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BOOK REVIEW: ED THORP'S "A MAN FOR ALL MARKETS"

by Nicholas G. Colon

 

Nicholas Colon is the Managing Director of Alea Consulting Group, a casino gaming consulting firm with a player centric philosophy. It is staffed with world class players, gaming authors, mathematicians, top legal minds and a variety of industry professionals.

Whether you are an aspiring professional player, a casual gambler, or an occasional visitor to Las Vegas, you can feel the impact of Professor Ed Thorp's intellect on that desert city. In 1962 Thorp published the classic book Beat the Dealer. The text was based on Thorps original research that stemmed from his curiosity about the game 21, and was billed as a "how to book" for the lay person to beat the casinos at the game of Blackjack. And simply stated it changed everything. The casinos altered the rules of the game to offset the advantage that Thorp's analysis gave players. But they were forced to reinstate the original rules shortly after the change, because the gamblers/customers decided that the casinos were not playing fair.

Since that time the rules and protocols of the game 21 have been changed, not to the extent that they were in 1962, but enough so that Thorp's original analysis is no longer valid. His ground breaking work paved the way for others to analyze almost every casino game that is offered. Sometimes winning strategies were discovered and other times they house edge was accurately determined. Whether you're a curios mathematician or an aspiring professional player these results are an important first step. A solid summary of the math that governs casino gaming can be found at Michael Shackelford's site Wizard of Odds.

On January 24th 2017, Random House Publishing will release Thorp's memoirs in his new book A Man for All Markets, which is currently accepting pre orders. The book chronicles Thorps heroic like arc from his humble beginnings growing up in a family that struggled to get by, first in the cold winters of Chicago and then in the sun soaked cities of southern California where he excelled in a variety of high school and science courses and ultimately earned a scholarship for his exceptional talents in Physics. And on through his professional career as gaming guru, and ultimately to his amazing success in a stock-market-centered career where he would take his knowledge and understanding of games of chance and apply it to the biggest casino in the world, Wall Street. Thorp's second book Beat the Market helped start the derivatives revolution that transformed world securities markets. Based on his work, he helped launched the first market neutral hedge fund in 1969.

A Man for All Markets chronicles Thorps personal journey in navigating the unexpected and sometimes dangerous obstacles that come along with challenging the status quo of a wealthy corporate adversary. Thorp discusses how he first came up with idea of card counting, and his process in doing so, while he was teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Thorps also elaborates on the push back he received from casinos when his system for beating them yielded him more money than they were willing to tolerate. The casino retaliations ranged from being barred from playing to drugging him, and even sabotaging the brakes on his car.

Thorp executes a comparative analysis between casinos and Wall Street, where he concludes that gambling is a simplified version of investing, and how it's possible to apply the same logic to both. Perhaps the biggest difference is that when you excel at making money in the stock market, the "House" can't ban you. Thorp discusses the risks in both endeavors and amazingly predicted the dangers of Long Term Capital Management, even foreseeing the Madoff debacle almost two decades before it ever happened. Where others saw opportunity for financial windfalls in the LTCM game, Thorp saw extreme risk and the prospect for fraud.

Thorps goes on to describe his interactions with a colorful cast of characters including Noble Prize winning Physicist Richard Feynman, Claude Shannon, whom he collaborated with on what the web has credited with as developing the first wearable computer, when he created the first wearable device to predict the outcome of a roulette wheel. He also describes playing Bridge with Warren Buffet, as well as tangling with a young prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani.

In his most financially successful role as one of Wall Streets' original quants, Thorp led the movement that profoundly changed investment strategies. He provides an inside look at how the shift to a world of hedge funds and exotic derivatives over took the more traditional stock portfolio.

A Man for All Markets is a personal look at the predictability of chance and how to walk the tightrope between risk and return. It's a great read and gives some fantastic insight into one of the sharpest probability driven minds ever.

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