Poker

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The Independent Culture
PETER GRIFFIN was the laughing mathematician of blackjack. One of the founders of blackjack theory, though never a serious player of the game, he liked to quote Senator Eugene McCarthy on the similarity between politicians and football coaches: "You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it matters."

Griffin, who died last week aged only 61, taught mathematics at California State University, Sacramento. His interest in blackjack was entirely mathematical. When he played it was for small stakes, just for a laugh. His celebrated treatise, The Theory of Blackjack (1979), was full of abstruse calculation, far beyond the average reader. But the jacket, in typical Griffin humour, depicted himself as a monkey, reaching out for a beer as the dealer pushes another stack of chips his way. His book followed the seminal work on blackjack by Professor Edward Thorp, whose celebrated book, Beat the Dealer (1962), revolutionised the game in the Sixties. The two were lifelong friends and collaborators.

Griffin was a very funny man who never took life too seriously. I played blackjack with him two or three times. The first time, at a casino on the Las Vegas strip, his wife Lydia put down a three-dollar bet, let her winnings stand and the dealer shuffled up! - the usual response to high stakes counters. Griffin hooted in delight.

Another time, when playing for one-dollar stakes up in Lake Tahoe, Griffin performed some amazing feats - such as hitting 18 and pulling a 3.

Everyone was mightily impressed, including the dealer, who thought Griffin was some kind of freak. He just giggled.

He never made money at blackjack and was not interested in that side of it. The more he studied the game, as he confessed, the further behind he got. "At the present time Hollywood has no plans for a movie about his life," he wrote. His enthusiasm for blackjack was, in essence, a fascination with how far the mind can be pushed, a gaming equivalent to running the four-minute mile.

During a field trip through the casinos of Reno in the early days of his research, Griffin was astounded by a long series of losses. No matter where he played, he could not win. He recalculated all his analysis and concluded that the odds against his losing in 30 consecutive sessions in an even game were about 1,000,000,000 to 1 - and since he was not playing an even game, he in fact had the advantage!

Griffin was mystified, but Thorp had no doubt that he was cheated. Thorp claimed he encountered cheating by the big casinos, all the way down to little 25-cent games!

The industry has cleaned up its act since then, of course. However, no one will ever replace Peter Griffin's exuberant laugh at the turn of the cards.

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