Professional blackjack player Keith Taft isn’t your ordinary pro gambler. Although he was incredibly smart and studied card counting through novels, he found the task easier and more efficient when he developed a wearable computer to do the job for him. After years of success as a technological pioneer, Taft was inducted to the Blackjack Hall of Fame in 2004.
Holy Roller turned High Roller
Born in the miniscule town of Cut Bank, Montana in the 1930’s, Keith Taft had absolutely no exposure to gambling as a young boy. In fact, his family was very religious minded and frowned greatly upon such activities. But like most professional blackjack players, Keith was extremely smart, and enjoyed unraveling complex mysteries.
After completing undergraduate courses in physics and music, Taft went on to teach both courses for several years before receiving his Master’s in physics. Throughout all that time, gambling was the furthest thing from Taft’s mind. It wasn’t until 1969, at the age of 35, that he had his first experience at a blackjack table, and even that was inadvertent.
Married with four children, Keith and his wife Dorothy planned a family vacation. While passing through Reno, they stopped at Harrah’s Auto Museum, where Keith was given a free “lucky bucks”. Not one to pass up a free opportunity, he asked for some blackjack tips then made his way to the tables to place his bet. He was dealt a blackjack and walked away with a profit of $3.50.
Once could say that that $3.50 win was worth a fortune, because the end result was phenomenal.
On Taft’s way back home, he recalled a book he had heard of long ago – Beat the Dealer (1962) by Edward O. Thorp. Remembering that Thorp claimed to have developed a way to beat the casinos, he picked up a copy and began studying Thorp’s book, and several others, determined to decipher the game of blackjack.
Having learned to count cards and use basic strategy, he headed back to the tables. Success was far from his grasp though, as each trip ended in loss. With his wife becoming frustrated, Taft decided to take a new approach.
Taft’s expertise lied in physics more so than mathematics. He was employed at Raytheon in Mountain View, CA, where he was currently working on semi conductor integrated circuits. Thus he decided to put his more prominent skills to work towards developing a wearable computer that could do the job of counting cards for him.
Edward Thorpe had undertaken a similar task when he and Claude Shannon completed the first wearable computer in 1961, but Taft’s 1972 version was more advanced. He named it “George”.
George weighed 15 pounds and was built in several pieces, each about the size of a book, helping to distribute the weight and bulk when strapping it to his body beneath his clothing. George ran on batteries, and Keith was able to communicate with the computer via switches he pressed with his big toes.
Taft took George out for their first outing to the casino and the results were promising. Another 12 weekends in Reno proved incredibly successful, giving him a $4,000 bankroll to work with. At that point, Keith determined it was time to up the stakes, and that’s when things went terribly wrong. He lost the whole bankroll, and a few more thousand along with it.
That was it – Keith gave up on George and computer blackjack technology altogether.
Three years later, Taft took part in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News, telling the tale of George and his ultimate failure at the casinos. The article caught the attention of another professional blackjack player and future-fellow Hall of Famer, Ken Uston.
Uston contacted Taft and convinced him to carry on with his computer research. Soon enough, “David” was born. The second generation of Keith’s wearable computer technology was much more advanced, and notably more successful, than the first, as it was also was specifically adapted for blackjack team play.
The biggest difference in the two systems was that David did not communicate with the player at the table, but rather the leader of the blackjack team. He and his son Marty continued to refine the technology over the years, using microchips to downsize the bulk and weight. At one point, he was wearing glasses with an LED indicator light on the inner frame to receive information, but he said dealers could identify them by the LED reflecting off his eyes, and they were too fragile due to hair-thin wires that easily broke.
Eventually, Taft was supplying Uston’s blackjack team with miniature computers about the size of a pack of cigarettes, and keypads the size of today’s calculators. In the prime of their endeavor, they were reporting an 80% success rate.
Unfortunately, Uston’s team was not happy with the set-up. They all quit, leaving Ken without a team. He called up Taft and explained what had happened. As it turned out, Taft’s son Marty, who was already married by then, and two of his other children, all wanted to help. They, along with Marty’s wife Rosie, headed out to Vegas to tune their skills with Uston. After a few weeks, Ken had his new team.
This marked the first time Keith had ever played blackjack for large amounts of money. It took them 15 days to work their way up to $35,000 in profit, and just 10 days to double a $50,000 bankroll after that. The blackjack team felt heat from the casinos though and decided to move their game to Lake Tahoe.
As it turns out, Vegas and Lake Tahoe had apparently been talking because the heat was on there too as soon as they arrived. It didn’t take long for several team members to be captured by security, stripped of their hardware, threatened and even prosecuted for cheating.
Although the case was dismissed, Marty, his brother Dana and wife Rosie, all dropped out of the card counting team for good. The rest laid low for awhile, but got back into it when another fellow Blackjack Hall of Famer, Al Francesco, turned up with a new team. Once more, Taft was developing new computer technology.
Taft’s Technology Goes Too Far
In the early 1980’s, he went so far as to develop a system that truly was illegal. Due to casinos changing the rules of shuffling and doing so in a preferential manner when the team was playing, Taft decided to fight back. He built a new device with a video recorder attached to the player’s belt that was designed to see the dealer’s hole card any time the dealer slipped up enough to show it.
Eventually, the law caught up with Taft and his team. One night, suspicious of the large, modified truck these guys were driving, casino security had a talk with them in the parking lot. The police soon arrived, discovering the truck was equipped with a satellite dish and had surveillance video tapes showing dealers’ hole cards. All of their cash and equipment was seized.
Taft wasn’t there that night, but several members of his family were. They were fined $10,000 and each spent 60 days in prison, which Keith described as a “traumatic experience” for them.
In 1985, a law was finally passed that made it illegal to use any device or form of technology to aid in casino gambling.
Keith continued to play blackjack and develop more advanced electronics for the next two decades. In 2004, he was inducted to the Blackjack Hall of Fame alongside Max Rubin. He passed away in 2006.