An excerpt from the La Times:
That’s the quest that first got Thorp interested in blackjack. Living on a teaching assistant’s stipend from UCLA and following a cheap newlyweds’ vacation in Las Vegas with his wife, Vivian, he pondered the traditional assumption that in gambling, the house always has the edge.
“I had heard that winning systems were supposed to be impossible,” he writes. “I didn’t know why.” What he discovered was that the odds in blackjack change based on which cards remain in the deck after the others are played. Tracking the remaining cards would enable a player to determine when the odds are most favorable and exploit the advantage by raising the bet. Following a series of computer simulations, Thorp codified his findings into a paper on blackjack strategy for an American Mathematical Society conference in Washington.
He expected to be addressing a meager audience of academics. Instead, he found himself in front of a standing-room-only crowd in which “scattered among the mathematicians were others sporting sunglasses, gaudy oversized pinkie rings and cigars, as well as reporters with cameras and notepads.”
Ed Thorp in Time (PDF).