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How the MIT Blackjack Team Beat the Casino

  • Written By Kevin Parker
  • Edited
  • Reading 6 minutes

Casino gambling is an incredibly complex activity where anything could happen. However, one thing is often considered to be a certainty; that is, the house or the casino always wins. This claim largely remained undisputed till the 1990s when a group of students from the Massachusetts Gambling Institute (MIT) showed the world that the players do not always have to end up on the losing end when gambling.

If you have been paying even the slightest attention to the history of gambling, especially in the United States, you will be aware of the MIT blackjack scandal that has inspired films, several documentaries, and books.

The MIT blackjack team became household names after menacingly outwitting casinos and winning millions of dollars. Unsurprisingly, this made them legends in the world of gambling, and people are still looking into their exploits with intense interest.

MIT Blackjack Team Strategy

image of MIT teams strategy

In blackjack, skilled players can legally beat the house by using a basic blackjack strategy of making the right choices regarding when to hit and when to stand. However, that is not the only way.

Individual players at the blackjack tables can also use other techniques such as card counting, shuffle tracking, or hole carding to improve their chances of winning significantly.

The strategy that was used by the MIT students and their teacher involved card counting.

After realizing the blackjack was the most beatable game at the casino, they crafted a pretty robust card counting technique to increase their odds of winning. While they were certainly not the first to count cards, they were the first to do it professionally in a manner that still baffles gaming enthusiasts to date.

In addition to teaching their math knowledge, the blackjack team further used advanced computer models to perfect their strategy. These computer models simulated specific situations at the casinos and were based on real-life experience, making them highly effective for practicing their card counting abilities.

In an appearence on the Wired YouTube channel in 2017 Mike Aponte, former member of the MIT Blackjack Team explains to viewers how card counting works. Let’s just say it’s complicated.

As mentioned earlier, they were not the first to use the card counting technique, but their method was harder for casinos to detect. Their approach added a high-low system of sorts – this was based on the statistical probability of receiving either high or low cards. Furthermore, they would often use an additional card cutting technique that increased their odds of beating the house even more.

The MIT team members underwent weeks or even months of extensive training that began at the university’s campus before moving on to backroom card game venues spread out across Chinatown in Boston. Once they were ascertained to be ready, they would then proceed to Las Vegas, which went on from the early 80s and later peaked in the 90s.

How Did They Get Away With It for So Long?

While it can be argued that the MIT students were geniuses hence their ability to pull this off, this was just a small part of the puzzle.

As an individual, card counting is not as effective, which means the team’s unique corporate structure played a considerable role in their success. Moreover, the often extensive and rigorous training that the team members went through made them pretty good at blending in and staying safe from the casino operators’ watchful eyes.

Image of how did the MIT blackjack team get away with it

As if that is not enough, a ton of investment was put into the team, allowing it to run very tightly. Money management was vital to ensuring that everyone stayed on track. Other things that also played a massive role in their success were the elaborate checkout procedure, two hours of perfect play, and knowing when to leave the table.

As it stands, no exact figures have been published about the precise amount of money that the blackjack team made during the run of their scheme. However, dedicated fans and casino enthusiasts have tried to break it down and estimate the amount. Most of the estimates clock in over $50 million, which is pretty impressive.

Who Was On the Team?

The blackjack team was initially founded by Harvard graduate Bill Kaplan, who used card counting techniques to win blackjack games in Las Vegas. The MIT Blackjack Team was his take on bringing a card-counting team to the East Coast. Some of the earliest recruits to his famous pro card counters team included John Chang and JP Massar.

The Most Important Members

  1. Bill Kaplan
  2. Jeff Ma
  3. Semyon Dukach
  4. Jane Willis
  5. Mike Aponte
  6. John Chang

While most of the team members were from MIT, there was quite a number from other universities, including Princeton and Harvard. Other notable team members included Jeff Ma, Jane Willis, Mike Aponte, Laurie Tsao, and John Chang. All of them were very smart people, and nothing shows this better than their ability to use math knowledge and computational models to outwit dozens of casinos.

How the Story Has Been Told

As mentioned earlier, the MIT team’s exploit is one of the most popular discussions among casino enthusiasts.

The story was fascinating and gave a more in-depth insight into how the worlds of casinos and gambling work. It is, therefore, not too surprising that they were the inspiration of some movies and documentaries. Perhaps the most notable MIT blackjack team movie is “21” which starred several Hollywood A-listers, including Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, and Jim Sturgess, among others. When it came out in 2008, it was well-received, which is proof of just how much interest people had in the story.

Image of Kevin Spacey in the Movie '21'
Kevin Spacey appearing in the movie ’21’ based around the MIT Blackjack Team

For people who love to read, “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Million” is a great book to pick up. Authored by Ben Mezrich, this book is inspired by the MIT Blackjack Team. Moreover, the 2008 movie “21” mentioned above is based on it.

Also worth checking out is the Breaking Vegas Documentary, which does a pretty good job of giving viewers a more grounded take on what happened.

What Can We Learn From the Team

Now, the MIT Blackjack team’s escapades tell a lot about the viability of specific strategies that are used by players while gambling at casinos. While card counting, which is not actually illegal, it is still a frowned upon form of advantage play, and casinos are constantly trying their best to prevent it. Perhaps by taking some cues from the MIT students, you could become a winner at the blackjack tables. Just be sure not to get caught because you will probably be kicked out.

Kevin was raised on sports since a young teen and following a (fortunate) injury pursued new hobbies in table games such as Blackjack and Poker. Since 2009 Kevin has been writing for casino sites for various big names in the industry and CasinoSites.us is but one of his latest passion projects.