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MIT Blackjack Team: Wikis


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The MIT Blackjack Team was a group of students and ex-students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Business School, Harvard University, and other leading colleges who used card-counting techniques and more sophisticated strategies to beat casinos at blackjack worldwide. The team and its successors operated successfully from 1979 through the beginning of the 21st century. Note that this is not a single team with a continuous existence but a series of teams that formed, split, merged or faded, and this article focuses on only one path through the history of these teams. Many other blackjack teams have been formed around the world with the goal of beating the casinos.


Blackjack and card counting

Blackjack is one of the few casino table games that can be legally beaten by a skilled player.[1] Beyond the basic strategy of when to hit and when to stand, individual players can use card counting, shuffle tracking or hole carding to improve their odds. Since the early 1960s a large number of card counting schemes have been published, and casinos have adjusted the rules of play in an attempt to counter the most popular methods.

Origins of blackjack play at MIT

The origin of blackjack play at MIT was a mini-course called "How to Gamble if You Must", taught in January 1979 at MIT over what is known as Independent Activities Period (IAP). Roger Demaree, J.P. Massar, Don Priori, and Bruce Cottman are listed as teachers in the MIT Independent Activities Period Guide. A number of MIT students from a living group in the Burton-Conner House dorm known as Conner 3, who often played penny-ante poker with each other, attended this course and learned about blackjack and card counting methods.

Determined to put their newly-discovered knowledge to work, the group resolved to travel to Atlantic City in the spring of 1979 to win their fortunes. The team had a substantial stake but played initially on $5,000 of that stake until the amount had doubled and then on $50,000 until they had doubled that stake as well for a proof of concept and then to develop casino tactics; expenses during the first doubling period were covered from the larger stake. After mixed success, the group went their separate ways when most of them graduated in May, but two members maintained an avid interest in card counting.

In late November 1979 one of these players contacted J.P. Massar (a recent MIT graduate, and one of the original organizers of the aforementioned trip to Atlantic City), and proposed forming a new group to travel to Atlantic City to take advantage of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission's recent ruling that made it illegal for the Atlantic City casinos to bar card counters. The IAP course on card counting was again offered in January 1980, listed in the MIT Independent Activities Period Guide, published in early November 1979.

Consisting of four players (Roger, J.P., Don, and Bruce are again listed in the MIT Independent Activities Period Guide) and an investor who put up most of its capital, this group went to Atlantic City in late December to play, successfully. The team then held another January IAP course and recruited a number of additional MIT students as players. The team with these IEP players played successfully on an unspecified stake through May, 1980, but they again lost critical players to graduation and for other reasons.

"Mr. M" Meets Bill Kaplan

In May 1980 J.P. Massar, known as "Mr. M" in the History Channel documentary overheard a conversation about professional blackjack at a Cambridge Chinese restaurant. J.P. introduced himself to the speaker, Bill Kaplan, a 1980 Harvard MBA graduate who had run a successful blackjack team based in Las Vegas for three years previously. Kaplan earned his BA at Harvard in 1977 and deferred his admission to Harvard Business School for a year, during which time he moved to Las Vegas and formed a team of blackjack players based on his research and own statistical analysis of the game. Staked by funds he received upon graduation as Harvard's outstanding scholar-athlete, Kaplan generated a 35+ fold rate of return in less than nine months of play during this "year off."[citation needed]

Kaplan continued to run his Las Vegas blackjack team as a sideline while attending Harvard Business School but, by the time of his graduation in May 1980, the players were so "burnt out" in Nevada they were forced to hit the international circuit. Not feeling he could continue to manage the team successfully while they traveled throughout Europe and elsewhere, encountering different rules, playing conditions, and casino practices, Kaplan parted ways with his teammates, who then splintered into multiple small playing teams in pursuit of more favorable conditions throughout the world.

Kaplan observes Massar and friends in action

After meeting Kaplan and hearing about his blackjack successes, Massar asked Kaplan if he was interested in going with a few of Massar's blackjack-playing friends to Atlantic City to observe their play, in the hopes of figuring out what they were doing wrong. Given the fortuitous timing (Kaplan's parting with his Las Vegas team), he agreed to go in the hopes of putting together a new local team that he could train and manage.

