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The Adventures of the MIT Blackjack Team

Posted on October 3, 2018 | 3:50 pm
blackjack scene from the movie 21

It’s common knowledge that when gambling is the name of the game, the casino is always going to come out on top. But the punter doesn’t always have t o be the loser, as a group of students proved in the 1990s. Those students were the MIT Blackjack Team, and this is their story.

The MIT Blackjack Team was made up of students and ex-students from leading colleges like Harvard University, Harvard Business School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They travelled all over the world to beat casinos at blackjack through card counting and a range of more sophisticated strategies. The original group and their successors dominated the world of blackjack from 1979, right up to the beginning of the new century.

They’ve been the inspiration for many other blackjack teams all over the world who hope to beat the casinos the way MIT did. The MIT Blackjack Team had something they will never have, however: Bill Kaplan.

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Who is Bill Kaplan?

Kaplan moved to Las Vegas following his undergraduate graduation in 1977, having delayed his postgraduate admission for a year. He’d recently read a book about card counting, and had come to the conclusion that he’d be able to make good money from blackjack if he could come up with a mathematical model. His intention was to use his own research and statistical analysis of blackjack to form a team of players.

Kaplan’s mother was not best pleased when he initially announced his intention to postpone his Harvard education to focus on gambling. “Oh my God,” she said. “What am I going to tell my friends?” Her straight-A-student son wasn’t exactly following his mother’s dream, but Mrs Kaplan’s concerns, although reasonable, turned out to be unnecessary. In less than nine months of play, Kaplan had generated more than a 35-fold rate of return on the funds he had started with.

Kaplan was discussing the world of professional blackjack at a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge when when he became involved with the MIT Blackjack Team. His conversation had been overheard by J.P. Massar, an MIT student with an interest in card-counting.

Having heard all about Kaplan’s success in blackjack, Massar invited him to accompany himself and his friends to Atlantic City and observe them in play. Kaplan had recently parted with his original Las Vegas team, so he agreed to the trip in the hopes of creating a new blackjack team that he could manage and teach.

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The Tryouts

For a full weekend, Kaplan watched Massar and his team’s Atlantic City games. He discovered that each player was using a card counting strategy that was unique, but overcomplicated. The result, unfortunately, was a tapestry of errors that completely undermined the complicated strategies they were using. Kaplan explained the issues he’d observed to Massar when they returned to Cambridge at the end of the weekend.

With the feedback out of the way, Kaplan agreed to work with the team on the condition that it’d be run like a business: careful tracking of all casino play, strict management, full training and player screening, and a required counting and betting system. The idea did not go down too well with the other players at first. Having to fill out detailed player sheets with casino names, totalled incomes and expenditures, strategies, limits and timeframes didn’t appeal to them. Nor did learning new systems, taking tests for approval or being supervised while gambling.

It became clear just how seriously Kaplan was taking this position, and that made some people uncomfortable. Fortunately, however, the majority of players were deeply impressed with Kaplan’s track record and had a great love for the game, so the MIT Blackjack Team was formed. The goal was to train promising students how to gamble and count cards, before letting them loose in the casinos to make their millions.

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The Bank of Blackjack

On 1 August 1980, the newly capitalised “bank” of the MIT Blackjack Team was introduced. The starting capital was put up by both players and outside investors, adding up to $89,000. This bank was played on by ten players, including Massar, Kaplan, Coach, Jonathan and Goose.

This original stake had been more than doubled by the end of the first ten weeks. Investors received a return of over 250%, while players earned an average of $80/hour. At the tables, the team were making profits of $162 per hour. These profits were split between the players and the investors, with each player paid according to how long they played and how strong their win rates were, as calculated by a computer.

The MIT Blackjack Team began circulating flyers to recruit new students, as well as attracting interest from all over the country in the form of players’ friends. Potential members were tested to find out if they were suited to the team, and were thoroughly trained for free if they were judged to be a good match. Before a member could become a full stakes player, they had to complete training and undergo a “trial by fire” where they were expected to play 8 six-deck shoes perfectly.

They were then expected to complete further training and supervised games both in and outside of casinos.

”A friend of mine saw a sign that said, “Make $300 over spring break.”… I went to this meeting about [it] at the student center. I realized it was about blackjack, and I thought, “Oh yeah, this stuff again.” Still, I thought $300 was okay, and it sounded kind of cool. I practiced and got a little better. A lot of people had expressed interest, but when spring break rolled around there were only five of us left. As a result, I was able to squeeze into the car and I got to go to Atlantic City as part of the MIT blackjack team.” – John Chang, MIT Blackjack Team Manager

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The Tactics

To disguise the betting patterns that card counting produces and maximise their success, the MIT Blackjack Team combined individual play with team tactics of big players and counters. It was this approach of varied tactics and strategies that gave the team their edge. Some of the group’s methods have been established as gaining players an overall edge of about 4 per cent, while their card counting techniques alone gave them a competitive edge of around 2 per cent.

Elected by professional gamblers as one of the first seven people inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame, it was Al Francesco who originally developed the MIT Blackjack Team’s approach. An early member of Al Francesco’s teams, Ken Uston was the first to write about Blackjack team play. Shortly before the founding of the first MIT team, Uston published his book, Million Dollar Blackjack.

