Keith Taft: Blackjack Computer Innovator
Was Keith Taft a skillful blackjack player? No. Did he make a lot of money through playing blackjack? Not really. Then why was he inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame in 2004? The answer is simple.
Taft developed several innovative computers that made counting cards easier. Some of these devices were even used by Ken Uston's blackjack team. To learn more about Taft and his revolutionary inventions, please keep reading this thorough biography.
Keith Taft was born in Cut Bank, Montana, in 1930. From a very early age, Taft had a passion for innovation. He created a three-wheel car out of an old exhaust pipe, he developed a variety of new explosives in chemistry class, and he discovered how to shock his teachers by hotwiring their door knobs. If Taft had a gadget in mind, he usually found a way to make it.
He took his passion for innovation with him to college where he double-majored in physics and general music. After graduation, he dedicated 5 years to teaching music and then another 3 years to teaching physics before heading back to school to earn his master's in physics. He enjoyed teaching, but he knew it was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
In the midst of his education, Taft married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy. The couple would eventually have four children, two boys and two girls. When the children were still young, Taft moved his family to Sunnyvale, California, so he could work as a semiconductor engineer for a company called Raytheon.
First Time at a Casino
Taft's new job kept him working long hours, making it hard to have any alone time with his wife. In desperate need of a getaway, Taft and his wife decided to leave their children with their grandparents for the weekend. They traveled to Reno to visit Harrah's Auto Museum. They didn't realize it at the time, but there was a special promotion going on at the museum. Everyone who visited the museum was given lucky bucks that could be used at Harrah's casino and resort.
Taft was hesitant to visit the casino at first because it was against his religion growing up, but his wife convinced him that they would have a fun time. They started off by playing some slot games; then they moved their way to the table games. They played craps and poker with little success. Just before they were almost out of lucky bucks, they made their way to the blackjack tables. Finally, they were able to win some money.
When Taft got home, he decided to research blackjack strategy. That's how he came across the book Beat the Dealer by Edward O. Thorp. Through reading this book, he was able to learn how to count cards. This made him eager to go back to the casino; he wanted to see if he would be able to make some decent money through card counting. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful. It was simply too difficult for him to count cards in his head.
The First Blackjack Computer
He spent countless hours in his workshop to develop a device that could do the calculations necessary for card counting. That way people who weren't mathematically inclined would still be able to count cards at the casinos if they wanted to. He designed a 16-bit machine that would power down when not in use. He also developed memory chips that were compact enough to serve as the device's random-access memory.
It took about two years to complete his first blackjack computer, which he named George. George weighed about 15 pounds and could be operated by a player's big toes. The device was controlled by four switches that were strategically placed above and below each big toe. Since players could control the device with their feet, their hands would be free to play the cards, and the casinos wouldn't be suspicious of foul play.
In 1972, Taft headed back to Reno with his son, Marty, to test out George. They got set up in a nearby parking lot and headed to the casino from there. They didn't even make it to the casino doors before they had to turn around because Taft was experiencing severe pain in his foot. Apparently, he had to make a couple adjustments in order to make the device properly fit his toe. Once he made those few tweaks, he was able to wear it pain-free.
Taft was initially worried that his computer's frequencies would interfere with the casino's radio frequencies, alerting the casino that they were using a device. Luckily, that didn't happen. As Taft and Marty started winning, the casino started to pay closer attention to them. They never caught on to the fact that they were using a device, though. Taft and Marty were able to walk away from the casino with thousands of dollars in their pockets; Taft's device was a proven success.
Taft continued to use his computer at the casinos until he had to take a couple years off to help his family move to a larger home. When he finally made it back to Reno, he had a $4,000 bankroll to work with. He was projected to make about $10,000, but he ended up burning through his entire bankroll instead. He quit playing blackjack that day and would eventually tell his story to a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News.
Helping Ken Uston and His Blackjack Team
After word got out that Taft could create a device that made card counting easier, he was approached by Ken Uston. Uston was the leader of a lucrative blackjack team and was interested in purchasing some of Taft's devices if he was willing to make some adjustments to them.
First and foremost, Taft had to make his computer smaller. George was way too bulky, and it wouldn't be long before the casinos would start to take notice of it. After countless hours in the lab, Taft was able to create a device that was the size of a large wallet. It was made to resemble a handheld calculator. That way, if anyone was caught using the device, the casino's security team would not be able to identify what type of device it was.
Another change Uston wanted to see made was in how the device was operated. While having the device controlled by your feet is less noticeable, it also increases the likelihood of errors. Taft was easily able to adapt his device so that it could be wrapped around a player's thigh and operated by their fingers instead. This revamped device would be named David, in honor of David from the Bible who was able to defeat Goliath with just a sling and a stone.
