DR GEROLAMO CARDANO THE WORLD'S FIRST CARD SHARK
"You should not be amazed, O reader, nor suspect that I am lying; all these things happened, and things like them, and even greater ones and many more".
- Gerolamo Cardano, 1575
Poor Cardano. His life reads like the script of a bad soap opera. His mother tried to abort him but he survived. His father tried to exploit him but he thrived. His daughter poisoned her spouse creating quite a clamor. And his son falsely testified against him to gain a position as Grand Inquisitor. But this obscure doctor, against the odds, was ultimately the first person to describe and codify the mathematics of probability that makes our casinos today run like profit factories. His work is the machinery behind the truism that "the House always wins".
Gerolamo Cardano was born in 1501 into a world where doctors and witch-doctors were like conjoined twins. Doctors prescribed such dubious practices as bloodletting and nostrums that likely made their patients sicker, distracted them from their original ailments, or were no better than placebo.
Cardano wrote a treatise on the charlatanism of doctors of his day entitled "On the Differing Opinions of Physicians", later renamed "On the Bad Practice of Medicine in Common Use". He compiled a list of several hundred contradictions in the opinions of his peers and leveled attacks at the Aristotelian, Hellenist, Ancient Greek and Arabic schools of thought. His work was met with fierce blowback from the medical authorities in his hometown of Milan. They publicly discredited him and struck his name from the medical register prohibiting him from working as a physician. The ploy boomeranged on them because Cardano turned to writing books, (131 in total) to fill his cavernous spare time, several of them becoming best sellers. He also returned to the gambling tables to support his family, perfecting his craft, and theory of probability. This culminated in another title, "Book on Games of Chance", the first scientific treatise on probability and gambling in the known world. Under mounting public pressure his adversaries at length capitulated and reinstated his medical license. It was through challenges like Cardano's, that medicine began to become immiscible with faith healing and to take on its present form, just as society in general began to separate Church and State.
Cardano’s story is a particularly fascinating read, not only because of his cry for evidence based medicine, but also because of the paradox of his life. His mother tried to abort him using a quack concoction; but Cardano later admonished people to use proven medical interventions - if his mother had done that, he would never have existed. As an infant his family came down with The Black Death killing off his siblings but he escaped the dire odds of death. He is a lifelong gambler and makes enough money from games of chance to pay his way through medical college yet still ends up financially destitute by the end of his life - personification of what mathematicians today call ‘Gambler's Ruin’. He lived to age 75 at a time when you felt the gods had smiled on you if you reached age thirty. Cardano didn't just talk the talk, he walked it: Cardano physician extraordinaire, and the world's first card shark.