Kaplan observed Massar and his teammate playing for a weekend in Atlantic City. The trip was a disaster. Each of the players used a different card counting strategy, each equally complicated. Their inconsistent counting, playing, and betting errors resulted in their approaching and playing the game far less than optimally, and possibly with a negative expectation. Moreover, the players spent the majority of the weekend arguing over unimportant mathematical formulas and consequently put in very few playing hours at the tables. Upon returning to Cambridge, Kaplan detailed the problems he observed to Massar, which accounted for the losses the MIT players had been sustaining.

Kaplan capitalizes a new team

Kaplan said he would back a team but it had to be run as a business with formal management procedures, a required counting and betting system, strict training and player approval processes, and careful tracking of all casino play. A couple of the players were initially averse to the idea. They had no interest in having to learn a new playing system, being put through "trial by fire" checkout procedures before being approved to play, being supervised in the casinos, or having to fill out detailed player sheets (such as casino, cash in and cash out totals, time period, betting strategy and limits, and the rest) for every playing session. Their keen interest in the game coupled with Kaplan's successful track record won out.

First MIT Blackjack "bank"

Thus, the first highly capitalized "bank" of the new MIT Blackjack Team started on August 1, 1980. The investment stake was $89,000, with both outside investors and players putting up the capital. Ten players, including Kaplan and Massar, played on this bank. Ten weeks later they more than doubled the original stake. Profits per hour played at the tables were $162.50, statistically equivalent to the projected rate of $170/hour detailed in the investor offering prospectus. Per the terms of the investment offering, players and investors split the profits with players paid in proportion to their playing hours and computer simulated win rates. Over the ten week period of this first bank, players, mostly undergraduates, earned an average of over $80/hour while investors achieved an annualized return in excess of 250 percent.

Strategy and techniques

The team often recruited students through flyers posted around campus. The team tested potential members to find out if they were suitable candidates and, if they were, the team thoroughly trained the new members for free. Fully-trained players had to pass an intense "trial by fire," consisting of playing through 8-10 six-deck shoes with almost perfect play, and then undergo further training, supervision, and similar check-outs in actual casino play until they could become full stakes players.

The group combined individual play with a team approach of counters and big players to maximize any opportunities and disguise the betting patterns card counting produces. In a 2002 interview in Blackjack Forum magazine,[2] John Chang, an MIT undergrad who joined the team in 1982 (and became MIT team co-manager in the mid 1980s and 1990s), reported that, in addition to classic card counting and blackjack team techniques, at various times the group used advanced shuffle and ace tracking techniques. While the MIT team's card counting techniques can give players an overall edge of about 2 percent, some of the MIT team's methods have been established as gaining players an overall edge of about 4 percent.[citation needed] In his interview, Chang reported that the MIT team had difficulty attaining such edges in actual play, and their overall results had been best with straight card counting.

The MIT Team's approach was originally developed by Al Francesco, elected by professional gamblers as one of the original seven inductees into the Blackjack Hall of Fame. Blackjack team play was first written about by Ken Uston, an early member of Al Francesco's teams. Uston's book on blackjack team play, Million Dollar Blackjack, was published shortly before the founding of the first MIT team. Kaplan enhanced Francesco's team methods and used them for the MIT team. The team concept enabled players and investors to leverage both their time and money, reducing their "risk of ruin" while also making it more difficult for casinos to detect card counting at their tables.

Team history 1980-1990

The MIT Blackjack Team continued to play throughout the 1980s, growing to as many as 30 players in 1984 with a capitalization of as much as $350,000. Having played and run successful teams since 1977, Kaplan reached a point in late 1984 where he could not show his face in any casino without being followed around by the casino personnel in search of his team members. As a consequence he decided to fall back on his growing real estate investment and development company, his "day job" since 1980, and stopped managing the team. He continued on for another year or so as an occasional player and investor in the team, now being run by Massar, Chang and Bill Rubin, a player who joined the team in 1984.

The team played on and off from 1985 through 1988 but interest waned as casino conditions, player exhaustion, and other factors caused the group to lose players and finally stop playing.[citation needed]

The MIT Blackjack Team played through at least 22 banks in the time period from late 1979 through 1989. At least 70 people played on the team in some capacity (either as counters, Big Players, or in various supporting roles) over that time span.

