John Scarne: Writer Profiles Series

john scarneJohn Scarne, master magician and card game extraordinaire, was widely recognized as the greatest expert on gambling in the world. From the publication of his first works in 1945 until his death in 1985, Scarne was a controversial figure who was loved by many and hated by others.

He was not only famous for his magic acts and gambling knowledge, but also for his bold and public conflicts with other authorities on gambling.

Born in Steubenville, Ohio, John Scarne relocated to New Jersey at a young age. He was an early dropout, never attending high school. Instead, Scarne learned tricks from a local swindler who took him under his wing. While under the tutelage of this card sharp, Scarne began to learn sleight of hand tricks and tactics to manipulate other players and dealers while gambling.

He did not ultimately pursue the life of a swindler, though, instead pursuing magic after his religious mother convinced him to pursue a more moral career.

Scarne became increasingly passionate about magic, often inventing his own card tricks and illusions. Utilising the knowledge he gained from learning swindles, Scarne became a practiced magician skilled enough to earn a living with his performances.

Scarne’s name travelled quickly. As a result of a number of magic and gambling publications running articles on him, Scarne was sought out as a consultant for a number of significant clients. One of his most notable consulting jobs was for the United States Army, who hired him to educate troops on the realities of cheats and swindlers posing as legitimate dealers.

Another notable position that Scarne held was as an on-set advisor for the crew of The Sting (1973.) He helped the production team create realistic card manipulation scenes and even did a number of the featured tricks as a hand double for Paul Newman.

Throughout the mid-1900s, Scarne wrote and co-wrote twenty-eight gambling and gaming books, two autobiographies, and numerous articles. He was a popular interviewee and had numerous articles published about him during these influential decades.

Additionally, he was called upon by the United States Senate to testify about the influence of organised crime on gambling. Senators of the time remarked on his natural showmanship in the way he told his stories and demonstrated his tricks.

Scarne’s primary passion, however, was for invention. He owned a game company called John Scarne Games, Inc., through which he marketed and sold a number of completely original games. The most notable game he created, if for no other reason than his own personal love of it, was a game called Teeko. Teeko is a strategy game that calls on elements of Tic-Tac-Toe, Chess, Bingo, and Checkers.

Teeko is played on a five-by-five grid with four red and four black tokens. Players alternate turns placing their tokens on the board with the end goal being the creation of a single, uninterrupted straight or diagonal line of four tokens of the same colour. Each turn after the initial placement of tokens involves each player moving one token to a space adjacent to the one it currently inhabits.

While the rules of gameplay are quite simple, the strategies involved in winning are very involved. Scarne himself wrote an entire book on the strategies of Teeko called Scarne on Teeko. The official game underwent a number of rules revisions, and apparently was growing in popularity until a warehouse disaster destroyed the entire stock that Scarne had produced. Scarne’s love of the game was so great that he gave his son the middle name “Teeko.”

The magic trick that brought Scarne the most recognition was one of his own inventions, further exhibiting his love for creation. The trick, known as “Scarne’s Aces,” involved having a spectator shuffle a deck of cards, pass it back to him to shuffle, and then cutting the deck four times, each time revealing one of the aces.

Scarne had a number of public disagreements with other game theorists, most notably Edward O. Thorpe. Edward Thorp was a mathematics professor who claimed to have developed a mathematically-proven method to negate or severely reduce the house advantage in casino blackjack. This card counting method sent waves of panic through the gambling and casino industry. Scarne claimed that the Thorpe’s methodology and calculations were bunk and that he could not nullify the house advantage.

The Las Vegas Resort Hotel Association, motivated by fear of an influx of card counters, actually made modifications to the standard rules for blackjack. Vegas casinos hired Scarne to help them prevent card counters from beating the house repeatedly.

Part of the campaign to dissuade card counters involved a major press release in which John Scarne publicly challenged Edward O. Thorpe to a massive blackjack tournament with a prize of $100,000 at the Sands Hotel and Casino. Edward Thorpe declined after learning that Scarne, one of the most recognized sleight of hand experts in the world, would be the dealer for the tournament.

In his book Beat the Dealer, Thorp had proposed a challenge to Las Vegas casinos that involved using standard rules with restrictions that would prevent the casino from cheating. He offered $10,000 of his own money to any casino that would take up his challenge. No casino did.

In the late 60s and 70s, Scarne continued to clash with skilled and famous card counting experts. He continued to offer a $100,000 challenge to any of the famous experts who had purported that their card counting methods could overcome house advantage. While multiple card counting experts took interest in the challenge, no agreement on terms or rules was ever met. When Scarne died in 1985, the challenge had gone untested.

The rules of Scarne’s game of Teeko are publicly available in multiple formats to this day, though nearly every official version of the game was destroyed in the devastating warehouse flood.