How Did the MIT Blackjack Team Crack and Make it Big?

If you’ve been really playing blackjack online or any casino game, I’m sure you must have heard of the MIT blackjack team. But there’s also a popular saying that says, “the house always wins.” Right? Well, what if I told you that wasn’t true? What if there was a way for you to beat the house edge in blackjack? 

Edward Thorp, an American mathematics professor, gambling legend, and author of the best-selling book “Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-one”, devised a card counting system for blackjack in the 1950s. 

His book inspired many blackjack players, including Bill Kaplan, a professional blackjack player and Harvard graduate who joined the MIT Blackjack Team as a trainer in the 1980s. Thanks to his training techniques, the small school club quickly became a huge group of highly skilled blackjack players that terrorised casinos and milked them for their money – legally, of course. 

The legendary team used their card counting systems to rack up wins and profits for over a decade. Their story even inspired the blockbuster film “21”, and a national bestseller “Bringing Down The House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions” by Ben Mezrich.

In this article, I will highlight all the interesting things you’re probably psyched to know about the team, and also give you a breakdown of the team’s winning strategy. Who knows? You might become the next Kaplan and give Las Vegas a huge scare again. 

Who was the MIT Blackjack Team?

I don’t know about you but when I first heard of the MIT Blackjack Team, I was pretty confused. I mean, MIT is known for producing some of the best hackers in the world. When I think of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the first thing that comes to mind is a paradise for geeks. 

MIT Blackjack Team
Image Credit: Xconomy

A place where people can hone their math skills, invent all sorts of gadgets, and crack several computer codes. So it was quite surprising when I discovered that some geeks took interest in blackjack (the traditional, land-based casino version at that) and went through rigorous training to beat the game. 

But after thinking about it, I realised that they were probably the best set of people to bring the game to its knees, since a lot of calculations had to be done. 

The MIT Blackjack Team was formed in 1979. Back then, MIT offered a recreational course called “How to Gamble if You Must” which, as you might have guessed, taught the basics of different card games including blackjack. 

It was during this course that J.P. Massar, one of the students, got the idea to start a team with his classmates and test their gambling skills in Atlantic City. The small team comprised MIT students that occasionally played low-stakes poker and were interested in learning more about blackjack and card counting.

The team had little success in Atlantic City and it was clear that they needed more training. A professional gambler who was known as “Dave” had seen some of the team’s games so he approached them and asked if he could join. 

He also told them that his private investor would give them $5,000 to help take things to the next level. The extra player and funds certainly helped boost the team’s performance and profits, but they still suffered losses because their teamwork wasn’t good enough. 

It was around this time that Bill Kaplan decided to put off going to Harvard Business School so that he could move to Las Vegas and continue working on his blackjack strategies. 

As fate would have it, Kaplan and Massar met at a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge. Kaplan was talking about how he had turned $1,000 to $35,000 by playing blackjack, when Massar overhead him. 

A mutual friend then introduced Massar to Kaplan and they both hit it off right away and started discussing their plans. It was a perfect arrangement because Kaplan needed a team in order to realize his goal of beating the casino, and Massar’s team needed more training so that they could stop making costly mistakes.

MIT Blackjack Team

Kaplan soon introduced a rigorous training program that would improve the member’s individual skills as well as their teamwork. His first order of business was to change the team’s card counting system. 

Although the players were good, Kaplan noticed that the team wasn’t getting consistent wins because the players were using different card counting methods. 

He made sure that they learned and started using the same card counting system – Edward Thorp’s high-low counting system. It was thanks to this method, that the team became more successful and famous. 

What started as an after-school club where members could practice gambling, quickly became a business under Kaplan and Massar’s leadership. 

Kaplan had the members start taking regular skill tests and also keeping performance sheets so that he could track the best and worst players. Players that didn’t meet his requirements were issued a warning and kicked off the team if they failed the next test. 

Massar kept recruiting members but they had to go through trial by fire examinations because Kaplan wanted only the best. 

In August 1980, the MIT Blackjack Team went on their first official gambling mission with a bankroll of $89,000. Their hard work paid off as they doubled the amount in just 10 weeks. After this, the players and investors started earning $80 per hour. 

The team kept growing and following Kaplan’s corporate structure. The members understood the importance of disciplined bankroll management, and they took the training protocol seriously, even though it was quite demanding. 

For nearly a decade, they continued to win huge payouts from the casinos in Las Vegas. But as expected, the casinos started to ban them from playing blackjack. They even installed surveillance cameras to catch card counters, making it more difficult for the team to use the winning strategy.

