Albert Einstein? Nick the Greek? Nicholas Dandolos? Ted Thackrey, Jr.? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: According to a legend in the gambling world Albert Einstein once visited a Las Vegas casino and after observing the action around the roulette wheel he said:
You cannot beat a roulette table unless you steal money from it.
Any truth to this story?
Quote Investigator: QI believes this quotation can be traced back to an article and a book by a controversial reporter named Ted Thackrey, Jr. In 1968 the Toledo Blade newspaper of Ohio published a series of articles by Thackrey under the title “Secrets of a Master Gambler”. The fourth article discussed a colorful gambler named Nick the Greek who died in 1966 and whose full name was Nicholas Andrea Dandolos. A version of the saying attributed to Einstein was included [AETT]:
Indeed, Albert Einstein once made the flat statement no one could possibly win at roulette “unless he steals money from the table while the croupier isn’t looking.”
But during the little mathematician’s visit to Las Vegas the Greek stopped off briefly at a roulette table, bought a handful of chips, plunked them down on red — won — and let them ride for two more spins, on which red also appeared.
Then he cashed in, pocketed his winning and grinned at the scientist.
Also in 1968 Thackrey published the book “Gambling Secrets of Nick the Greek” which gave a more elaborate account of the supposed interactions of the famous gambler and Einstein [AEBG]:
Just how or when the gambler and the scientist happened to become acquainted was a matter that neither man ever bothered to explain.
According to Thackrey the event at the roulette wheel occurred when Dandolos was showing Einstein around the city [AEBG]:
So when the great mathematician decided to make a brief stopover in the gambling capital during a coast-to-coast journey, it seemed only natural that The Greek should be waiting at the airport to greet him and conduct him on a special tour of the city’s principal points of interest.
In the book the description of the roulette anecdote was extended, and after Dandolos won three times Einstein was apologetic [AEBG]:
Then he cashed in, pocketed his winnings, and grinned at the scientist.
“One,” said Einstein.
“And it is . . ?”
“I was wondering if you would be kind enough to wash my mouth out with soap?”
Humorous and outlandish details were presented as true by Thackrey [AEBG]:
Realizing that most of his gambling friends wouldn’t understand who Einstein was if he told them, Nick introduced the scientific genius as “Little Al from Princeton—controls a lot of the action around Jersey.”
In the book Dandolos and Einstein discussed the odds of various games, and Einstein wondered why someone would play a game like Chuck-A-Luck with such poor winning odds. Dandolos was also unable to understand the psychology of such gamblers.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1985 “The Eudaemonic Pie” by Thomas A. Bass was published, and it told the tale of physics graduate students attempting to make money at casinos by predicting the outcomes of roulette wheels by secretly entering data into small computers executing sophisticated algorithms which were hidden in shoes. The input data recorded the early motion of the ball and spinning wheel before a bet was placed. A two part article about the book by Bass appeared in Science Digest. The first part in April 1985 used the following epigraph with irony [EPSD]:
“No one can possibly win at roulette unless he steals money from the table while the croupier isn’t looking.”
The journalist and author Ted Thackrey, Jr. died in 2001, and a piece in the Los Angeles Magazine included an acerbic comment stating he was “a throwback to an era when newsrooms were afloat in alcohol and reporters didn’t let facts interfere with a good story”. The article included the following anecdote. Of course, one should never evaluate a full complex career based one article or story [TTLT]:
“I liked Thackrey,” says former Times-man Jack Jones. “But he made stuff up all the time.” He recalls phoning in notes on the arrival of a planeload of Vietnamese orphans. The kids couldn’t speak English. Their sponsors had nothing exciting to say. “The next morning, there on page 1 under my byline, was a story with all kinds of quotes,” Jones recalls. He demanded his editors never again put his name on anything Thackrey touched.
The important reference work “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press did not contain a roulette quotation closely matching one of the versions above. But the section “Probably Not by Einstein” did contain a funny variant [UEAU]:
The only way to make money at a roulette wheel is to steal it when the dealer isn’t looking.
Sent by an Australian reader, who believed he read somewhere that Einstein had visited a casino and expressed interest in the mechanics of the roulette wheel. I was not able to confirm the story.
In conclusion, the earliest evidence of the saying was from the pen of Ted Thackrey, Jr. QI suspects that the roulette anecdote and quotation are part of a tall tale to go along with a larger-than-life gambler. QI does not know if the tale was created by Dandolos or Thackrey. Yet, the reader is free to come to another conclusion.
[AETT] 1968 October 30, Toledo Blade, Secrets of a Master Gambler: Roulette’s A Sucker Game In U.S. [Fourth In A Series] by Ted Thackrey, Jr., Section: Peach, Page 1, Toledo, Ohio. (Google News Archive)
[AEBG] 1970, Gambling Secrets of Nick the Greek by Ted Thackrey, Jr., Page 3 [Little Al], Page 129 [roulette wheel], Page 137 [friends visit], Pocket Books, New York. [Rand McNally edition published July, 1968] (Verified with scans)
[EPSD] 1985 April, Science Digest, Volume 93, The Eudaemonic Pie by Thomas A Bass, Part 1 of 2, Start Page 50, Quote Page 50, Hearst Corporation, New York. (Verified on paper)
[TTLT] 2001 October, Los Angeles Magazine, Volume 46, Number 10, Epitaph: Ted Thackrey Jr.: 1918-2001 by Ed Boyer, Quote Page 38, Published by Emmis Communications. (Google Books full view) link
[UEAU] 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not by Einstein, Quote Page 478, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)