The MIT Blackjack Team

MIT SealAlthough card counting is a well known blackjack strategy, most of the successful card counters are completely unknown. They either purposely keep a low profile, or they are caught and kicked out of the casinos for life. It wasn’t until a team of MIT students and Harvard Business school graduates went on a multi-million dollar winning streak, that anyone in popular culture took notice.

1979 – Massachusetts

At the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), there was a very unique course called “How To Gamble: If You Must“. A handful of classmates decided to take their knowledge, along with $5,000, to Atlantic City to win big. In the end though, regardless of what they had studied in the class room, they lost everything and returned home penniless.

After the Atlantic City trip, the group gave up on their dream and moved on. It wasn’t until several years later that three of these students got together and decided to create a highly organized blackjack team. They designed the organization to run like a business, and developed a strategy that was mathematically proven to win in the long run.

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The Team Is Formed

Their card counting strategy was dependent upon team work. The former students who organized the enterprise hung flyers around the MIT campus to attract brilliant young students. To start the project, they trained the recruits rigorously, spending countless hours playing under high pressure and distracting environments.

The ability for the team to win would be dependent on playing perfectly. Before anyone was allowed onto the team, they had to pass a final, torturous test known as “The Checkout”. The high pressure would either crush the player or let them become full fledged members. The goal was to only accept the players who could perform when surrounded by the chaos of a casino.

On The Job Training

foxwoods casinoOnce there was a working team, it was time to go to a real casino for the first time. The destination was Foxwoods, an Indian casino located nearby in Connecticut. This was mostly for training purposes; players would just play at low limits and get some real-life experience without the pressure. During the time spent in Foxwoods, some players lost thousands of dollars, but as long as they were playing properly they were still considered to be solid players.

The system involved two kinds of players. Most of the team was made up of spotters, who sat at different tables and played at low limits while keeping the count. When the count was favorable, they would secretly signal the big player (or gorilla) who would join the table and pose as a random high roller. Because of this separation, no individual players ever appeared to be counting cards.

Going To Work

On the first trip to Las Vegas, the lead player carried $150,000 in cash through airport security, in the pockets of his leather jacket. After only a short time at the table, he wins tens of thousands of dollars, gets a free room, and catches the eye of the Griffin Security Company. However, the team regularly rotated through casinos all over the world, and he was quickly forgotten.

Once the team had grown sufficiently, they were playing several thousand hands a weekend. The law of large numbers kicked in and their wins far outweighed their losses. By the summer of 1993 they had earned nearly one million dollars!

On top of all of the winnings, they were still getting heavily comped. Remember, comps are based on making lots of large bets. Whether you win or lose, you still get comped. From free rooms to private jets, these students from New England were living the high life every weekend.

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The Falling Out

They were winning big and it soon became clear to casino security that there was more than luck at work. Griffin Securities again noticed this team and at this point, they were dead serious. Right around the time the MIT blackjack team rounded the one million dollar mark, the security forces were catching up.

The first step for the investigators was connecting the spotters and the big players. Slowly the team members are detected, kicked out, and black booked. In some cases, players were taken to the back rooms and threatened. As the heat got worse, the were pretty much forced to stop playing, and stop winning.

In the end, the internal conflicts, a massive losing streak, and the pressure from casino security broke the team apart. By the end of 1993, the team was finished. In total, experts suggest that the MIT blackjack team may have blown their winnings, and lost an additional one million dollars in their final months.

The Legacy

21 Movie PosterAs far as anyone knows, this team saw more success than any other group of blackjack players in history. The story later became a best selling book (Breaking Vegas) and a major motion picture (21), both of which spawned massive amounts of interest in the art of blackjack card counting.

Some of the remaining team members formed a new venture that was much more successful. It was reported that this second team went on to win over four million dollars. Ironically, the original members took advantage of the same ideas and strategies that were used originally. They simply reorganized the management and proved that you really can beat the dealer.

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