MIT Blackjack Team

Attaining a near legendary status due to their unrelenting ingenuity and blatant audacity, the MIT Blackjack Team was born out of an Independent Activities Period class entitled “How to Gamble if You Must,” provided at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1970s. The mini-course taught students the concepts behind card counting.

Dr. Edward O. Thorp Creates Team Blackjack Strategy

An initial formula for card counting was developed and tested by Dr. Edward O. Thorp, and is rooted in the advantage gained by the fact that the dealer does not shuffle the cards between hands. The method allows players to keep track of the average contents of the remaining deck as the game progresses, and know when the odds are in the player’s favor. His 1962 book, Beat the Dealer, outlined in detail the strategy that he used to turn a profit at the Blackjack table.

MIT Blackjack Begins as After School Blackjack Club

The MIT Blackjack Team started out as an after-school club, where the students would get together for fun and test their skills and ideas playing card games. But in true MIT fashion, their ingenuity soon led to the development of underground casino models where the team set about the arduous task of refining their skills. Card counting alone wasn’t enough; the casinos were well aware of card counters by now, and had developed their own methods to throw the odds back in their favor; teaching the dealers to count cards, as well as shuffling the cards when a player placed an unexpected high bet.

Meeting with several difficulties, successes, and failures in their endeavor to score big in Atlantic City, many members left the group discouraged, or simply uninterested. Original MIT Blackjack Team member, J. P. Massar met MIT graduate Bill Kaplan in 1980. Kaplan had been involved with a separate blackjack team that had been quite successful in Las Vegas – so successful in fact that the team had split up to seek their own gambling fortunes abroad. Massar and Kaplan agreed to work together, and Kaplan studied the remaining MIT Blackjack Team members in action to give his analysis and offer advice.

Kaplan’s first impression was not encouraging; the team was not unified in their approach to beating the game, and spent more time arguing about their theories than playing Blackjack. But Kaplan did see great potential, and agreed to offer his support on the condition that the operation be run under the standards and guidelines of a professional business; implementing time sheets, as well as documentation of strategy used, and total earnings. A prevailing card counting system was chosen, and formal training and testing was required before members could achieve ‘professional’ status on the team.

In the mid 1980s the MIT Blackjack Team began playing the casinos with Kaplan’s financial backing of around ninety thousand dollars, and was pulling in an average of about $170 per hour in winnings. The team continued to grow and win, but soon the casinos caught on. When they saw Bill Kaplan, they would immediately begin the search for his team, so Kaplan stepped aside and turned management of the team over to Massar.

Over the next few years the team began falling apart; due mostly to waning interest, exhaustion, and the casino environment. By 1989 the MIT Blackjack Team had completely dissolved until 1992, when the establishment of Native American run Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut breathed new life into the operation.

Bill Kaplan, J.P. Massar and co-manager – and team member since 1982 – John Chang formed a Massachusetts Limited Partnership called Strategic Investments to bankroll a new team of players. The MIT Blackjack Team quickly grew to nearly 80 players. Playing casinos in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Canada, and Native American casinos across the nation, the team had reached an unprecedented height. It didn’t take long for the Casinos to obtain photographs from MIT yearbooks to identify and ban the MIT Blackjack Team. The team once more disbanded in 1993, bringing about the official end of the MIT Blackjack Team.

“21” Blackjack Movies Based on the MIT Blackjack Team

The 2008 movie, 21, was inspired by the best-selling book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich; a novel loosely based on actual events surrounding the MIT Blackjack Team. Though Bringing Down the House has been published as non-fiction, Mezrich has unapologetically taken artistic license for the sake of drama; a trend that has been carried over even more so to the motion picture. The movie’s writers were, reportedly, surprised when MGM Studios agreed to finance production of 21, however MGM casinos are owned by MGM Mirage, which is no longer affiliated with MGM Studios. Realistically though, the film only offers a very simplistic introduction to the idea of card counting, withholding vital details that make all of the difference. A recently released DVD exposed how the casinos viewed the film as a great way to encourage novice blackjack players to attempt counting cards without a full understanding of the true complexity of the system.

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