Uston's team successfully used David for several years until the casinos started to change their policy on how many decks they were allowed to use at a time. When David was created, casinos only used one deck. Now, they were allowed to use multiple decks, making David's calculations inaccurate. Going back to the drawing board, Taft was now forced to create a device that was able to perform the necessary calculations for up to eight decks at once. This device would eventually be named Thor, in honor of the Marvel superhero who was able to defeat all his enemies with his legendary hammer.
Even More Devices
It wasn't long before Taft was ready to move on from developing devices that focused on card counting. After a long discussion with his son, the two wondered if it would be possible to make a device that allowed them to see the dealer's hole cards. They knew they had to incorporate some kind of camera into this device, so they started researching various cameras they could use. Hitachi and Sony cameras had high megapixels, but they would be too large to go unnoticed. Taft ended up choosing an off-brand camera with lower megapixels because it was smaller and easier to work with.
He decided to put the camera lens into a fashionable belt buckle. The belt would snap images on demand and send those images to a one-inch screen that fit inside the pocket of Taft's shirt. His son would wear the belt and strategically sit at a nearby table where his belt could capture the dealer's hole cards with ease. Once the image was captured, all Taft had to do was to look through the prism in his eye glasses, which allowed him to see inside his pocket without looking down.
While Taft and his son did use this device in Las Vegas several times, there were some noticeable flaws that they wouldn't be able to fix. For one thing, the glasses he had to wear were large and dark, making him look suspicious right from the start. Also, no matter what color shirt he wore, you could still see the one-inch screen glowing from his pocket. Depending on the lighting in the casino, the image captured by the belt was sometimes too blurry to read. These flaws made his device a bust, so Taft moved on.
His next invention was the Super Drop. He upgraded the camera in his belt so that the images he captured would be clearer. With the Super Drop, the images would be sent to a computer they had out in their truck. Once the person in the truck received the images, they would use a walkie talkie to reveal the hole cards to the player and give them advice on what moves to make. This entire process took about 40 seconds. Taft was able to use this device for several years before the casinos caught on.
It was just an ordinary weekend for Taft. He headed to Las Vegas to use the Super Drop with his son, brother, and brother-in-law. After playing for a few hours, Taft and his son decide to settle into their hotel room for the night to get some rest. Taft's brother and brother-in-law were having too much fun to stop, so they continued to use the Super Drop without Taft's help. This turned out to be a big mistake.
The casino they visited, the Marina, had recently received a bomb threat, so the security was extra tight that night. When Taft's brother went to the truck to change his shoes, he was unknowingly followed by a couple security officers. They searched his truck and found the cameras that were aimed at the dealer's hole cards. They called the police, who confiscated all of their money and their equipment.
Taft's brother and brother-in-law were thrown into prison on account of using a cheating device. Although Taft was eventually able to bail them out, it was a traumatic experience. The whole ordeal put a huge strain on Taft's family. The church they were attending was now aware of what Taft was doing to earn money, and they weren't pleased with his actions. Taft's brother was also angry with him because he lost his job as a result of his jail time. This event was the first of two main reasons why Taft had to leave his business behind.
Being Forced to Retire
One day, Taft was approached by a man named Rats Cohen. Cohen had recently bought a couple devices from Taft and was claiming that he wanted to do repairs on them. In order to repair the devices, Cohen needed to know how to get the epoxy off of them. Not thinking anything of his request, Taft told him everything he needed to know to make that possible.
As it turns out, Cohen wasn't planning to make repairs. Instead, he was planning to learn the ins and outs of Taft's devices so that he could replicate them and sell them for his own profit. He named his main device Casey and started selling it in mass quantities. Soon advertisements for Casey were in major newspapers like the Las Vegas Sun and the Los Angeles Times. This not only took away from Taft's sales, but it also made the casinos more aware of these devices.
The casinos started to crack down even harder on the use of computers in the casinos, making Taft's devices almost impossible to use. As time went on, his sales continued to decrease. Even Uston's blackjack team had to stop using his products due to heat from the casinos. It officially became illegal to use any device to enhance your chances of winning at the casinos of Las Vegas in 1985, forcing Taft to face the harsh reality that it was time to retire.
Once Taft had retired, he decided to spend more time at home with his wife. They owned over 10 acres of land, so they stayed busy taking care of that. When they weren't mowing or landscaping, they could probably be found exercising. Even in their mid-seventies, Taft and his wife enjoyed their morning runs and weekly tennis matches.
Their nine grandchildren were also a huge part of their life throughout retirement. During the summers, hardly a day went by when they didn't have one of the grandchildren staying the night. Taft particularly enjoyed taking his grandsons on camping trips; they would fish, build campfires, and sleep under the stars.
One morning in 2006, Taft's wife found him lying breathless in his chair. He had passed away peacefully in his sleep. Friends and family mourned the loss of Keith Taft, who was a loving husband, father, grandfather, and friend. Those in the blackjack community also mourned the loss of this brilliant man who will always be remember for his impact on the game of blackjack.