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“Richard Jarecki, Doctor Who Conquered Roulette, Dies at 86”

[relevant video]

Thanatos Savehn is right. This obituary, written by someone named “Daniel Slotnik” (!), is just awesome:

Many gamblers see roulette as a game of pure chance — a wheel is spun, a ball is released and winners and losers are determined by luck. Richard Jarecki refused to believe it was that simple. He became the scourge of European casinos in the 1960s and early ′70s by developing a system to win at roulette. And win he did, by many accounts accumulating more than $1.2 million, or more than $8 million in today’s money . . . He and his wife honed his technique at dozens of casinos, including in Monte Carlo; Divonne-les-Bains, France; Baden-Baden, Germany; San Remo, on the Italian Riviera; and, briefly, Las Vegas.

How did they do it?

At the time, Dr. Jarecki told reporters that he had cracked roulette with the help of a powerful computer at the University of London. But the truth was more prosaic. He accomplished his improbable lucky streak through painstaking observation, with no electronic assistance.

Ms. Jarecki said in a telephone interview on Monday that she, Dr. Jarecki and a handful of other people helping them would record the results of every turn of a given roulette wheel to discover its biases, or tendency to land on some numbers more frequently than others, usually because of a minute mechanical defect caused by shoddy manufacturing or wear and tear.

Here’s some juicy statistical detail:

Ms. Jarecki said that watching, or “clocking,” a wheel, as Mr. Barnhart described it, could mean observing more than 10,000 spins over as long as a month. Sometimes a wheel would yield no observable advantage. But when Dr. Jarecki and company did find a wheel with a discernible bias, he would have an edge over the house. “It isn’t something he invented,” Ms. Jarecki said. “It’s something he perfected.”

Wow. This obit has more statistical sophistication than most of the PNAS papers I’ve seen.

Jarecki was bi-cultural: He was born in Germany, then his family moved to the U.S. when he was a child, then after graduating from college he moved back to Germany, then he met his wife, an American, during a medical residency in New Jersey, then not long after that they returned to live in Germany together.

Also this:

In addition to his wife, with whom he also had a home in Las Vegas, he is survived by a brother, Henry, a billionaire psychiatrist, commodities trader and entrepreneur; two daughters, Divonne Holmes a Court and Lianna Jarecki; a son, John, a chess prodigy who became a master at 12; and six grandchildren.

Two nephews of Dr. Jarecki are the award-winning documentarians Andrew Jarecki (“Capturing the Friedmans” and the HBO series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”) and Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight” and “The House I Live In).”

And, finally:

Dr. Jarecki moved to Manila about 20 years ago, his wife said, because he liked the lifestyle there and preferred the city’s casinos to those run by Americans.

His touch at the roulette wheel endured until nearly the end. Ms. Jarecki said he last played in December, at a tournament in Manila. He came in first.

Roulette tournaments? Who knew??

13 Comments

  1. Rahul says:

    Typical PNAS authors would probably use a sophisticated model of a roulette wheel behavior, then collect just 1000 data points and then come up with a predictively useless model.

    • Andrew says:

      Rahul:

      Yup. With 1000 data points and a little bit of flexibility in data inclusion, exclusion, and analysis, it should be no problem to get some interesting “p less than 0.05” results. Throw in some evolutionary psychology or quantum physics and you can get it into PNAS (or, if not there, JPSP or Psychological Science or the Journal of Theoretical Biology). After that, you can get on NPR and get some funding from the casino industry, as they’d be happy to publicize your findings. Future replication failures can be explained away by interactions with outdoor temperature, as that should change the warp on the roulette wheels.

  2. dfan says:

    When I saw “Doctor Who Conquered Roulette” in the headline, I wondered what episode I missed.

    Richard’s wife Carol is well known in chess circles as a top-level arbiter.

  3. Josh says:

    “Wear and tear” is interesting. For biases learnt this way, wouldn’t there need to be some sort of underlying approximate stationarity of the generating process? Maybe PNAS-style modeling can still play a role in parsing out the bias due to wear.

  4. Alex C. says:

    You’d think casinos would have some serious concerns about someone with a pencil & clipboard who spends a month standing near the roulette table.

