MIT Blackjack

MIT Blackjack Team: Big brains win big bucks

What began as a simple student pastime to unwind after grueling courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology evolved over the 1990s into a legendary run on the blackjack tables of Las Vegas.

Known as the MIT Blackjack Team, this rotating group of students and former students pulled off probably the most amazing run of blackjack winnings in the history of contemporary gaming. Some casinos estimate that the MIT Team won in excess of $5 million in more than 10 years of playing blackjack.

MIT Blackjack Team

The MIT Blackjack Team has since been immortalized in books such as Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich, a documentary Breaking Vegas and the blackjack movie 21, directed by OscarĀ® winner Kevin Spacey. In the beginning, however, the team was little more than a bunch of college guys getting together to drink beer and play cards.

In this case, the game was blackjack, and given that these students and former students were some of the country's brightest mathematicians and engineers, it's not really surprising that their pastime evolved into experiments in the science of probabilities. After all, calculating probabilities was what led a math whiz of an earlier generation, Edward O. Thorp, to develop the card-counting systems written up in his 1963 and 1966 editions of his book, Beat the Dealer.

Soon, however, the MIT students' fun turned serious, as the team began refining a blackjack strategy and practicing at casino simulations set up in apartments and warehouses around Boston. Just like the legendary "Master of Blackjack" Ken Uston and the teams he assembled during the 1980s, the MIT Blackjack Team constructed fake casinos and ran through various scenarios. Team members were required to learn to count cards while being harassed by pit bosses typical of those found in Las Vegas casinos.

The team first honed its skills in real-world games in Boston's Chinatown. Then it began casting about for investors willing to bankroll the team's forays into Las Vegas gambling. Those willing to risk their money on MIT brains often were rewarded far beyond their hopes. One investors' group reportedly earned a 154 percent profit on its investment!

According to various sources, the MIT Team tried several card counting systems and improved upon them. Among other techniques, they were the first to use "Ace Tracking" and "Shuffle Tracking" methods to boost their odds.

For instance, "Ace Tracking" involved counting in such a way to determine when a "plus" of aces would appear, a situation that could boost their odds of winning by as much as 35 percent. Ace Tracking was tied to the "Shuffle Tracking" theory, which contends that casinos push for fast turnover on blackjack games so that dealers are hard-pressed to shuffle decks thoroughly. As a result, small packets of cards may not be sufficiently mixed up, a situation that can lead to a "plus" of aces. In addition, Shuffle Tracking also was the foundation of the MIT Team's ability to predict when certain subsets of high-value and low-value cards were in play.

These arcane techniques gave the MIT Blackjack tremendous tools for beating the house. However, the team also coupled their mathematical skills with a people strategy that nearly blew away the casinos.

First, casinos typically expected big-money blackjack players to be middle-aged white men. However, most of the MIT Team members were Asians and Mediterraneans such as Greeks, Italians, Lebanese or Saudis. In addition, a good number of the MIT players were women, typically discounted as big-money players. Often team members would pretend to be the sons and daughters of oil sheiks or rich foreign businessmen, the spoiled, well-heeled partiers whose money casinos were eager to take.

Second, the MIT Team's mix of racial-ethnic and gender identities flew under the radar of the casinos' surveillance, including that of the dreaded Griffin Books ("mug books" of card counters and other undesirables assembled for the casinos by Griffin Investigations Inc.).

Finally, however, it was the playing strategy of the MIT Team that enabled it to scoop up thousands of dollars at a time. In short, playing as a team, rather than as individuals, allowed the MIT team members each to concentrate on a certain skill, relying on their teammates to keep up with the action.

The MIT Team consisted of three types of players, called Spotters, Gorillas and Big Players. The Spotter was the scout. He or she kept to the minimum wagering limit at the blackjack table and simply counted the cards. When the Spotter calculated that the cards were in the team's favor, he or she signaled to other members to move in on the table.

The Gorilla only played. He or she picked up the Spotter's signal and came into the game with large amounts of money. The Gorilla also was a performer. He or she dressed like a high roller, often appeared to be drunk, and was always lavish with bets and tips. In other words, the Gorilla used the casino's own high-roller psychology against it. The Gorilla always quit when the Spotter signaled the odds had rolled back to the house's favor.

The Big Player was the MIT Team's elite weapon, a teammate who could both wager and count cards at the same time. The Big Player had mastered some of blackjack's advanced wagering strategies, knowing when to Double Down, Split Pairs and Double after Splitting. Casinos were convinced that card counters had to concentrate so much on counting that they didn't have the brainpower to master these playing strategies as well. Once again, MIT was using the casino's own preconceptions against it.

Eventually, Griffin Investigations and the casinos began to realize what was going on. Some MIT'ers were identified and barred, but new crops of players took their places. Once the connection to MIT was made, the Griffin agency simply acquired MIT yearbooks and added students' photos to its mug books.

In 1997 the original team split. However, the split was more like a one-celled organism dividing itself to reproduce. While some of the MIT Team members retired to live off their portions of the winnings, others continued to play into the early 21st century. Finally, casinos knew even the second and third generations of MIT teams, and their decade-long run was over.

But what a legendary blackjack ride it had been!

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