Anyone who knows anything about Blackjack will have heard, at least in passing, about the MIT Blackjack Team. The team were a group of students and ex-students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard Business School, Harvard University and other leading colleges who used card-counting techniques to beat casinos at blackjack.
They used their methods all over the world over a number of years, earning themselves millions of dollars and weren’t doing anything illegal – Blackjack is one of the few games that you can play at the casino that you can beat the table through skill rather just plain luck. Casinos have of course altered their rules of play over the years to counteract the most popular card-counting techniques.
MIT first took a serious interest in blackjack when they ran a course called ‘How to Gamble if you must’ which was attended by students from one of their campus dorms Conner 3, who already had quite an interest in blackjack. Following the course the group were excited about what they had learned and decided to take a trip to Atlantic City in the spring of 1979.
All bar two of the group went their separate ways following graduation – JP Massar and Jonathan, both of whom remained in MA. They got together with a professional blackjack player and an investor and went to Atlantic City in December to play following a ruling that made it illegal for the casinos there to bar card counters.
Other students were recruited to the playing team following another running of the course at MIT and in 1980 Massar met Bill Kaplan, a Harvard graduate who had run his own successful blackjack team in Las Vegas for the three years prior. Using money gained as Harvard’s outstanding scholar-athlete Kaplan had managed to generate a 35+ fold rate of return in less than nine months of play. Kaplan’s team were by this stage burnt out from playing in Nevada, so they had parted ways to gamble internationally. Kaplan agreed to go with Massar’s team to Atlantic City to observe and critique their play. Their faults were abundant and Kaplan agreed to back their team dependent on formal management, training and tracking of play.
The MITs first stake was $89,000 with ten players playing on the bank, including Massar and Kaplan. Within ten weeks they doubled their original stake and profits per hour were $162.50 – profits were split in proportion to playing hours and computer simulated win rates and the players earned approx $80 an hour, and investors returns in excess of 250%.
Techniques utilised included not just card counting but advanced shuffle and ace tracking techniques, with Al Francesco’s techniques, as had been published in his team mate Ken Uston’s book Million Dollar Blackjack just prior to the formation of the MIT team, the approach the team predominantly took.
By 1984 notoriety followed Kaplan who could not at this point enter a casino without being followed by security in search of his by this point 35-strong team. The team played on for a number of years following Kaplan’s ‘retirement’ until some say exhaustion and weakened management caused them to discontinue. Others say that the last player was escorted from the table with the words: ‘You can't play here. You're too good for us.’