John Chang - Blackjack Card Counting Team Leader
If you ever wondered who Mickey Rosa's character is based off of in the bestselling novel, "Bringing Down the House," you won't have to look any farther than John Chang. Having been a part of the MIT Blackjack team since he was in college, John quickly became one of the most successful managers the team has ever had.
When it comes to blackjack, this is what John Chang has to say, "There is a lot of stuff in blackjack that is useful in other aspects of your life. Analyzing a game and then putting out the money requires brains and courage. Running a team requires presence and an ability to deal with people. Withstanding negative fluctuations requires confidence and perseverance."
When John was younger, his family moved around a lot. He has lived in various suburbs in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. John came from a very well educated family; his father has a PhD in chemical engineering, while his mother has a master's degree in chemical engineering. His sister studied at both Stanford and Harvard, eventually becoming an orthodontist who owns her own practice.
John was expected to follow in his family's footsteps. After doing very well in high school, he was accepted to MIT, where it took him nearly ten years to graduate. Although he was intelligent enough to do the work, John never felt motivated to go to his classes. It's safe to say his family was less than excited when they found out he spent so much of his time playing blackjack.
Early Experiences Playing on the MIT Blackjack Team
The MIT blackjack team can be traced back to 1978, when Resorts International first opened in Atlantic City. The managers at that time were former MIT graduate: J.P. Massar and former Harvard Business School graduate: Bill Kaplan. They recruited students from schools other than MIT, including Harvard, NYU, and Princeton.
John Chang's first experience with card counting occurred after he saw a sign on a bulletin board that read, "Make $300 Over Spring Break." $300 was a very enticing amount for him at that point, so he decided to go to the meeting. It turns out that the meeting was really a recruitment session for the MIT blackjack team. Even though John knew very little about blackjack, he decided that since he was there, he might as well give card counting a chance.
Over spring break, he travelled with the MIT Blackjack team to Atlantic City to play at the Claridge Hotel and Casino. He was told to bet $5 if the count was +1 or $10 if the count was +2. Although this doesn't seem like a lot of money to him now, it was enough to make him feel uncomfortable then. He had his ups and downs over his first twenty hour session, but he did remarkably well for his first time.
John eventually graduated from MIT, moving on to work at Kendall Square as a Senior Software Engineer during the weekdays. He spent his weekends travelling with the team, switching between the position of a gorilla and a big player. He was quickly able to adapt to the idea that he would have to make large wagers, often betting thousands of dollars at a time. One of the early highlights of his career was when he bet $1600 at the Desert Inn, earning $8,000 on a single hand.
Unfortunately the team had many arguments over bankroll management that they were never able to settle. The team eventually fizzled down to just a few players, at which point the Strategic Investments (MIT) blackjack team was formed. This team initially had 40 members with a bankroll of one-million dollars, most of which came from investors.
John was asked to take on the responsibility of recruiting new team members, which was a surprisingly easy task thanks to the many qualified candidates to choose from at MIT. John happily accepted recommendations from other teammates, but he put posters up around campus as well. Thanks to John's efforts, the team was easily able to expand; they had earned nearly $700,000 in just a matter of months. Despite their initial success, the team didn't stay together long; many people left the team, thinking they could easily make more money on their own.
Becoming Manager of a MIT Blackjack Team
John took it upon himself to form his own MIT blackjack team, inviting many of the players he had contact with over the years to join him. One thing John did a bit differently than the previous teams he had been a part of was to have all of the players invest some of their own capital into the team's bankroll. This way those who were playing would be the ones benefitting from the team's progress, plus they wouldn't have the added stress of keeping investors happy. Many players were skeptical of this idea, but those who trusted John didn't come to regret it.
John had his players go through a rigorous testing process before they were permitted to travel with the team. There was a written test given before he would assess the player's skill set. One of the things players must do on this test is to draw the basic strategy chart. He then tested players on their card counting, shuffle tracking, and ace sequencing abilities.
Once on a trip to the Bahamas, he had collected a variety of different colored chips. When he went to cash in his chips, the dealer mistakenly was going to give him $34,000 instead of $18,000. In shock, he realized his players weren't prepared for the unexpected events that often occur at the casinos. He eventually incorporated rare scenarios like this into the testing process to make sure his players could handle anything that was thrown at them.
John was constantly trying to make the team the best it could possibly be. "One thing about the MIT blackjack team – it's very mechanical in its approach. People are trained to do something. We have high standards for performance, and we check people out with those standards. We have removed as much judgment from the play as possible."
