Keith Taft is a legendary pioneer in the world of blackjack and way ahead of his time. He built the worlds’ first microcomputer and other genius devices that have since moved legislation in the state of Nevada and caused quite an uproar of the past 40 years.
It all started in 1969 on a family camping trip to Nevada. Taft, his wife, and four children, decided to stop and visit Harrah’s Auto Museum. He saw the cars and received some “lucky buck coupons” for the casino. Not really knowing how to play, he asked someone in the casino the basic fundamentals of blackjack. He won $3.50 and was hooked. He remembered the book “Beat The Dealer” by Ed Thorp, went to the library, and picked up every book on the topic. He read them all and learned to count cards; however, he was not successful and this got his wheels turning.
Creating the Computer
In 1969, the size of a computers was huge (like as big as an elephant), and punch cards were used for programming. Taft knew that Texas Instruments had come out with a 4-bit ALU (arithmetic logic unit) that would be the heart of the next generation of computers. From that he designed a 16-bit machine that would power down when it wasn’t making any calculations to conserve battery power, since it would have to run on batteries. He was building some memory chips that were solid-state memory. They were small enough and dense enough that they would serve as the random access memory. As it would turn out, there just so happened to be programmable memory devices out there which would allow a thousand bytes of instructions to be hard wired into the machine. It took two years to build the computer and Taft named it George.
George’s task was simple: use mathematics and statistics to determine what the house advantage for a particular hand was. George would then provide an indication of how much a player could wager. The device would also count cards and advise the player on what move to make. The biggest problem was that George was pretty bulky, weighing in at about 15 pounds, but this didn’t completely render it useless. It was about as big as a person could stand to put on his body without it being noticed. It was made in sections about the size of a book and then of course there were the batteries. Another challenge was operating it with his big toes—that’s right—Taft operated George with his big toes. There were four switches, one above and one below each big toe.
This Little Piggy Goes to the Casino
In 1972, Taft and his son, Marty headed off to Reno to give George some exercise. Taft was pretty nervous and only played a short session for small stakes. It was not a perfectly successful venture, though. Even with the added the assistance of George, Taft continued to lose at blackjack. After this, he stopped playing for a couple of years.
Taft Goes Public
In the summer of 1975, Taft decided to go public with his story. He called a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, and the story ran front page. The reactions were interesting and humorous. The story sounded silly—a guy has this computer, wiggles his toes, and still loses at blackjack? The good news was that the story got picked up around the country.
Taft went back to the casinos and counted cards for lower stakes, he was pretty successful but he was drawn again to the idea of a smaller computer. In the fall of 1976 Intel had come out with the first 8-bit microcomputer. This would look just like a calculator. While he was working out the kinks of this first prototype, he received a call from a man named “Art.” Art was thinking about building a computer for Ken Uston, a well-known blackjack player. It was decided that Taft should be put in touch with Ken. Ken was more than interested. Once the computer was finished and refined it was called David (named after David in the Old Testament who took down the Giant, Goliath with only a rock.) Ken and Taft teamed up to create a blackjack team that went on a five-week winning spree using the gadgets Taft created, winning more than $100,000 during that period. The 16-member team, consisting of eight players and eight computer operators, was ultimately busted, but an analysis of their equipment by the FBI brought forth a surprising declaration that the devices could not be considered cheats, and the charges against them were dropped.
Nevada Signs In a Law
The following is from Nevada Senate Bill 467 signed into law in 1985: “It is unlawful for any person at a licensed gaming establishment to use, or possess with the intent to use, any device to assist in projecting the outcome of the game.”
The penalty for the first offense is 1 to 10 years, up to $10,000, or both. The second offense includes mandatory imprisonment. Taft’s son was convicted for cheating for using such devices even before the law was passed. Back in the day, when Vegas was run by the mafia, if the pit bosses caught you cheating, it was likely that you were facing a beating. Today, casinos will no longer rough you up, but if you are caught with a blackjack computer in a casino, you will find that they have no sense of humor.
The law as we know it today, went into effect after Taft’s brother was found to have a mini-video camera built into his belt buckle and used to photograph the dealer’s hole card. Taft would receive this information and then play accordingly. Prior to the law in 1985 though, all of Taft’s devices were perfectly legal.
Taft made a big impact on blackjack with his inventions, and for that he was acclaimed as the inaugural member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame, inducted in 2004. He passed away in August of 2006, but his legend continues to be told. Many of his ingenious devices are on display today at the blackjack museum at the Barona Casino in California.
Wonder what Taft would think of this? In 2009 an iPhone application was offered for sale as a card-counting device. This application is reported to use card counting instead of perfect combinatorial analysis used by some of the prior computers and also miscalculated the true count by ignoring neutral cards. This modern-day “David” has led land-based casinos to ban the use of iPhones in their establishments.