Unlike many of the other people on this list, for whom roulette was a passion or even an obsession, Doyne Farmer’s interest only went as deep as his interest in physics.
Farmer was born in Houston, Texas, in 1952, but he grew up in New Mexico and gained an interest in science from an early age, as well as developing a nose for adventure.
While in the boy scouts he idolised his scout leader, a young physicist named Tom Ingerson, who took Doyne and his contemporaries backcountry camping in the Barranca del Cobra (a group of canyons), on a road trip to the North West colonies, and on a journey to find an abandoned Spanish gold mine to fund a trip to mars.
His curious mind and thirst for adventure eventually took him to Stanford to study physics in 1973 and then on to grad school to study physical cosmology.
It was here in California that Doyne Farmer decided that he wanted to find a way to conquer the roulette wheel, and he decided to do by using what he already knew about – science.
Along with his childhood friend, Norman Packard, Farmer created the Eudaemonic Enterprises group, with the sole intention of making enough to money to create a science commune.
This was why they had targeted the game of roulette; if they could find a way to beat this game then they could win the money they needed.
They weren’t messing about either. They put in the money to buy their own roulette wheel so that they could run tests on it, and set to work.
By measuring the distance around the wheel and timing how long it took the ball, on average, to stop spinning before it dropped, they found they could accurately predict which section of the wheel the ball would land in.
Farmer built the world’s first wearable digital computer and wrote code for it so that the wearer could trigger the calculation to start when the ball passed a certain point on the wheel. In this way, the computer could determine the velocity of the ball in relation to its position and the time at which the wearer triggered the calculation to start, and then predict where it would eventually stop.
This information would then be transmitted to a vibrating receiver worn by an accomplice who would interpret the vibrations and place bets accordingly
The first computer was designed to be worn under the arm pit, but the eventual model was built into a shoe, with the wearer controlling the computer by tapping their big toe at the right time.
It was essentially like a very clever egg timer that could be started and stopped as needed, and did complex mathematical calculations in-between.
Once they were confident that the machine worked, they took it to the casinos to try it for real.
Succeeding and Failing at the Same Time
The operation would require at least two people; one to wear and operate the computer, and one to place the bets.
In this way, the two team members could operate without the casino even knowing they were there together.
One would watch and concentrate on accurate toe tapping, and the other would very quickly place bets before the croupier closed betting for the game.
The system did work, but Farmer and Packard were plagued by setbacks such as hardware problems, not to mention the fact that they were not experienced casino players or hardened criminals, so they did not exactly feel at ease doing what they were doing.
All in all, they made at least 11 trips to casinos in Las Vegas, Reno, and Tahoe, and achieved a 20% advantage over the house.
However, they never found the courage to play for larger amounts for fear of repercussions from the casinos – this was back in the days when ‘the backroom’ still existed and casinos were known to get rough with anyone caught cheating – so they never made the sort of money they needed for their science commune.
Leaving Roulette Behind
Although this relatively short experiment had not earned them the sort of money they had hoped for, it was nevertheless a resounding success.
Doyne Farmer and his friend had indeed beaten the roulette wheel, using nothing more than a few measurements and a 3 kilobyte bit of computer coding.
Considering the house usually has a 2.70% advantage over the player in the long run, their ability to realise a 20% advantage over the house (which means their system actually improved the odds by 22.70%) over a relatively short space of time is quite an achievement.
It was never about the gambling for Farmer though, it was actually about understanding prediction and trying to create financial freedom, so once the experiment was over he walked away from the casinos for good.
He moved on to the stock market and built The Prediction Company, which eventually became an algorithm for trading the market based on specific signals to buy and sell.
He never spoke about how he had managed to beat the wheel, because, in his own words, he “did not want to communicate any information that might prevent anyone from taking the casinos’ money”, but many years later he did come clean.
Enough time had passed that his technology was outdated, and most casinos now closed bets earlier anyway which would render his system useless.
Now more than 70 years old, his mind is as sharp as ever, working for Oxford University amongst other interests.