In 1980, six MIT students and residents of the Burton-Conner House at MIT taught themselves card-counting. They travelled to Las Vegas together and were able to win a lot of money thanks to the team play and card counting. It may sound like a fiction, but it isn't.
The MIT blackjack team is probably the most famous group of professional players in the game of blackjack and the sport of card counting. They were the first group of people who worked together in order to beat the dealer, and it must be said, that they have proved that it was quite possible to beat the dealer and win a lot of money using no cheating methods, but the mental abilities.
The story of MIT Blackjack Team is dating back to the 20th century and is known to be mainly connected with the former students of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University and Harvard Business School, like Bill Kaplan, for example, who once decided to try playing in casinos, by means of implementing mathematical and statistical approach.
J.P. Massar was one of the very first MIT students who decided to gather the counting team: he had been the member of the MIT team for 10 years, and was both a player and a manager of them. J.P. Massar was the one who found Bill Kaplan and invited him to Atlantic City and to watch his team and figure out what the students were doing wrong and why. Bill Kaplan, who founded the team on the same business principles and practices that he had employed in starting and running a Vegas based team for the previous three years.
He was the man who turned around the team's fate by introducing various strategies and team management techniques in the MIT Blackjack Team. "JP Massar and a couple of his MIT friends were the first players I trained and brought on board," says Kaplan. "I brought JP on to co-manage with me about a year later and we ran the Team through the mid-1980s. One of the players we trained in late 1982 and 1983 was John Chang."
It started off as a mini-course named "How to Gamble if You Must", which was a type of independent extracurricular "club" when class was not in session (1980 Independent Activities Period (IAP), during which classes may be offered on almost any subject). Some students from the Burton-Conner Dorm decided to sign up and try it out. At first, they learned about poker and play micro-stakes poker games. Later on they began to learn how to play blackjack and how to count cards.
They traveled to Atlantic City during the spring break to win their fortune. The group went their separate ways when most of them graduated in May of that year. Most never gambled again, but some of them maintained an avid interest in card counting and remained in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
They trained and improved their skills at the campus itself and inside the classrooms, much the same way it was described in the movie in fact. The people who signed on were skilled in mathematics and statistics and usually students in these fields. As you may know, card counting and learning basic strategy is all about numbers and probabilities. Those who are good at math and statistics would have a much better chance of doing it right and actually enjoying the math in the game.
"They took over $400,000 in one weekend out of the casinos in Las Vegas," says Gordon Adams, a casino security investigator.
Why Have They Won?
The key to success of MIT Blackjack Team is, probably, affected by two major factors, the one being the excellent observation skills and self-discipline of its members, skilled gambling cheaters, who treated casino cheating for money as a kind of serious job, whereas the second essential reason has turned out to be the fact that the gamblers' talent was completely underestimated by casino operators, who couldn't even imagine that they would win so much.
How it is played?
Blackjack can be legally beaten by a skilled player. 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. The idea behind all card counting is that, because a low card is usually bad and a high card usually good, and as cards already seen since the last shuffle cannot be at the top of the deck and thus drawn, the counter can determine the high and low cards that have already been played. He or she thus knows the probability of getting a high card (10,J,Q,K,A) as compared to a low card (2,3,4,5,6).
The MIT players were not the first to count cards. But they used their math expertise — and advanced computer models — to hone their skills to a devastatingly effective science. They wrote computer programs to devise the best strategy for specific situations, then updated their data with real-life experience.
"After a trip to Vegas, we would enter all the information about what happened into the computers," remembers Semyon Dukach, a student who was a member of the team in the early 1990s. There was a team of three people who worked together and won:
One person was a spotter. He just counted cards and did not make big bets, just minimum ones. When the count was favorable he gave a signal to other team’s members to join the game. The second person of the team called “gorilla” and his job was just sitting and taking a part in the game. When he saw the signals of a spotter he came to the game and made bets. The last, third one, person could bet and count all together. His role was doing both of them. Such players were called big players and were very clever and respected by the team. They were real professional counters.
Who were the members?
It took years of practice and careful training for the MIT members to excel at card counting. Several MIT members have since then become very popular. Apart from Massar and Kaplan, these werre the original team members
1 Mike Aponte
Mike Aponte had never been interested in card games until he attended MIT and learnt about the MIT Blackjack Team. Mike was soon hooked and quickly became one of the most successful members of the MIT team.
2 Dave Irvine
David Irvine, or as he is popularly known, Dave Irvine was a member of the famous MIT Blackjack Team. He had been a member of the same team as Mike Aponte. The team had won millions of dollars at casinos all over US and even abroad during their career.
3 Semyon Dukach
Semyon Dukach had been a member of the MIT Blackjack Team and a professional blackjack player. He had been featured in the books Bringing down the house and Busting Vegas, and the only player to be referred to by his real name in the book.
4 Johnny Chang
Johnny Chang was a member of the famous MIT Blackjack Team. He was also one of the very few members that had been a part of the team from beginning to end. Johnny Chang has also received the honor of being included in the Blackjack Hall of Fame.
MIT Blackjack team won a lot of money in 1990’s. Eventually, they were barred from casinos one by one. The team split in 1997. After the dissolution of Strategic Investments, a few of the players took their winnings and split off into two independent groups. The Amphibians were primarily led by Semyon Dukach, with Dukach as the big player, Katie Lilienkamp (a controller), and Andy Bloch (a spotter). The other team was the Reptiles, led by Mike Aponte, Manlio Lopez and Wes Atamian. These teams had various legal structures, and at times million dollar banks and 50+ players. By 2000 the 15+ year reign of the MIT Blackjack Teams came to an end as players drifted into other pursuits.
Some of them tried to make a career of public speakers and teachers of cards counting. Ben Mezrich wrote a book of stories which happened to the Team (later he confessed that only some of them were real, all other were fictions). The book became a bestseller and it was called Bringing Down the House. This book gave an idea for the film “21” which was released in 2008 and produced by Kevin Spacey