Gambling GOds is a regular feature that showcases the highs and lows of the greatest gambling moments in our collective history.
The story of the MIT blackjack team is one of legend among casino goers throughout the world — and if you’re into movies, you’re likely a little familiar with this story, too. How did a team of students master the complicated art of card counting in order to turn the odds on Las Vegas and Atlantic City’s best casinos?
It all started in the late 1970s when six students from Burton-Conner House got together to begin learning card counting. Don’t be fooled – these weren’t just students randomly playing blackjack and hoping to score a big win. Their studies took them on a journey that would lead to them earning thousands of dollars and systematically picking off casinos across America’s biggest gambling states.
When the blackjack team finally disbanded millions of dollars had been won in casinos all over the world. And it’s a practice some people still try and master to this day.
Who was in the MIT Blackjack Team?
There were just a handful of players on the first MIT team, with the most famous being J. P. Masser. Other prominet members (and those portrayed in the movie) include Jeff Ma, Jane Willi, Mike Aponte, Laurie Tsao, and John Chang. Students had been attracted to a course titled “How to gamble if you must” in 1979 and some decided to form a team to test a card counting theory.
They went to Atlantic City but failed to beat the tables – yet a year later a professional blackjack player known as Dave joined forces, and the team began recruiting more students. They went back to the casinos and won big.
Over the next year further recruits were added, to the team and eventually they merged with a man named Bill Kaplan, who had run a Vegas team in the mid-‘70s. Kaplan was also a Harvard business graduate and was the instigator of the MIT team’s huge success in the 1980s. Other players Johnny Chang and Sarah McCord would join the team and become integral members.
How did the Blackjack Team Work?
The basic theory of card counting in blackjack is to assign values to high and low cards. As cards already used in blackjack go to the bottom of the deck, players can calculate the probability of hitting a high card (A, K, Q, J, 10) or a low card (6,5,4,3,2) next.
The students realized they could beat the house by basing their bet choices on probability. In effect they could guess the likelihood of high cards appearing from the deck. However, doing this requires a ‘spotter’ to play the table and ascertain when the deck is ‘hot’, at which point the player sits down and starts betting big. Communication is key and the team had structures in place so new players at a table knew the count, without the dealer realizing the team knew each other.
Card counting is not illegal but casinos obviously don’t like it, and many began barring players who were ‘caught’ counting on tables.
How Much Money did they Make?
By the 1980s the team had formed a system of ‘banks’ that sought investment before operating in casinos for a period of time, and had as many as 35 recruits playing around the country, making over $300,000. They sought investors with the promise of delivering a profit yield and paid undergraduate MIT players an average wage of $80 an hour, with each table yielding around $162 an hour.
The team eventually began operating as a business in the 1990s with upwards of 80 players on their books. Some players began visiting casinos in Canada and islands around the US, and others broke away to form their own teams in Europe and elsewhere. It is believed the MIT team earned as much as $57m during its existence. The team disbanded at the end of the 1990s.
How Realistic is the Movie 21?
While there is some truth in the 2008 movie 21 being based on the MIT team, in reality it is a dramatized fiction. It is based loosely on the 2003 book Bringing Down the House, which in itself is part real story, part fiction. The names of characters in the book were changed and it focuses on a graduate from MIT in the 1990s, rather than two decades earlier.
Still, the basic premise of the 21 blackjack movie is accurate. A team of students did hit America’s biggest casinos and earned thousands of dollars counting cards. One student, played by Jim Sturgess, did use his blackjack winnings to fund his way into Harvard. Kaplan and a number of MIT team members had cameo appearances in the movie.
What can we Learn from the MIT Team?
Thousands of blackjack players – both in person and online – have used the inspiration of the MIT team to improve their own game and try card counting. Scores of teams across the world have formed but casinos have also cracked down on the practice, with initiatives such as shuffling the decks more frequently.
However, what we can learn from the MIT blackjack team is that some casino games can be mastered by dedication and math. Unlike craps or roulette, blackjack is a game of skill, luck and good judgement – and those dedicated to their craft have earned a livelihood requesting another hit from the dealer.