MIT Blackjack Team: Legendary Card Counters
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 errors.
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 blackjack team.
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, though.
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 disappeared.
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 dealers.
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.