might have kept at his “tinkering” forever, had it not been for an unfortunate incident in 1985. Taft’s brother Ted got caught with one of the inventions, a mini-video camera built into his belt buckle. The camera could read the dealer’s down and send an image of it via satellite to a computer in a van outside the casino. Shortly thereafter, Nevada made the use of all such electronic devices in casinos illegal and the inventing had to come to an end, but not before Taft’s reputation as the “Wizard of Blackjack Gadgets” was firmly cemented in gaming history.