One of the lesser known blackjack greats, Jess Marcum was born at the very end of 1919 to a librarian mother and a university professor father, both of whom were immigrants from Austria and Russia respectively. Indeed, his original full name was Jess Ira Marcovitch.
They lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, a part of America where all forms of gambling were illegal for almost a full century, so it’s no surprise that Marcum didn’t discover blackjack until later in life.
He was a very bright boy but he always found the education system frustrating, not that this stopped him graduating as an electrical engineer and going on to study for a PhD. He didn’t finish it though, instead he went to California to work for The Rand Corporation, a global policy think tank that still exists today.
Despite being officially less qualified than most of his colleagues, he became a leading name in the company thanks to solving a number of complicated equations that none of the PhD holding mathematicians could complete.
Now in his late 20s, Marcum had still never set foot inside a casino let alone bet on a game of blackjack, but this would all change in 1949, when a chance invite to Las Vegas would change his life forever.
A Tourist in Vegas
When a friend invited him on a weekend trip to Vegas, Jess accepted and was accidentally introduced to the world of casino gambling.
He watched many of the games there with interest, learning their rules and watching how they were played, but the one that stuck out to him was blackjack.
He was lucky to be both mathematically gifted and in a time when the house still dealt blackjack from a single deck, working through every card in the pack. To a maths genius like him, the opportunity to gain an advantage over the casino was obvious.
Using only his brain and perhaps a pencil and paper too, Jess Marcum came up with both a playing and a betting strategy, as well as system for counting the cards. Remember, this was before the concept of card counting officially existed.
He tried his mathematical system out and found that it was a winner, in every sense of the word. Less than 12 months later, he had quit his job at Rand and was playing blackjack full time.
Some people credit him as being the original inventor of card counting, although this is impossible to verify, but he is certainly one of the very first on record known to have devised his own system for beating the game with no previous knowledge of anything similar existing.
A Career Ending Publication
For over a decade Marcum was hitting the casinos and taking them for as much money as he could. None of them could ever figure out how he was doing it but most eventually banned him from playing.
This didn’t really stop him though, back in the 50s communication between casinos, especially those in different areas, wasn’t great, so a successful card counter could just move on once they had become too well known in one place.
So when the tap ran dry for Marcum after 9 months in Vegas, he moved on to Reno, who eventually hired a private detective to try and figure out how he was managing to hit them so hard. They never figured it out, but they did find out that he was banned in Vegas, so after 6 months in Reno he was banned from all the casinos there too.
This went on and on until Edward O. Thorpe’s book, Beat the Dealer, was released in 1962. The book essentially made card counting public knowledge and casinos were wise to it, so ironically, it was another card counter rather than the casinos themselves who ended Marcum’s blackjack career.
He had spent over a decade playing professionally, and won untold sums of money, but in the early 1960s around the age of 40 to 45, Jess headed back to California and went back to his career in science.
The trail goes cold after that for a good 20+ years, but it’s safe to assume that he lived comfortably from all of his winnings.
A Peaceful Passing
In 1992, at the relatively young age of 72, Jess Marcum passed away peacefully. There was a small amount of controversy after his passing, however, as an author with a personal axe to grind released a biography of Marcum; The Automat: Jess Marcum Gambling Genius of the Century.
The book wasn’t exactly showing him in a positive light, and even went as far as to allege that Jess was psychotic in his later years and committed suicide.
Friends and contemporaries spoke out against the book, especially Allan Schaffer who wrote a very detailed article on the matter for Blackjack Forum, a trade journal for blackjack players set up in 1981.
According to Schaffer, none of Marcum’s friends noticed any unusual behaviour nor did they believe his death was caused by suicide.
He did however become addicted to sleeping pills in the 1980s, before recovering and moving into a hotel, where he worked as a consultant of sorts to people in the gambling industry. He even worked for Donald Trump at one point.
Jess Marcum was always a private man, and he never published any of his card counting systems in any way either, so it is likely that we will never know the full story of how he managed to beat the casinos for so long; but then, that all adds to the mystery, doesn’t it?