Strategic Investments 1992-1993

In 1992, Bill Kaplan, J.P. Massar, and John Chang decided to capitalize on the opening of Foxwoods Casino in nearby Connecticut, where they planned to train new players. Acting as the General Partner, they formed a Massachusetts Limited Partnership in June 1992 called Strategic Investments to bankroll the new team. Structured similar to the numerous real estate development limited partnerships Kaplan had formed, the limited partnership raised a million dollars, significantly more money than any of their previous teams. Coincident with this new funding, the three general partners ramped up their recruitment and training efforts to capitalize on the opportunity.

The MIT Team grew to nearly 80 players, including groups and players located in Cambridge, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, and Washington. Sarah McCord, who joined the team in 1983 as an MIT student and later moved to California, was added as a partner soon after SI was formed and became responsible for training and recruitment of West Coast players.

At various times, there were nearly 30 players playing simultaneously at different casinos around the world, including Native American casinos throughout the country, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Canada, and island locations. Never before had casinos throughout the world seen such an organized and scientific onslaught directed at the game. While the profits rolled in, so did the "heat" from the casinos, and many MIT Team members were identified and barred. These members were replaced by fresh players from MIT, Harvard, and other colleges and companies, and play continued. Eventually investigators hired by casinos realized that many of those they had banned had addresses in or near Cambridge, and the connection to MIT and a formalized team became clear. The detectives obtained copies of recent MIT yearbooks and added photographs from it to their image database.

With many of the top performing players banned, less time on nights and weekends to devote to managing the enterprise, and opportunities in the real estate market that made blackjack team profits pale in comparison, the General Partners decided to end Strategic Investments. On December 31, 1993, they terminated the limited partnership and paid out the winnings to investors and players alike.

1994 and Forward

After the dissolution of Strategic Investments, a few of the players split off into two independent groups; the Amphibians who were primarily led by Semyon Dukach and the Reptiles who were led by Mike Aponte, Manlio Lopez and Wes Atamian. Each group claims to have done better than the other, with substantial additional wins from the casinos overall, with some banks reaching $1million+, and at times having 50+ players participating. By the turn of the century, players had again drifted into other pursuits for various reasons, and play came to an end.

In 1999, a member of the Amphibians won at Max Rubin's "3rd Annual Blackjack Ball" competition. The event was featured in an October 1999 article of "Cigar Aficionado" magazine. According to the article, the winner earned the unofficial title "Most Feared Man in the Casino Business". [3]


A variety of stories about a few of the players from the MIT Blackjack Team formed the basis of the New York Times bestseller, Bringing Down the House written by Ben Mezrich. While originally marketed as nonfiction, Mezrich later admitted that the characters and stories in the book were mostly fiction and composites of players and stories he heard about third hand. Mezrich wrote a follow-on book, Busting Vegas, that took even greater liberty with the actual happenings of the team.

Several members of the team have used their expertise to start public speaking careers as well as businesses teaching others how to count cards. Members of the two teams, whilst now defunct in any playing sense, continue their competitive history by each offering their own blackjack training courses. Mike Aponte of the Reptiles co-founded a company with former MIT Blackjack Team member David Irvine called the Blackjack Institute. Semyon Dukach of the Amphibians founded Blackjack Science.

In the media

The story of the MIT Blackjack Team in its incarnation as Strategic Investments was told in the documentary Breaking Vegas on The History Channel. The "Bringing Down The House" period has been featured on an episode of the Game Show Network documentary series, Anything to Win, and HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel (episode 116), and the BBC documentary Making Millions the Easy Way, as part of the renowned 'Horizon' strand directed by Johanna Gibbon. This documentary not only told the story of a Strategic Investments breakaway group, but revealed the science behind the winning formula. Further stories of the team and subsequent playing activity woven together over time are creatively told in the book Bringing Down the House. Bringing Down the House was written by Ben Mezrich, and was a New York Times Bestseller. [4]. A previous film from 2004, The Last Casino, is loosely based on this premise and features three students and a professor counting cards in Ontario and Quebec.[5]

The private investigation firm referred to as Plymouth in Bringing Down the House was Griffin Investigations.

A movie, 21, inspired by Bringing Down the House and produced by and starring Kevin Spacey and Jim Sturgess, was released on March 28, 2008 by Columbia Pictures. Jeff Ma and Henry Houh, former players on the Team, appear in the movie as casino dealers and Bill Kaplan appears in a cameo in the background of the underground Chinese gambling parlor scene. The movie took significant artistic license with the history of the team with nearly every story being made up for the movie.



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