Keith Taft: Blackjack Computer Innovator
Keith Taft is known for developing several different profitable devices that have helped hundreds of players win thousands of dollars from casinos across the world. His innovativeness and talented engineering abilities are just a couple of reasons of why he was inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame in 2004.
When reflecting back on some of his inventions in an interview with Richard W. Munchkin, Keith said, "We had ideas for using inputs with the toes, or teeth, for people in wheelchairs. But I've found that to succeed at anything you really have to focus. If you are going to break new ground it takes total dedication."
Keith Taft was born in Cut Bank, Montana during the 1930's, to a very devout Christian family. Keith claimed to be a Christian his entire life, often telling people that he didn't believe that gambling was a sin but that the love of money was. He used this reasoning to explain his actions to his friends and family as he got older.
Keith earned his Bachelor's degree in both music and physics. He spent several years as a professor teaching classes on both subjects, and eventually going on to earn his Master's degree in physics. Being well educated and a very hard worker, Keith had a variety of job offers upon graduation. He decided to work for Raytheon: a company that focuses on developing innovative electronics that can be used in many different areas around the world.
One weekend, Keith and his wife decided to take a little vacation to Reno to visit Harrah's Auto Museum. As a thank you for purchasing museum tickets, they were given a couple, "lucky bucks," which could be used at Harrah's casino and resort. They decided to head over to the casino, where they eventually found themselves winning a little money through playing blackjack.
The exhilarating experience of winning cash in a casino for the first time, inspired Keith to read a book that claimed to be filled with the winning strategy: "Beat the Dealer," by Edward O. Thorp. He used this book to learn simple card counting methods, but despite many hours of practice he had very little luck at the tables and quickly became discouraged.
The First Blackjack Computer was Born
Keith wondered if there was a way to develop a device that would do all of the necessary calculations for players, so that they didn't have to do them all in their head. This was the only obstacle he believed to be in his way of making a fortune. He continued to do research, reading every book he could get his hands on regarding blackjack strategy while he thought about how this device could come into fruition.
It's important to remember that micro-computers, which is what Keith eventually developed, had never been created before. Having computers in colleges and hospitals was even rare at this point. Through his research, he discovered that Texas Instruments had come out with a 4-bit arithmetic logic unit that could potentially be the heart of his computer.
Keith eventually designed a 16-bit machine that would power down when it wasn't making any calculations to conserve battery power. He also built advanced memory chips that were compact enough to act as the random access memory. In between the developing process, Keith accepted a new job working as a manager at R&D, which focuses on producing top of the line technology. Keith had access to a computer under this position, making it a lot easier to develop the software algorithms.
He named his first device George; it was a little bulky and it certainly weighed down his foot quite a bit, but it was manageable. Keith described his original device in this way, "It was quite heavy. My concern was that I would have radio frequency interference, or give off radio waves that the casino would pick up. I made it out of brass plate, and it weighed about fifteen pounds. It was operated by my big toes. There were four switches, one above and one below each big toe." The device wraps around the player's core, so wearing tight clothes would not be feasible.
In 1972, after two years of perfecting this device, Keith felt confident enough to take it to a casino for the first time. He ventured off to Reno with his son Marty, so that they could experience this monumental moment together. Initially, Keith would only play a quick session for very small stakes, as he had very limited prior experience with gambling. He was winning money consistently until he took time off to help his family move to a nearby town.
After the family had settled in their new home, Keith was ready to head back to Reno to try his device again. He had $4,000 in starting capital and told his wife that he would either lose it all or come back with $10,000 in profit. Well that weekend was a bust, as Keith lost his entire bankroll, plus a couple more thousand. He suspected that the casino authorities may had been cheating, so Keith decided to stop playing for awhile.
For two years, Keith went on with his life like normal, never telling anyone about his earlier invention. Everything changed one afternoon when Keith called up the reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, and revealed his entire story to her. Many people who read his story were intrigued, but many others viewed Keith's creation as a failure.
Ken Uston's Impact on His Blackjack Computers
Keith was motivated to tweak his device, trying to make it as easy to use as possible. He still worked full time to support his family, but he spent his nights and weekends developing a new and improved version of his first computer. This put a huge strain on the family, as it left his wife with the responsibility of taking care of the whole family on her own; they had three daughters and one son at the time.
The prototype was built to resemble a calculator to fool casino personnel into thinking it was a simple hand held calculator in case anyone was ever caught using the device. Keith first was able to test his device in Lake Tahoe in December of 1976. He was able to make thousands of dollars in a very short amount of time by using the device he later referred to as, "David." He said this was in reference to the story of David and Goliath from the Bible.