For the MIT team, Kaplan made some slight changes to Francesco’s team methods. This made it more difficult for casinos to detect card counting at their tables, and allowed investors and players to leverage their money and time to avoid “risk of ruin”.

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Would the MIT Techniques Have Worked in Online Blackjack?

The MIT Blackjack Team made use of a number of different techniques in their games, but the most important were card counting (especially running count, unbalanced system and Wong-ing), ace tracking and advanced shuffles. In theory, all of these techniques would work fine in an online blackjack game.

However, as many blackjack sites are specifically set up to give the house an added advantage over the player, it’s possible that your yield will not be as high as it would be if you played in person. In fact, most live casino providers will have a deck re-shuffle rule, where they will shuffle it whenever the deck penetration reaches between 40 to 50%.

The Casinos Smell a Rat

Playing throughout the 1980s, the MIT Blackjack Team continued to grow, reaching a bank of $350,000 for 35 players in 1984. Casino personnel had begun to follow Kaplan in search of his team members whenever they saw him. He’d been running successful teams like these since 1977, so by the end of 1984 he couldn’t show his face in a single casino without blowing the game.

Kaplan decided to step down as team manager as a result, falling back on his development company and real estate investments which he’d been growing since 1980. Bill Rubin, a player who joined the team in 1984, now ran the team along with Massar and Chang, while Kaplan would occasionally drift in as a player or investor.

The team continued to play, but many members began to leave and stop playing as changes in casino conditions, weakened management focus and overall exhaustion kicked in.

By no means did this reduced interest mean the end for the MIT Blackjack Team. In the time period from late 1979 through 1989, the team ran at least 22 partnerships. Over that time span, at least 70 different players were involved in the team either as Big Players, counters or other supporting positions. Returns to investors ranged from 4% per year to over 300% per year, with every partnership making a profit, all players and managers being paid fairly and all game expenses covered.

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Stepping it Up in the Nineties

By 1992, the team were going strong, and the gambling industry was going stronger. New mega-casinos were springing up across the globe, and the MIT Blackjack Team decided it was time for them to get serious too. In nearby Connecticut, Foxwoods Casino was opened and Kaplan, Massar and Chang made plans to train new players there.

A new company, Strategic Investments, was formed, funded by friends and partners who had seen 100% return rates on their previous investments. In total, these trusted companions managed to raise $1 million to put into the new enterprise. The new system was to involve three main players: the spotter, the controller and the big player. The spotter’s goal was to count cards to check when the deck went positive, while the controller would verify the spotter’s count by making small bets and wasting money. The big player would be signalled in once the controller had found a positive. This player would then place a large bet, and win a lot of money.

Kaplan, Massar and Chang decided to amp up their training and recruitment methods to make the most of this new opportunity, having gained confidence from the new funding. Unsure what he wanted to do with his life at 22 years old, Mike Aponte was one of the students chosen to gamble for the team. Aponte slowly perfected his card counting skills through the team’s training, and was then handed a whopping $40,000 with which to hit the casinos.

In Atlantic City, Aponte reached a blackjack table and lost $10,000 in the first ten minutes.

Greeted by an executive casino host, Aponte was taken to a penthouse suite with all the proper furnishings: pool table and hot tub included. Still upset about losing the money, he didn’t enjoy the room as much as he’d hoped he would.

Even with a scientifically proven system, Aponte had just learnt exactly how risky a game of blackjack could be. All the same, he trusted the team’s methods and kept playing them, finally returning to college with profits of around $25,000.

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Acting like You Belong

For many, this presented an entirely new challenge: it was a team member’s responsibility to look the part, so that the casino wouldn’t identify them as a bunch of college kids. It became necessary to dress up as a character that a casino could potentially make a lot of money from.

Players had to learn how to make themselves comfortable and deal with the attention that money attracts. This proved to be much more challenging than any of the maths problems the students faced on a daily basis.

Whether or not they win, casinos tend to look after the clients who gamble the most money, rewarding them with free drinks, rooms, tickets and meals. Being treated like VIPs soon became second nature to the students, who were once accustomed to sharing dorm rooms and eating in cramped canteens.

Pressure soon began to grow for the team. Casinos began spotting their players and banning them from games. A private detective was employed, and quickly discovered that they were an MIT student team based on their Boston addresses. Some team members were even identified from yearbook photographs.

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The Beginning of the End

While many team members fought their hardest to keep playing, the pressure eventually got too much. In December 1993, Strategic Investments was dissolved and Kaplan’s blackjack career was over. With the MIT Blackjack Team disbanded, some players took their winnings and went on to start their own teams, the two most important of which were the Amphibians and the Reptiles, headed by Mike Aponte.

By now, the remnants of the original MIT Blackjack Team have all but disappeared, but the team lives on through the books, films and TV shows it inspired. We’re left with books like Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House and Busting Vegas, and Nathaniel Tilton’s The Blackjack Life; movies like The Last Casino and 21; and shows like Double Down, Breaking Vegas and Making Millions the Easy Way.

We may never see another blackjack team quite like MIT, but for those who are willing to give it a try, we salute you.

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