The Four Horsemen of Aberdeen — Pioneers of Calculations in Blackjack

The Four Horsemen of Aberdeen — Pioneers of Calculations in Blackjack

Edward O. Thorp’s “Beat The Dealer” book became a bible for many blackjack players in the end of the 1960s. After its release, thousands of accountants filled the casinos. Math helped professionals to fill their pockets and avoid responsibility. This would not have happened if 4 military men from Aberdeen did not develop the first strategy of card counting. At that time, the innovators did not realize the importance of their work. 50 years later, they have received public recognition from the community.

Team nameThe Four Horsemen of Aberdeen
PlayersRoger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott
Years of activity1953-2008

Players

The four players met while serving at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Roger Baldwin

The professional player was born on November 22, 1929. His father was an economist and his mother was a trade union activist. Parents broke up early. After the divorce, mother married Roger Nash Baldwin. The founder of the American Civil Liberties Union adopted her boys.

Most of the future professor’s childhood was spent in the Greenwich Village mansion, a wealthy area of New York. In 1951, Roger received a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University. Then he received a master’s degree from Columbia University.

Wilbert Cantey

In the group of mathematicians, he was the only African American. Wilbert grew up in a religious family. Faith was so strong that he intended to become a priest. Classes in the seminary were not so fun, so the young man spent most of his time in the billiard room with cards in his hands.

He moved to a regular school. After graduation, he entered the service. By the time he met Roger and the rest of the team, Wilbert had been promoted to sergeant.

Herbert Maisel

As a child, he was considered a mathematical genius. Herbert always got the highest score when it came to the tests. After serving in the army, he became a professor of mathematics at Georgetown University.

James McDermott

In high school, he was an excellent mathematician. The hard work paid off — James received a scholarship in Columbia University. He devoted another 6 years to his studies, receiving a master’s degree. Although he graduated from the same university with Baldwin, they had never crossed paths before meeting in the army.

  • I hear about it for the first time
  • You could do that?
  • 15, 13, 16 ― something from the “21” movie
  • I always count cards, you can’t win otherwise

The Game Unites

The military at the Aberdeen Proving Ground was looking for ways to improve the effectiveness of weapons, passed stress tests, and produced poisonous gasses. The test participants were looking for a way to escape from the routine. Cards have become the simplest means of brightening up leisure.

One evening, Roger Baldwin joined the table. Colleagues introduced him to blackjack — before that, the mathematician did not know the rules. Roger’s attention was captured by a single detail. The dealer always took a card if his hand had less than 17 points.

Baldwin began to evaluate the odds in his head. He understood that a player could calculate the probability of his own victory depending on the hand and the dealer’s up card. The first formulas were written down on a piece of paper. He hadn’t done the exact calculations yet, but he was sure it was possible to beat the dealer.

The innovator turned to Sergeant Wilbert Canty with a request to use military calculators to speed up calculations. Baldwin gained access to computers, but only in his free time. He needed help to speed up the process. Thus, a group of four volunteers was formed:

  • Roger Baldwin.
  • Wilbert Canty.
  • Herbert Maisel.
  • James McDermott.

The calculations took 18 months – about 1000 man-hours.

In June 1954, Baldwin visited Las Vegas for the first time. The mathematician was eager to test the theory in practice. Then he went to around 16 casinos.

Pioneers Without Money

In September 1956, the first scientific work on card counting appeared in the Journal of the American Statistical Association. It was called “The Optimal Blackjack Strategy”. Thousands of people were interested in 11 pages of text with formulas and explanations.

In 1957, a reprint was published in the form of a “Playing Blackjack to Win: A New Strategy for Playing 21” book. The foreword was written by Charles Van Doren, a friend of Roger Baldwin. The American writer became the star of NBC’s Twenty-One television show. Thanks to a series of victories, he won $129,000 (more than $1.1 million today).

The cost of the book was $1.75.

A total of 5,000 copies were produced. There was no photo of the authors on the cover. The team consisted of an African American, a Protestant, a Catholic, and a Jew. The image of a black person could have a negative impact on sales. Although most of the books were sold out, the mathematicians each made about $28.

Roger Baldwin later admitted that he hardly ever used his own blackjack strategy. The mathematician assumed that there is a high probability of going into the red in the long run. Since he had the most experience, the other participants listened to his opinion. However, it turned out to be wrong.

Playing Blackjack
Playing Blackjack to Win was reprinted 50 years later with a foreword by Arnold Snyder and Edward Thorpe

The catch was in the assessment of cards. Mathematicians have misanalyzed the influence of aces and tens. Because of this, their formula leveled the odds against the dealer, but gave  almost no advantage. This mistake was later corrected by Edward O. Thorp in Beat the Dealer. He did not become the founder of the card counting strategy, but it was his approach that later became widespread.

«To paraphrase Isaac Newton, if I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of four giants», — Edward O. Thorp in the foreword of the 2008 reissue of Playing Blackjack to Win.

50 Years Long Road to Glory

Mathematicians did not “rob” the casino, but returned to their favorite business. James McDermott worked for the government and later joined IBM. Roger Baldwin returned to graduate school after his service to work in statistics and data processing. Herbert Meisel began teaching at Georgetown University, while Wilbert Canty continued to work for the government.

With the advent of the Internet, information about The Four Horsemen was leaked to the network. Blackjack fans have taken an interest in the original founders of card counting.

James McDermott, Wilbert Canty, Herbert Meisel and Roger Baldwin
From left to right: James McDermott, Wilbert Canty, Herbert Meisel and Roger Baldwin

In 2003, the Blackjack Hall of Fame was created. Early members were Edward Thorpe, Tommy Hyland, Ken Uston, and others. Most of them were familiar with the work of The Four Horsemen from Aberdeen. In 2008, they proposed induction into the Blackjack Hall of Fame.

3 Horsemen arrived at the solemn ceremony — Herbert Meisel could not attend. The honored guests of the private party in Las Vegas were greeted with a standing ovation. They signed several autographs after the solemn ceremony. All four mathematicians kept in touch with each other, but never made bets in the casino.

Publication author
Donald Peterson
Author of articles
Donald Peterson is an avid gambler from Edmonton, Alberta, who also writes about his experience with casinos. He’s been in the business for over 10 years, following the ever-changing industry landscape. His articles are aimed at helping beginners with choosing casinos, suitable games, and strategies.
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