What happened when a group of eager students from MIT teamed up with a
Harvard graduate to overcome the house edge at various Las Vegas casinos?
Success. They were able to apply the art of card counting to win consistently,
bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time. The MIT blackjack team
drove the casinos mad but were an inspiration to card counters everywhere.
To learn more about how the MIT blackjack team was formed, to see how they
were able to survive for nearly a decade, and to see their lasting impact on the
media, please continue reading.
How It All Started
After reading Edward O. Thorp’s classic novel How to Beat the Dealer, Bill
Kaplan had a desire to play blackjack professionally. He took a year off from
school and moved to Las Vegas to see if he could take a mathematical approach to traditional blackjack strategies in order to overcome the house edge and make a
decent profit. With the help of a few recruits, he was able to turn his $1,000
investment into a whopping $35,000.
Honoring the promise he made to his mother, Kaplan came back and enrolled at
Harvard Business School. While attending school, he still managed his team of
card counters in Las Vegas. He kept this up for two years before the casinos
started to catch on and too many members of his team were barred. His team chose
to move their efforts to Europe, where there were more favorable conditions,
leaving Kaplan behind.
Meanwhile, MIT started offering a course called “How to Gamble If You Will,”
which taught the basic rules of many card games, along with simple strategies
for winning them. Among those strategies was card counting. J.P. Massar, one of
the first students to take this class, convinced several of his classmates to
head to Atlantic City to see if they would actually be able to count cards at a
real brick-and-mortar casino. Massar and his newly-formed team had a little
success and were able to win some money, but their experience was nothing to
write home about.
A professional blackjack player named Dave noticed the team’s talents and
asked if he could join in their efforts, explaining that he had a private
investor who was willing to give them $5,000. With the additional funds, their
performance improved. Although they had quadrupled their investment, the team
still wasn’t winning on a consistent basis. They were often making costly
Kaplan needed a new team, and Massar’s team needed a leader. When a mutual
friend introduced Kaplan and Massar to each other, they had an instant
connection. Both parties were eager to work together to form the official MIT
The MIT Blackjack Team Is Official
Kaplan quickly whipped the team into shape by making numerous changes. He
noticed right off the bat that each player was using their own, complicated
counting system. So, the first change he made was to switch everyone over to
Edward Thorp’s high-low counting system instead.
To use this system, you needed three different types of players: a spotter, a
controller, and a big player. It was the spotter’s job to determine when a deck
was positive, based on his count. A controller worked alongside the spotter to
verify the positive deck, while consistently making small bets to keep his spot
at the table. Once both parties had confirmed the deck was positive, they would
signal the big player. The big player would take advantage of the positive deck,
hopefully cashing out a large sum of money.
In addition to changing the type of card counting system they used, Kaplan
also started making each member of the team perform regular skill tests to make
sure their card-counting skills never got rusty. If their performance did not
meet the required standards, they would be issued a warning. The next time they
had a poor performance on a skills test would result in them being asked to
leave the team.
The last substantial change that Kaplan made was requiring all members to
fill out performance sheets, where they had to keep accurate records of what
casinos they were playing at, what their cash-in and cash-out totals were, how
long they spent playing, what betting strategies they used, and what table
limits they had to abide by. He then used this data to see how well each
individual player was performing.
While Kaplan was making those changes, Massar continued to recruit students
from MIT, Harvard, and other nearby colleges. One of the most well-known members
of the team was Johnny Chang. He would often act as the team’s big player. Since
he was of Asian descent, the casinos hardly ever questioned him. Asians were
known to be big spenders at the tables, winning and losing large amounts of
money at one time.
Thanks to a few private investors and the team’s personal contributions,
their starting bankroll was $89,000. After a few months of hard work and a great
deal of success, their bankroll had reached nearly a quarter of a million
dollars, which gave investors a 250% return on their investment and allowed the
team to pay its players about $80 an hour.
The MIT blackjack team remained strong for nearly a decade. They consistently
made money and were adding new players to their team on a regular basis. Every
trip to Las Vegas would bring them in at least $100,000. On rare occasions, one
trip might bring them in more than $1,000,000.
This much success did not come without its fair share of obstacles, though.
One obstacle the team had to overcome was getting that much cash through airport
security. They had to hide the money on their carry-ons or under their clothes.
There were several occasions where money was confiscated from players because
security assumed it was drug money. After a thorough investigation by the DEA,
they were often able to get that money returned. This process took months,
The biggest obstacle the team endured was when the casinos began to really
crack down on card counters. They started using surveillance cameras to monitor
the blackjack tables, making it nearly impossible for the team to count cards
without getting caught. As players started quitting due to a lack of interest or
as a result of being barred from too many casinos, the MIT blackjack team slowly
Back Together Again
Kaplan, Massar, and Chang decided to get back together in 1992 because they
heard that a new casino was opening in Connecticut. They formed the Strategic
Investments Group in hopes of getting new investors and having a decent-sized
bankroll to work with. By the time they were ready to get started, they had
raised over a million dollars. This would be the largest bankroll they had ever
worked with before, and they were eager to see what they could do.
Their team consisted of 80 players, many of which were students or alumni
from MIT. They sent some players to Connecticut, some players to Las Vegas, some
players to Atlantic City, and they even sent some players to Canada. By
spreading their players out all over the continent, they were hoping to decrease
the chances of players getting barred from the casinos. This worked for a while,
and they were able to nearly double their investment within a year.
After a year, Kaplan, Massar, and Chang decided to quit while they were
ahead. They paid off their investors and settled into retirement. A few of the
newer members of the team tried to keep things going for a while. Mike Aponte
gathered a group of players together to form a team called “The Reptiles,” and
Semyon Dukach gathered a group of players together to form a team called “The
Amphibians.” There was a friendly rivalry between the two teams, but they both
eventually fizzled out due to the worsened casino conditions. The MIT blackjack
team had officially come to an end, for good this time.
The MIT Blackjack Team Hits the Media
The MIT blackjack team has been a source of entertainment for decades now,
with many books and movies being inspired by their story. The Last Casino, which
was released in 2004, is about a professor and his three students who count
cards in various casinos in Canada. The makers of this film admit this was
loosely based off the MIT blackjack team.
Many people are also probably familiar with the 2008 film 21, which stars
Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, and Jim Sturgess. This film was designed to tell
the story of the MIT blackjack team, although it is a dramatization of what
actually took place. Bill Kaplan makes a short appearance during this film in
one of the Chinese gambling parlor scenes. A couple former members of the MIT
blackjack team also received small roles in the film, being cast as casino
Books that have been inspired by the MIT blackjack team include Bringing Down
the House by Ben Mezrich, The Blackjack Life by Nathaniel Tilton, and The House
Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big in Business by Jeffrey Ma.
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