May 18, 2023
Casino Blog

Story Behind MIT Blackjack Team

The MIT Blackjack Team is a legendary ensemble of students and ex-students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 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. During their peak, the team was earning up to $400,000 per weekend.

The origins of the MIT Blackjack Team trace back to 1979. A course called "How to Gamble If You Must" was taught at MIT by a professor named Edward Thorp. Thorp was a mathematics professor with a master's degree in physics and a Ph.D. in mathematics. He was the author of "Beat the Dealer," the book that essentially gave birth to card counting. His course included the basic strategies of blackjack and introduced the concept of card counting to his students.

After the course, an MIT student named J.P. Massar overheard a conversation in a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge about a planned trip to Atlantic City to put the card-counting techniques into practice. Intrigued, Massar joined the group on their weekend trip and found that while the theory was sound, the actual practice needed refinement. This first attempt was not particularly successful, but it was the germ of an idea that would eventually grow into the MIT Blackjack Team.

Building the Team

In the spring of 1980, Massar met Bill Kaplan, a Harvard MBA graduate who had successfully run a blackjack team in Las Vegas. Kaplan had perfected a system of team play and rigorous player training that made the team very successful. Massar asked Kaplan if he would be interested in leading a team in Atlantic City. Kaplan agreed, but only under the condition that the team would be run using his strict training and management system.

Under Kaplan's leadership, the MIT Blackjack Team was formalized. The group was financed by anonymous investors and the players were put through rigorous training and testing before they were allowed to play. The team was structured as a business, with players as investors and Kaplan as the managing partner. They put an initial stake of $89,000, and in just ten weeks, the team had almost doubled their initial investment.

The Heyday of the Team

Over the next few years, the team expanded and continued to win, sometimes earning as much as $400,000 on a weekend. Their success was a result of meticulous card counting, team-based play, and elaborate techniques to avoid detection from casinos. The team's strategies were based on Thorp's card-counting methods, but they added their own innovations, including the use of a sophisticated signaling system and various forms of camouflage to fool casino personnel.

The team operated in multiple groups, each consisting of a few players, a controller (who monitored tables and signaled when the count was favorable), and a "big player" (who placed large bets when signaled to do so). They also employed shills to distract casino staff and make the team's play seem more random.

The team members frequently changed their appearance and identity to avoid detection, but as their winnings grew, so did the scrutiny from casino personnel. The casinos began to use facial recognition software and hired private investigators to infiltrate the team.

Downfall and Dissolution

In the early 1990s, as the casinos improved their countermeasures, the MIT Blackjack Team found it increasingly difficult to operate. Many of the team members were identified and banned from casinos. In 1992, a private investigator named Andy Anderson infiltrated the team and compiled a list of members and their aliases, which was distributed to casinos across the country. This marked a significant blow to the team's operations.

The team faced internal challenges as well. With the increasing risk and decreasing returns, disagreements over money and management began to emerge. This led to the dissolution of the original team in 1993, and the members went their separate ways. Some continued to use their skills and trained new teams, while others pursued different careers.

The story of the MIT Blackjack Team did not end with their dissolution. Former members went on to form smaller, independent teams, continuing their card-counting exploits. Others used their analytical skills in different fields such as finance and technology. The legacy of the team is alive in popular culture as well, with their exploits serving as the inspiration for several books and films, most notably the 2008 film "21."

The team's efforts also led to significant changes in the casino industry. Their success pushed casinos to develop new technologies and strategies for detecting card counters, including more sophisticated surveillance techniques and changes in the rules of blackjack. In spite of these measures, card counting remains a viable, albeit challenging, strategy for skilled players.

The MIT Blackjack Team's story is one of intellect, audacity, and innovation. These college students and graduates leveraged their mathematical skills to beat casinos at their own game, earning millions in the process. Their story is a testament to the power of strategic thinking, teamwork, and perseverance. Though the original team disbanded, their impact is still felt in the worlds of gambling, academia, and popular culture. The story of the MIT Blackjack Team serves as a reminder that with enough creativity and determination, it's possible to tilt the odds in your favor, even in a game designed to favor the house.

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