Under John's leadership, the team focused on big player call ins mainly, quickly increasing their bankroll at an unheard-of speed. In just a couple of months, the team's bankroll increased from $400,000 to nearly $5 million dollars. Their bankroll continued to grow over the years, but managing this team didn't come without its difficulties.
Challenges with Managing a MIT Blackjack Team
One of the biggest initial challenges that John faced was getting large amounts of money past security at the airports. They would often carry up to $100,000 each time, and getting caught would definitely raise suspicions with security. Most of the time, John's team was able to hide the money in bricks and transport it in their carry-ons. However, there were a couple occasions where other players on the team did get themselves in trouble.
A new female player on the team only had to carry about forty thousand dollars in her carry-on, which wasn't a lot of money considering. She mistakenly left something metal in her carry-on, so security searched through her bag and found the money. She tried to cover it by saying her grandfather had given it to her for her college tuition, but they didn't believe her and the DEA was called in to investigate.
John stepped in and told the police that they were blackjack players; they confiscated their money but didn't press any charges. More instances like this have taken place since 9/11, as airport security has gotten even more intense.
One challenge John ran into when it came to managing a MIT blackjack team, was calming the nerves of the newer players. Many of the players had never set foot in a casino before and since they had to do their training at the MIT classrooms, it was a challenge to get them ready for a real casino experience. Once at a casino, many of the players became overwhelmed. They would constantly be looking over their shoulder and their hands would often shake a noticeable amount.
In an interview with Richard Munchkin, John talks about his experiences with managing a team and the difficulties he came across when it came to letting difficult players go. "It's not like a regular business where you can tell him to pack up his stuff and go home. Disgruntled players have caused us big problems in the past. Someone sold a list of our team members to Griffin. Our business does not work with people who are not happy." The larger the team became, the more likely there would be interpersonal conflicts between players.
John also had to decide whether or not he would allow players to tip the dealers, as they would technically be giving away money that didn't belong to them. Initially, he refused to allow them to tip, as he knew some players would be too generous. Over the years, however, he realized that tipping is a natural process of the game and that having players tip the dealers helps them blend in more effectively.
Even though many teams and players have resorted to using disguises in the casinos, John and the MIT Blackjack team try to stay away from them as much as possible. John has used disguises in the past, but he considers them to be a last resort. When he first played at the Bahamas, he disguised himself as a girl since he couldn't grow any facial hair and he had a delicate body structure by nature. He blended in with the other players quite well, and no one suspected he was actually a man.
He tried using this disguise again in Atlantic City, but it didn't go over so well this time. He was immediately caught by security personnel, and a reporter from the Washington Post was called over to write an article on it. Although it was an embarrassing report, everything written in the article was entirely true so John couldn't really complain.
The Team Starts to Fade Away
The team was in its prime towards the end of the 1990s; it reached nearly eighty team members and was bringing in consistent profits. Over the years, Griffin Investigations has been adding more and more information to John Chang's file, making it more and more difficult for him to play blackjack. They have a list of aliases he's used in the past, a vivid description of what he looks like, and hundreds of pictures of him.
John had to start being particularly cautious at the casinos, as one wrong move could cause him some serious trouble. Other members of his team ran into similar problems, so breaking the team up into smaller groups seemed like the best option available. John invested some starting capital into most of these teams, and would act as their mentor until they could get on their feet.
John started playing more in other countries including Austria, the Caribbean, Czechoslovakia, England, France, and Hungary. John claims that Austria has the worst game selection, and it's not uncommon to be cheated in France. He believes he was given what is called a "short shoe," meaning that all aces and tens have been removed from it. He bet nearly $15,000 on what he thought would be a surefire win, but due to the lack of a complete deck, he lost his entire stake. He was furious and vowed never to play in France again.
John eventually married his beautiful wife Laurie, who also played on the MIT blackjack team during its prime. Towards the end of her card counting career, Laurie was handcuffed and dragged to a backroom. Although she wasn't injured, it did shake her up quite a bit. She has always been supportive of John and his profession, but since they got married, they haven't been as actively involved with any of the teams. They are both in their upper fifties now, looking forward to a well-deserved, peaceful retirement.
In 2007, John Chang was officially inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame, being recognized for managing the MIT Blackjack team for over twenty years in total. He was honored to receive this award, as only the top blackjack professionals have made the cut.
Author: Nicole Miller
Updated: July 2016
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