Written by Thomas A. Bass
324 pp., 1985, Houghton Mifflin Co.
One “Scientific American” reviewer said of this book when it came out in 1985, “a cabal of young high-tech, high-IQ scientists, as they take on the spinning wheels of Glitter Gulch in Las Vegas, reads like a fast-paced spy novel except that it is better written and has the added merit of being true.”
I totally agree that it is well-written, but will temper the fast-paced comment with the notation that things were a bit slower in the mid-1970s. In other words, it’s a bit dated. And does anyone still call Vegas “Glitter Gulch”?
Yet this topic of beating roulette still seems to excite folks today just as much as it has for the last two centuries: how can you outsmart the spinning wheel?
Before getting to the book review, this April “Wired” magazine (which has done some excellent work on casino fraud) featured a story by Kit Chellel called, “The Gambler Who Beat Roulette”, It, too, was about a past story (2004) of two men and a woman who beat the exclusive Ritz Club in London out of 1.3 million pounds (that would have been about $2.4M in USD in ‘04). This story referenced “The Eudaemonic Pie” and the early attempts by another of my favorite authors, Ed Thorp, who also attempted to use computers to solve the physics of the wheel (he is better known for successfully pioneering blackjack card counting and investing in Wall Street).
Roulette cheating has been top-of-mind for casino operators and surveillance professionals forever, but they all began buzzing again about the topic when the “Wired” story broke five months ago. Even more recently, top security pros Willy Allison and Darrin Hoke did their “PTZ Podcast” about the magazine story and “Visual Roulette Prediction”. As part of that podcast, they interviewed John Wootten, who was the head of security at the Ritz at the time. (Listen to it here.)
But “Pie” is not about visual predictions; rather, it’s about how to use computers and advanced physics to determine where a roulette pill (or ball) will land on a spinning wheel. If you know the speed of the ball, the physical characteristics of the wheel, run a few million tests and program it all into a computer, theoretically you can turn a game that normally holds about 5.26% into a 44% loser. Did I mention that you need to be very, very smart? And sneaky. And are willing to devote almost every spare hour to the task for years.
“Pie” does a wonderful job of describing the background of the key players. There is quite a cast of characters who move in and out of the project, including the author and multiple university scientists. But the main protagonists are leader Doyne Farmer and his friend and fellow physicist Norman Packard.
I won’t take any time translating or explaining the title of the book or their group (Eudaemonic Enterprises). You can find that on Page 49.
The author does a wonderful job of explaining the history of roulette, touches on chaos theory and, most importantly, details the development of small computers. Consider that 1976 was also the year the first Apple PC was launched (in a plywood box). The “Pie” group was using the same MOS Technology 6502 chip (as in the Apple) for their computer. Three decades before the first Fitbit, this team created a wearable computer that fit into a shoe. Remember, at this time, even portable computers were the size a of suitcase that wouldn’t fit in an overhead bin.
In these early years, there were no instruction manuals, no operating systems, and virtually no programming languages for their chip. Everything was written in “machine language,” which is incredibly complicated. Today, writing their roulette program could be done by a grade schooler using Python (not the physics part, but the computer program). But in the ‘70s, Packard and Farmer were some of the best computer minds in the country and the task was monumental even for them.
It is almost humorous to read about their many trials and errors designing input and output devices that could be hidden from casino surveillance. Toe switches, taped-on body actuators and the computers themselves would frequently short circuit and shock or burn the users, forcing quick retreats to the bathroom. I also snickered at the image of them trying to walk in the snow of parking lots at Lake Tahoe casinos in platform shoes that contained batteries and electronics.
The hardback version of this book has been out of print for years, but you can still find used copies online. They’re not cheap, most are $40 to $50. A paperback version is available and affordable for about $15. Best of all, you can find this title on Kindle for eight bucks.
Spoiler Alert: Their computers and basic scheme worked. But only sporadically. The savior for the casinos was all the electronic noise in the environment generated by slot machines, neon, surveillance systems and lighting. It confused their computers and pumped out too many false numbers. In the end, the amount of money they made was not worth their investment in both time (massive) and money (minimal). But at its heart, “The Eudaemonic Pie” is not so much about winning at roulette as it is about a quest by an inspired and brilliant team on a semi-romantic mission. It is their journey that is fascinating more than the destination. With that mindset, it is a wonderful book you should read.
One of the best lines is a quote contained in the preamble to Chapter Two: “No one can possibly win at roulette unless he steals money from the table while the croupier isn’t looking.” — Albert Einstein
- Earlier, I mentioned surveillance pro Willy Allison. Each year he and his wife Jo host an annual conference in Las Vegas restricted to casino security and surveillance specialists called the World Game Protection Conference. Its purpose is to share the latest news on scams, cheats and loss prevention. I asked him if today’s advanced technology would make it much easier for the “Pie” team to win now versus so many years ago. Here are his comments: “It was a game-changer for the industry and the catalyst for wheel manufacturers to improve the randomness of their wheels. It made it a little more difficult for computer prediction. It also prompted more awareness and training on how to detect this specific threat. It’s not that hard. Also, the guys (mainly European) that were using them started to get busted (in more ways than one). With Surveillance departments forming international networks and the development of the internet, I feel we squeezed them out. The technology available today is way more advanced than in the ‘Eudaemonic Pie’ days. I see no reason why it couldn’t be as accurate, if not more accurate, than 20th century technology under the right conditions. In saying that I think when it comes to bricks and mortar casinos, a combination of better wheels, staff awareness and the risk of using prohibited technology to cheat to gain a long-term edge is not as appealing as cheating on a sure thing.”
- It is interesting that the “Pie” team began by buying an expensive wheel to practice from B.C. Wills & Co. Their lead designer, the late Paul Tramble, left to form his own company here in my hometown of Reno, NV. Many considered Paul’s wheels to be the finest in the world. However, his and the Wills wheels had deep pockets. This causes the ball to drop quickly into a numbered slot. Ironically, that’s much better for potential cheaters as it makes their motion calculations a bit easier. But it speeds the game up significantly, thus producing greater profitability for the casino (as long as no roulette computers are in use). To improve security, shallow pockets allow the ball to bounce around more randomly. It takes much longer for the ball to land on a number, but it makes the computer algorithms almost impossible to predict. Therefore, it is a balancing act for operators between speed and protection.
- Author Mark Billings in his 2020 book, “Follow The Bouncing Ball,” attempts to take up the journey that was begun by the Pie team.
- For online roulette games, scammers have a significant advantage. They can sit at home and precisely monitor and record the speed and any flaws in the randomness of wheels. That was a major task for the “Pie” team to conquer in live casinos. However, most of the ETG and online folks countered these moves by using RNGs to vary the speed of the wheel and the thrust of the ball. In other words, these wheels are now more like slot machines than random physical devices.
- Finally, there’s the subject of the law. Using anything to influence the outcome of any gaming device is illegal just about everywhere. However, predicting outcomes is generally not. Counting cards in blackjack is not illegal. However, since most casinos are on private property, if you’re good at it; you will probably be asked to leave and formally trespassed. Even if you use a computer to predict roulette outcomes, it is not illegal in most jurisdictions. But again, be prepared to get evicted and possibly spend a bit of time being searched and sitting in an interrogation room.
- As most of you know, the good ‘ole days of shallow graves in the desert, breaking kneecaps or using a skill saw to shorten fingers are a thing of the past. But don’t tell anyone in the civilian world.