Edward O. Thorp is a remarkable chap, and so this is a remarkable autobiography. A Depression-era child whose parents were smart but desperately poor, young Thorp took part-time jobs so that he could buy raw materials. As a boy, he made his own gunpowder, pipe-bombs, rockets, rocket-powered toy cars, and even nitro-glycerine. Discovering a powerful dye, aniline red, he used it to turn his local swimming pool a satisfying blood-red colour, earning the headline in the local newspaper, “Unknown Pranksters Dye Long Beach Plunge Red.”
By 1960 Thorp was a young maths professor at MIT and the headlines had migrated to the Washington Post: “You Can So Beat the Gambling House at Blackjack, Math Expert Insists.” Thorp was the father of card-counting, but there’s so much more than that: he recounts a casino trying to poison him as he took them to the cleaners at baccarat, and most splendid of all, his adventures with Claude Shannon – the Einstein of computer science – building a wearable computer in an effort to beat roulette.
Thorp made far more money, in the end, running hedge funds – and his advantures in the early days of quantitative finance are no less interesting.
Ed Thorp is no prose stylist, but with such remarkable raw material he doesn’t need to be: he tends to tell the story brisk and straight, with an eye for nerdy detail. A great book; I should read more biography!
My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”