Episode 749: Professor Blackjack

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A croupier deals a card on a blackjack table at a Gaming Partners International Corp. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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Ed Thorp was the first 'quant', the first person to make mathematical analysis and statistics the center of his investing. But he only got there because of a card game.

As a young man, Ed Thorp was a mathematician doing pretty much what you'd expect a mathematician to do: teaching, studying, trying to solve hard problems. There was one particular problem that nobody else had been able to solve. He wanted to come up with a mathematical system to beat the casino at blackjack.

He had a flash of insight, spent a year working out the details and wound up getting a big-money offer to test his theory in the casinos.

It involved an unexpected conversation with a man in a cadillac and a regular payment of deli meats. It also set him on a course to discover a key insight about setting and beating the odds that had implications far bigger than any casino game winnings could be.

He went on to bring his math skills to the financial markets, where he made hundreds of millions of dollars and changed the way people think about investing.

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