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Peter Griffin; Mathematician and Expert on Blackjack

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Peter Griffin, an algebra teacher who became an expert on the mathematics of blackjack and wrote popular advice books on calculating the odds, has died. He was 61.

Griffin, who rarely gambled, died Oct. 18 in Sacramento of prostate cancer.

A professor of mathematics at Cal State Sacramento, Griffin wrote “The Theory of Blackjack” in 1979 and a sequel, “Extra Stuff: Gambling Ramblings” in 1991, outlining all conceivable possibilities in the card game.

His work expanded on that of Edward O. Thorp, who had written “Beat the Dealer” in 1962, which sold about 700,000 copies. Griffin’s books sold less than 10% of that amount.

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Nevertheless, his advice--and candid humor--was so appreciated that he became a cult figure to gamblers and was a sought-after speaker for conferences around the world.

“As a second career, it has led me to a lot of interesting people and places,” he told The Times with a laugh in 1995. “Without it, who knows what kind of embittered old professor of algebra I’d be.”

Griffin also had considerable mathematical skills. He always claimed he wrote his books for “revenge” on Nevada casinos. He had lost a bundle there when he played blackjack in preparation for teaching a proposed course on the mathematics of gambling.

Known as “card counting,” Griffin’s method involves keeping a mathematical picture of the card deck composition in one’s head during the game. Despite his counting skills in keeping six separate running tallies in his head, Griffin never developed a taste for gambling.

Once in a 5,000-hand test of his playing efficiency--that is, how close he came to the maximum win attainable from perfect knowledge of the deck’s composition after each hand--Griffin scored an impressive 82%.

“Probably there are people who could do better, maybe even as high as 90%,” he told The Times. “But that would have to be someone with nothing else on his mind--I mean, like an idiot savant. But I’ve long since disabused myself of the notion that I could win a fortune at the game.”

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Anthony Curtis, Griffin’s publisher, said a sixth edition of “The Theory of Blackjack” is due out next month.

Born in New Jersey in a long line of mathematicians, Griffin grew up in Williamsport, Pa., Chicago and Portland, Ore., and earned his degrees at Portland State University and UC Davis.

He is survived by his wife, Lydia, of Sacramento; and brother, Alan, and sister, Barbara Dunn, both of Salem, Ore.

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