Michael Kaplan is a journalist based in New York City joined Techopedia in November 2023. He is the author of five books ("The Advantage Players"…
Card counting is not all that hard to do (I can get you up to speed in a couple months). But it’s a lot easier, and a lot more profitable, when you have a computer in your shoe that has been programmed to do all the work.
From the early 1970s until the mid-1980s, when casinos deemed it illegal to have high-tech helpers at the tables, savvy advantage players made their money with the assistance of various computers worn on their bodies. Some of the gizmos shuffle tracked (which is recognizing clumps of cards in a deck, based on previous cards dealt and the type of shuffle being used; it allows you to accurately predict the coming cards) and others executed the much simpler task of card counting.
They were pretty much mothballed until this past September, at the Blackjack Ball. That is a secret gathering of elite advantage-players, held annually in Las Vegas, where said practitioners discuss the state of their art, drink good whiskey, eat tasty food and compete in a highly contested battle for Player of the Year.
At the 2023 Ball, attendees had the opportunity to look at Darryl Purpose’s computer-enhanced shoes, which he was bringing to Burbank, California, for the filming of a TV special about advantage play (en route, he faced questions from airport security). Those well-worn rides enjoyed their share of action and clearly helped Purpose and his blackjack-crushing teammates to make bank. Never mind that he didn’t exactly need them. Ken Uston, a pioneering king of the game, once acknowledged Purpose as the fastest card counter out there.
“Basically,” Purpose, who has received recent acclaim as a folk singer, told Techopedia, “with a six-deck shoe, you had four 1.5 deck-segments and the computer would play those segments. It didn’t know the next card, but it knew about the cards that remained in the segment. The computer was created by Keith Taft.”
Also Read: Blackjack Strategy – How to Increase Your Odds of Winning at Blackjack
The late Keith Taft was a church-going engineer at Raytheon, a Silicon Valley company that did tech work for aviation concerns and the military. He got curious about blackjack while on a camping trip in Reno, Nevada. As Taft told Richard Munchkin, who interviewed him for a gone but great publication called “Blackjack Forum,” Taft started thinking that “one could put together a blackjack computing device that would [card count] and be successful.”
His first computer, deployed in 1972, weighed 15 pounds (at a time when computers typically took up entire rooms), strapped to his legs and was operated by his toes, via buttons inside the shoe. Sensations from the toe pieces instructed him on how to play each hand. Over the next several years, technology increased to the point that Taft was using his devices and winning significantly. Word spread through the blackjack community and Taft became the man to see if you wanted a computer to play with.
Taft’s blackjack shoes became coveted items among serious advantage players. As Taft told Munchkin, “The computer fit under the sole [of the rigged-up shoe]. So [there] was a good-sized platform [on the bottom of the shoe]. Switches were built in for the toes and there were 12 AA batteries in the heel.”
Signals would be sent to players like Purpose via vibrations that hit the toes. With that, Purpose said, “The whole shoe of cards was played at a two-percent advantage. It allowed us to count cards but not look like counters.”
Though the computers were not technically illegal – “Nobody thought to make them illegal until the mid ‘80s,” said Purpose – they would not have been welcomed by casino managers. That became clear during an all-too-successful gambling spree in England, undertaken by Purpose and another player. “We were at a casino in Leister; we won, we went to the cashier, and they did not have enough money to pay us,” Purpose recalled. “They gave us a check and told us to come back the next day to cash it.”
When Purpose and his playing partner returned to the casino to get their money, he had the pair of shoes on – “We were concerned about where to keep them” – and encountered investigators from Scotland Yard.
“They kept calling us professionals and wanted to check our hotel room and car,” said Purpose. “We kept saying that we were just a couple of guys who got lucky. They searched the room, where we had a briefcase with everything in it – backup batteries, records of winning, fake IDs, wires. We were trying to not look at the briefcase but also to not ignore it. Finally, they walked over to the briefcase, opened it, and looked inside but did not go through it. They didn’t know what they were looking for. I was in my 20s and fearless, but we understood that if they saw something, we would be in handcuffs.”
Purpose and his partner got away with it in Leister. But things went less smoothly in other places where big wins aroused big suspicions: “I encountered the Yakuza in South Korea and got chased by the local mafia in Russia. Going into Aruba, they found pieces of the computer and $40,000 in cash. They told me to stay on the island and stay out of the casino. They gave me the money back, I rented a motorcycle and spent days on the beach. I later returned to Aruba, but not with the computer.”
He’s not the only one who used Keith Taft’s card-playing assistants. Rob Reitzen, who’s extracted millions from casinos, discovered the existence of these devices while taking a leak in a down-and-dirty Nevada casino and encountering a guy who basically had a computer in his pants. “I set up an appointment with Keith,” Reitzen told me. “I told him I wanted one for tracking shuffles. I wanted to pay him to build one for me. Keith and [his son] Marty hesitated. Then Keith said, ‘Okay. Let’s tell him.’ They had one; they were already shuffle-tracking. I bought the computer and Keith became one of my best friends.”
James Grosjean, arguably the world’s greatest advantage player on the circuit, spent two years working with Taft to come up with the ultimate blackjack computer. “A player entered the ranks and suits of cards as they were dealt using a set of binary switches inside his sleeve,” Grosjean told me. “The information was relayed to a computer [at a remote location] via a broadcast band and the computer knew what the cards should be on the next shuffle. It then provided a play that maximized expectations, whether it was to give the principal team member a 21 or to bust the dealer, based on the coming cards.”
A combination of downsides – Grosjean ticks off “battery issues, transmission issues, issues of circuits overheating” – plus the need for extra team members (one to block the guy with the computer, another to whom the rig would be handed off if heat came down) made the machine impractical. But it was still used and still made money.
In 1985, predictive devices became illegal in Nevada and all the APs ceased employing them. Grosjean took it to the edge, retiring his on New Year’s Eve leading into that year. Looking back, he said, “I spent 18 months writing code for one stinking game. I can’t say it was completely worth it. Casinos benefited from my spending time on the computer rather than being out there playing.”
Though the blackjack shoes are no longer in use for Purpose, he does retain a soft spot for the devices. “I sit them on my shelf as little souvenirs,” he said. “They’re among my best souvenirs.”
Michael Kaplan is a journalist based in New York City joined Techopedia in November 2023. He is the author of five books ("The Advantage Players" comes out in 2024) and has worked for publications that include Wired, GQ and the New York Post. He has written extensively on technology, gambling and business — with a particular interest in spots where all three intersect. His article on Kelly "Baccarat Machine" Sun and Phil Ivey is in development as a feature film.
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