    • Phil says:

      I recently read a book about some physicists who made a ‘shoe computer’ to beat casino roulette in the 1980s. Click a toe switch each time the ball passes a certain point on the table, and a different switch each time the 0 passes a given point on the table, and the computer would tell them which octant the ball was least likely to land in. They would need to do calibration runs because a small tilt to the tables, and other factors, made each table different. According to the book they gained a slight edge when the computer worked. In the end they didn’t give up their ‘day jobs’ as physics grad students at UC Santa Cruz. The shoe computer is now in a computer museum somewhere.

      Anyway, one thing that was interesting is that (according to the book) they could keep stats right in the open, whether or not they were gambling at the time. Lots of gamblers have some sort of ‘system’ that involves waiting for a table to get ‘hot’, or waiting for certain numbers to become ‘due’ or something, and of course the casinos don’t mind people thinking they have a winning system. Perhaps they even prefer it.

      In a separate source I read that baccarat dealers often have cards and pencils to hand out to people who want to keep track of the winning points hoping to find a pattern.

      So I do think you could go around taking notes about the roulette wheels without any problem.

      • I read the Eudaemonic Pie (written by Thomas Bass, the book you’re talking about) back in high school in the 80’s. It was given to me by a physics teacher. It was a great book. but I later found out that they weren’t the first ones to do this. Claude Shannon did it with Edward Thorp back in about 1960, also with a tiny computer and special devices in the shoes. In fact, this has been repeated over and over since. There was a case around 5 or 10 years ago with a gang in europe using a smartphone app.

        I think casinos are aware enough now that you’d get booted out or arrested (they’ve passed laws in Vegas to make it illegal to possess a machine capable of predicting the outcomes of gambling games in a casino).

  5. Paul Alper says:

    The film “Capturing the Friedmans” is mentioned. The DVD is stunning and it leaves you pondering the perennial question: “Where in the world does truth lie?” And if you get the DVD, be sure to see the supplementary material.

  6. Paul Alper says:

    Andrew: I am puzzled by your sentence: “This obituary, written by someone named “Daniel Slotnik” (!), is just awesome:”

    Why the enclosed exclamation mark, (!), which is an endangered specie now that Trump has used them all up?

    Slotnik works at the so-called “obituary desk” of the NYT. From https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/opinion/sunday/someone-dies-but-that-is-only-the-beginning.html
    —————————

    THEY pour in by the dozens every day: reports of the dead from near and far. Daniel Slotnik, a news assistant, handles them, including the heartfelt pleas from family members hoping their departed loved one will be elevated to that special form of life after death: an obituary in The New York Times.

    Mr. Slotnik alerts the editors, including Bill McDonald, the obituary editor and ultimate arbiter of who will rise and who will not. For those who will not, it is often Mr. Slotnik who gives the family the bad news.

    “You usually just express your sympathy,” he said. “You say, unfortunately, we have to pass on a lot of worthy people. It is a very limited amount of space, and there are only a certain number of people who can do the obits. You never want to suggest that they don’t deserve one or that the life is unworthy.”
    —————————-

  7. JH says:

    Richard was a very good friend of mine I spoke to him as he was slipping into his coma in March and he died from his 2nd bout of pneumonia.

    I knew him for 35 years and he was the most generous man-with his stuff I have ever known.

    He used to own the Rutgers Estate-Holly House.

    He used to run around with Nobel Prize Winner Christiaan Barnard the worlds 1st heart transplant surgeon mystifying the guy with his roulette system.

    What they dont tell you is he invented central bank raiding in the 1960’s and several movies we’re partially based on him including Trading Places, which was based on bankrupting the Hunt Brothers in the silver crash of 1979, with the parts of Richard & his brother were played by Dan Akeroid and Eddy Murphy and yes the family owns 2 islands.

    There was a lot more to this man than whats been told…..maybe 1 day it will be.

    https://duckduckgo.com/?q=536+navesink+river+road&bext=msl&atb=v104-6&ia=images&iax=images

  8. Bryan says:

    If he just took stats of the wheel, I imagine he would simply find a few numbers that had an advantage. So once he found those numbers, would he just bet on those same numbers for days/weeks? Is that what he would do at the roulette tournament in Manila?

    • Andrew says:

      Bryan:

      In a tournament, I guess any advantage would do. But in regular casino play, it’s not enough to have an edge; in addition, your edge has to be larger than the casino’s edge (1/37 or whatever it is). So you need to gather enough data to estimate the odds to sufficient precision, and then decide whether it’s worth betting at all. The biases must’ve been huge in those old roulette wheels.

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