Thursday, December 31, 1992

RIP: Peter Griffin

Sacramento - Peter Griffin, who had such a winning way with numbers that he unlocked the mathematics of blackjack and became a cult figure to a generation of casino card counters, died October 18 of prostate cancer at a hospital near his home. He was 61. Mr. Griffin, who wrote the authoritative “The Theory of Blackjack,” taught algebra and a good deal else as a math professor at the California State University at Sacramento. To say that Mr. Griffin was a consummate mathematician would hardly do justice to a man who led a life of such precision that fellow faculty members could set their watches by the times he got his mail, arrived at his office or started home on his bicycle, which he rode home even when he lived 13 miles from campus. A creature of calculated habit, he not only jumped rope at the same time every day but always with the same rope, one he had found on the street years before. Mr. Griffin, a native of New Jersey, grew up in Williamsport, PA, Chicago and Portland, OR, graduated from Portland State University and received a Master’s from the University of California at Davis. The source of Griffin’s mathematical aptitude was obvious: one of his grandfathers had been a prominent mathematician at Reed College, and his father was an actuary who ran an insurance company. It is a tribute to Mr. Griffin’s standing as a mathematical giant of blackjack, or 21, as the game is also known, that his book exploring and explaining the probabilities of every conceivable situation in the game was not published until 1979, 17 years after Dr. Edward Thorp’s “Beat The Dealer” had presumably exhausted the subject, codifying the basic strategy and establishing that players could gain an actual statistical edge over the house by keeping track of cards as they were played and betting big when the remaining deck was rich in 10s and face cards. Mr. griffin did not even play blackjack until January 1970, when, to gain practical experience for a proposed course on gambling mathematics, he paid a visit to Nevada and promptly got his clock cleaned. Like Thorp, who had a similar experience in 1956, Mr. Griffin vowed revenge on the casinos. Thorp’s book had created a gambling revolution, selling more than 700,000 copies and transforming blackjack from a sleepy diversion for dice-player’s wives into a high-roller’s favorite that now typically accounts for nearly half of casino table-game revenues. Mr. Griffin’s book, which extended and illuminated Thorp’s findings, had a more specialized appeal, selling fewer than 50,000 copies, and transforming mainly himself. A sequel of sorts, “Extra Stuff: Gambling Ramblings,” was published in 1991 by Huntington Press, which is issuing the sixth edition of “The Theory of Blackjack” next month.
- New York Times