This device was originally designed to account for one deck of cards, but it wouldn't be long before casinos started implementing more decks into play at a time. It was because of this reason that he created a new computer that could keep track of up to eight different decks at once; this computer is better known today as, "Thor."
The news of his success spread across the blackjack community, and he was often being approached by professional blackjack players who were interested in trying out his devices. Keith was never concerned about whether or not the production of his device was legal, but he did wonder if the mafia would seek revenge on him for making a device that would aid the blackjack teams they resented so much.
Ken Uston's blackjack team was the first team who had permission to use his devices. At this point, Ken's team only consisted of about ten players, and Keith was paid to design ten blackjack computers for them. Since this was his first time making replicas of his device, he had to find a way to protect his ideas from being stolen. He accomplished this by sealing the keyboards with an epoxy to protect his design.
Ken also requested that he switch the toe input to a hand input, as he thought fewer errors would occur this way. Keith ended up attaching the keyboard to a strap that would keep it in place on the player's thighs so that they could enter the numbers in with their hands inconspicuously.
Keith also developed a small transmitter that could easily fit into a small pack of cigarettes; it would send the information from the computer to a receiver that was sewn into a shoe of the Big Player on the team. Keith's elaborate inventions didn't seem to rake in as much revenue for Ken's team as they were hoping it would.
Keith and several of his children joined Ken's team to show the players how beneficial this blackjack computer could be. Everyone was amazed to see how much money came in so quickly, and Keith was impressed by how much he was able to learn about playing blackjack from Ken Uston.
Other Useful Devices
Keith and his son were trying to develop a new device that would give them access to a dealer's hole cards. After much discussion, they came to the conclusion that using a camera to capture the image of the dealer's hole cards might be their best option. Originally, they started their research on a Hitachi camera because it shot extremely high quality videos, but it was too bulky to be practical.
Instead, they settled on a basic camera and started to dissect it to see if what they were trying to accomplish would be feasible. They ended up placing the camera lens into a belt buckle, as no one would suspect that it would be there. The finished product looked like a gold buckle with a red jewel-like center; it actually looked quite stylish.
Marty would wear the belt and position himself in such a manner as to see the dealer's hole card. The belt would snap a couple images that would then immediately be sent to the microscopic one inch screen that was placed inside the pocket of Keith's shirt. Keith could look at it without looking down through the prism in his eyeglasses.
Although Keith and Marty were able to use this device several times with success, they did notice some defects that could not be resolved. For starters, his glowing shirt pocket stood out like a sore thumb. Sometimes the picture came out too blurry for Keith to read, and the dark glasses drew too much attention to him.
Keith instead used the camera in his belt buckle for his "Super Drop," invention. The camera sent the pictures out to their truck and it took about forty seconds for the person in the truck to signal back to the player when to play and what moves to make.
Other useful devices that Keith experimented with were "Magic Shoes,"which encompassed the right shoe storing the computer and the left shoe controlling the input switches. The shoes were powered by batteries that were placed in the heel of the shoe. Keith also worked on devices that could be placed inside player's mouths and would be controlled by their teeth. Needless to say, not all of his inventions were successful.
Keith always had his son Marty by his side, but he would occasionally invite his brother and brother-in-law to join in on the action as well. One weekend, when Keith and Marty were on an intense winning streak, Keith's brother and brother-in-law stepped outside to grab something from their car. Some security guards that were linked to the casino followed them outside to their car.
Without permission the security officers searched their car; they found hundreds of thousands of dollars and multiple blackjack computer devices. They confiscated all of it and threw all four men out of the casino for good. This was one of the last times that Keith allowed his brother and brother-in-law to gamble with them.
The End of an Era
A man named Rats Cohen eventually deactivated the epoxy in Keith's devices, and used his designs to create identical devices that he sold for even more money. Rats started advertising his sales in the Las Vegas Sun, which brought a lot of negative attention to these types of computers. In 1985, the state of Nevada officially made it illegal to use any variation of the computer inside the walls of a brick and mortar casino.
Keith and his son gambled significantly less after this law was instated, but they still played together from time to time. In 2004, Keith Taft was inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame alongside Max Rubin. Only two candidates were chosen that year, so it's especially impressive that he was one of them. His entire family was there to support him as he received his award.
Keith spent his last years living with his wife of over fifty years in their ten-acre estate in Elk Grove, California. Even as they aged, the couple still enjoyed taking morning jogs, playing tennis, and staying as physically fit as possible.
They were both also active members in their local church. Their pastor and other church members were upset when they first discovered what Keith and his son had been doing, but they still welcomed them into their church every Sunday regardless of their disapproval. In 2006, Keith passed away from natural causes and his entire family mourned his death for months.
Author: Nicole Miller
Updated: January 2016