The Man Who Outsmarted Casinos – and then Wall Street
A Man for All Markets is an interesting autobiographical account of the life and work of Ed Thorp, a brilliant, accomplished, but humble man who has lived a long (he is now 85), prosperous and happy life. And yet, it is vaguely dissatisfying. It is an odd combination of 1) an explanation of how the author performed certain magical intellectual feats; 2) a manual of instruction in simple arithmetical concepts in finance (apparently for the lay public); and 3) a vehicle for the expression of the author’s opinion on a few topics in modern life. It is a nice story – if a bit of a hodge-podge – but there is a certain inner tension about it that the author neither feels, recognizes, nor expresses.
The early life
In Thorp’s account of his early life I kept recognizing parallels with my own: the interest in chemistry in childhood, especially chemicals that could explode; the tinkering with a crystal set radio; the living in a low-cost co-op in college in the company of a collection of international students; the threadbare but serviceable clothing, as evidenced by his remark about “the clean but faded Levi’s that I generally wore in the 1940s for want of money and how I was astonished fifty years later when stylish people paid up for intentionally tattered and hole-filled jeans in far worse condition than my high school pants.”
But his zeal for exploding chemicals went far beyond mine. Listen to this:
“I built and tested bigger versions designed to explode, bombs made from short lengths of steel plumbing pipes, which I used to blow craters in cliff faces at the nearby undeveloped Palos Verdes Peninsula.”
And then, this:
“One quiet Saturday I bundled myself up, put on a safety visor, and moistened the tip of a glass tube with nitro. Using far less than a drop, surely a safe amount, I heated it over the gas flame and suddenly there came a CRACK!—with a duration much shorter than and violently different from all my other slower-acting explosives. Tiny bits of glass were embedded in my hand and arm, blood seeping from the myriad holes. I picked the bits out with a needle over the next few days as I found them. Next I put some nitro on the sidewalk and used the sledgehammer to blow another crater.”
The early signs of an inveterate risk-taker, you would think. And yet, in the later parts of the book he doesn’t seem like one. Inveterate risk-takers are in it for the thrill and the reward. Thorp took risks, playing Blackjack in hostile casinos for example, not for the high of getting rich, but “partly to silence that irritating jeer often leveled at academics, ‘Well, if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?’”
Thorp was born gifted. He sailed through competitive examinations with top marks and won scholarships to the best California universities – attending, in the end, the ones he could afford.
He and his wife expected they would live a quiet and satisfying and adequately – though certainly not abundantly – rewarding academic life. That was all changed by a paper he gave in 1960 as an instructor at MIT, at an academic meeting of the American Mathematical Society, about a scheme he had devised to beat the game of Blackjack.
As Thorp says, “In the manner of mathematics meetings, I had prepared a matter-of-fact talk,” however, “My terse technical presentation didn’t deter my audience. I finished and placed a woefully inadequate fifty copies of my speech on the table in front of me. The group surged toward them like carnivores competing for fresh meat.”