The team eventually broke up and the members went their separate ways to try to make more money from new casinos. 

How Did the MIT Blackjack Team Actually Win?

As mentioned before, the MIT Blackjack Team’s main strategy was Edward Thorp’s high-low card counting system. Of course, they also applied the basic blackjack strategy to make it work. Let’s take a look at how exactly they pulled their tricks off. 

Card Counting Strategy 

how did the MIT Blackjack Team win

Once again, card counting is not illegal. The team never cheated during their games. The only reason they were banned from some casinos is that the strategy cost casinos so much money. Like other businesses, casinos can set rules to protect their edge, which is why card counting is no longer allowed in most of them.

The strategy is best used when playing in a team. It would be a bit more difficult to spot card counters this way. For it to work, you’ll need a three-person team:

  • A spotter: This person is responsible for counting the cards. You could say he does most of the work. He makes minimum bets to stay in the game as he pays close attention to the deck. The spotter keeps counting the cards until the deck becomes positive. At this point, he sends a signal to the big player to start betting big.
  • A controller: The controller’s role is to verify the spotter’s counts. He’s like an assistant spotter. He also consistently makes small bets to save his spot. Once the spotter sends his signal, the controller will double-check the count and confirm if it is truly positive before giving the big player the go-ahead. 
  • A big player: The big player plays like a high roller. His job is to increase the bets after receiving the signal. He does this because there is a higher chance of him winning when the deck is positive. 
Note: In blackjack, the deck becomes positive when it has more high cards than low cards. High cards always favor the player while low cards favor the house. 

For the high-low card counting method, spotters and controllers used the tallying system below:

  • Subtract 1 for high cards (Ace, King, Queen, Jack, and 10)
  • Add 1 for low cards (2, 3, 4, 5, and 6)
  • No action for the rest of the cards (7, 8, and 9)

The MIT Blackjack team had several well-trained spotters. Whenever they entered a casino, they would move to different blackjack tables and start the count as soon as the game starts. 

The spotters were hard to spot by the casino staff because they always made safe bets like casual players or amateurs. They usually sent two signals. 

One for when the count is high so that the big player can raise his bet, and another for when the count has gone bad so that the big player can stop betting and leave the table for a while.

The signals weren’t complex. They were mostly common gestures or words that the other players or casino staff wouldn’t read into. 

In the book “Bringing Down The House” some of the signals mentioned were: the spotter’s hands in his pockets indicated that the deck was very hot; arms across the chest, which indicated that the deck was getting hot; hand running through the spotter’s hair which indicated that the count was low or something was wrong. 

Team Bankroll

The team wouldn’t have been able to score huge payouts if the members and investors hadn’t agreed to pull their money together and create a single bankroll. 

Thanks to the team bankroll, the players could place large bets with the same risks they would have incurred if they played with their own bankroll. This method helped them get into the “long-run” faster. The team bank also increased the players’ earning potential.  

For instance, if one of their players had a $10,000 bankroll and set his maximum bet to $200, his earning potential would be $50 per hour. 

Now, if another member of the team joined him, their combined bankroll would increase to $20,000 (assuming all members have equal amounts to spend). The players’ maximum bet would then be raised to $400 and each player’s earning potential would become $100 per hour, twice the amount simply because they teamed up.

The table below shows this arrangement in the simplest way.

Player A’s Earning PotentialNumber of Players that Teamed up with Player A New Individual Earning Potential
$50 per hour1$100 per hour
$50 per hour2$150 per hour
$50 per hour3$200 per hour
$50 per hour4$250 per hour

Since the MIT Blackjack team had several members (about 35 in 1984), they were able to quadruple their money, and the players were paid handsomely because of this “weapon.”

The power was really in the numbers. Even if one member or subteam lost, the others could easily make up for it and provide support. 

Conclusion

The MIT Blackjack team proved that blackjack can be beaten without cheating. You just need to master the basic strategy and understand the idea behind card counting. Remember that high cards or positive counts are good and low cards or negative counts are bad. 

It’s as simple as that. Even Kaplan said that high school students can learn the game and techniques. But, like other strategies, it takes a lot of time and practice to fully master it. The main struggle is money management and devoting yourself to discipline. 

I doubt there will ever be another group like the MIT Blackjack Team, especially since casinos now have better systems of catching card counters and most players prefer to play at online casinos. But if you plan on using the system to beat your friends or colleagues at blackjack, you can search for a card counting trainer tool online. 

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