Claude Shannon, Las Vegas Shark

The father of the information age built a roulette machine, and then abandoned it


Many of the creations of Claude Shannon , made by him in his leisure hours, were rather eccentric - for example, the machine that issued sarcastic remarks, or a calculator that works with Roman numerals. Other inventions of the professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the father of information theory showed a penchant for drama and chic: a pipe (musical) spewing flame, or a machine that assembled a Rubik's cube. Other devices anticipated real technological innovations for a generation. One of them stands out not only because it was well ahead of its time, but also by how close it came to Shannon having problems with the law and the mafia.

Long before the appearance of the Apple Watch or Fitbit, the world's first wearable computer was conceived by Ed Thorp , at the time a little-known post-graduate physicist at the University of California, LA. Thorpe was a rare example of a physicist who felt good about himself both in the company of bookmakers from Vegas and in the company of students of professors. He adored math, gambling and gambling - in about that order. Gambling and the market he liked because of their challenges: is it possible to create predictability based on apparent randomness? What can give a person an advantage in games with randomness? Thorpe was not content with the theoretical study of these questions; like Shannon, he went in search of clear answers.


In 1960, Thorpe was a junior professor at MIT. He worked on the theory of blackjack , the results of which he hoped to publish in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Shannon was the only member of the academy in the MIT department of mathematics, so Thorpe turned to him. “The secretary warned me that Shannon would give me only a few minutes, no more, and that he was not wasting time on topics and people who were not interested in him. Feeling awe and understanding how lucky I was, I arrived at Shannon’s office and saw a thin, anxious man of medium height and body build with sharp features, ”Thorpe recalls.

Thorpe aroused Shannon’s interest in his work on blackjack, and Shannon recommended only changing its name from “Winning strategy for blackjack” to a more mundane one: “Preferred strategy for playing twenty-one” to make a better impression on power reviewers. Both scholars shared a love for applying mathematics to unexpected problems in search of unexpected discoveries. After Shannon interrogated Thorp about his work on blackjack, he asked: “Are you still working on something in the field of gambling?”

Thorpe admitted. “I decided to reveal another big secret and told him about roulette. We started to exchange ideas about this project. A few interesting hours later, when the winter sky darkened, we finally broke up, agreeing to meet again about the roulette. ” As one journalist, William Poundstone, put it: “Thorpe inadvertently sent one of the greatest minds of the century in a new direction.”

Thorpe was immediately invited to visit Shannon. The basement, as Thorpe recalls, was "a paradise for gadget lovers ... There were hundreds of mechanical and electrical devices, motors, transistors, switches, pulleys, gears, capacitors, transformers, and so on." Thorpe was delighted: "And so I met the biggest gadget lover."

It was in this experimental laboratory that they decided to figure out how to beat the roulette by ordering a “licensed Reno roulette for $ 1500”, a stroboscope and a watch with an arrow rotating once a second. Thorpe was given access to the experimenter Shannon in all his glory:

Gadgets were everywhere. He had a mechanical coin flip that could be adjusted to toss a coin with a given number of rotations, giving out an tail or tails at will. To laugh, he built a mechanical finger in the kitchen, connected to the basement. If you pull the rope, the finger in the kitchen is bent, beckoning to him. Even Claude had a swing about 10 meters long, hanging from a huge tree standing on a slope. We started to swing from the top of the hill, and the opposite part of the swing trajectory was 5-6 meters above the ground. Claude’s neighbors on Mystic Lake were sometimes amazed to see a figure “walking on the water”. It was me in Claude's foam plastic shoes, specially designed for this purpose.

And yet, Thorpe was most surprised not by the gadgets, but by the supernatural ability of the house owner to “see” the solution of the problem, instead of getting to the bottom of it by long labor. “Shannon apparently thought not with words or formulas, but with whole ideas. The new task was a stone block for the sculptor, and Shannon's ideas broke away obstacles from it, until quietly until a rough solution appeared, which he then refined and brought to the desired state with new ideas. ”

For eight months, the couple went deep into the task of developing a device that predicted the roulette cell in which the ball should end up. To win at the casino, Thorpe and Shannon did not need to predict the exact result every time. They only needed to achieve a slight advantage over chance. Over time and with a sufficient number of bets, even a small advantage will increase to a tangible gain.

Imagine a roulette wheel divided into eight segments. By June 1961, Thorpe and Shannon had developed a working version of the device, able to determine which of the segments would be in the ball. As soon as they decided that they had found their advantage, Shannon demanded absolute secrecy from Thorpe. He cited the example of the work of theorists of social networks, who argued that two random people on average would be connected to each other through three acquaintances. In other words, the distance between Shannon, Thorpe and the casino in fury will be quite small.

The device they developed was “about the size of a pack of cigarettes,” controlled by the big toe with the help of “microswitches in shoes”, and issued recommendations for the game in the form of music. Thorpe explains:

One switch initialized the computer, and the other measured the movements of the rotor and ball. As soon as it was possible to track the rotor, the computer transmitted one of eight musical tones, indicating the eighth part of the wheel, passing by the mark. Each of us heard a note through a tiny speaker that was placed in the ear. We dyed the wires from the computer to the speaker, so that they were similar in color to the skin and hair, and attached them with glue for makeup. The diameter of the wire was about the hair, so that they were not noticeable, but even the wire with the thickness of the hair could cause suspicion.

They tested their invention in several casinos, alternately changing and betting. "The division of labor," said Thorpe, "was such that Claude stood at the wheel and synchronized, and I sat on the far ring, where the ball was not even visible, and made bets." Their wives watched over the situation, “checking whether the casino doesn’t suspect anything, and if we don’t attract attention.” And still, sometimes they were close to failure. “Once the lady sitting next to me looked at me in horror,” Thorpe recalls. “I quickly left the table and found that the speaker had protruded from my ear on the wire, like an alien insect.”

But, despite the setbacks, Thorpe was sure that the duo could play and win. Claude, Betty, and Thorpe's wife, Vivienne, were not so sure of that. Thorpe later came to the conclusion that his companions probably reasoned correctly: the connections between the Nevada gaming industry and the mafia were notorious. If Shannon and Torp were caught, it would be unlikely that two MIT professors would have a chance to get rid of it. The experiment was recalled after a trial run, and the laptop replenished a large collection of Shannon's wonders.


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