While there is no telling what MIT’s current crop of math geniuses are cooking up for the New England outpost of Encore, its opening does present a good time to revisit the groundbreaking blackjack team that upended casinos around the world and revolutionized the concept of advantage play.
While card counting has been around for a very long time, it was only in 1979 that the very first group of students was created, after a professional blackjack player approached them. What made it possible was the fact that a new law was passed by the New Jersey Control Commission that prevented casinos in Atlantic City from prohibiting card counting in the same year. Instead, casinos had to individually catch and ban players, which gave the MIT guys some leeway to do their magic, before eventually being thrown out.
There were three men who can be called the founding fathers of the blackjack team at MIT and they are J.P. Massar, John Chang and Bill Kaplan (Mr. M). Given that we are talking about gambling, it's only fitting that pure luck was what brought together Massar and Kaplan. Mr M overheard a conversation about card counting while having dinner at a Chinese place in Cambridge, which happened to be about his future partners in crime. As the story goes, the three have joined forces to establish and operate the MIT blackjack squad, which was operational from the late 1979 through the early 21st century.
"I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant (in Cambridge) talking about all of this and there came some MIT kids," Bill Kaplan told Boston magazine. "They said, 'Do you speak about blackjack? We played for a couple of months, trying to make money.'"
Suddenly a new crew dropped into the lap of Kaplan. The MIT blackjack team was born in 1980. As Kaplan explained, the success of the team was focused primarily on purpose and organisation. "We ran it as an enterprise," he said. "Training, thorough preparation, procedures for checkout, two hours of flawless games, leaving the table in order. It was much more tightly managed than other corporations.
Perhaps so, but it can be argued that people who work for most companies do not easily misplace money worth six-figures of the same sector. So it was when one of the MIT players haphazardly forgot a paper bag loaded with $125,000 in revenue from blackjack. He had left it in a lab at MIT. A concierge saw the cash sack and stashed it away to be kept secure. The money (which was initially believed to be drug-related) was returned with the help of Alan Dershowitz (who helped defend OJ Simpson and got caught up in the latest Jeffrey Epstein scandal)
Outrageous as it sounds, it may be easy to misplace $125,000 when you're making a lot more. "MIT has raised over 10-million in six years," according to former MIT player Mike Aponte. It's not that everyone has been a multimillionaire, but it has been a fairly small number. In summer I put in $1,500. In November my savings amounted to $100,000. Instead I will just keep turning it over.
Besides the business sense of the MIT team, when it really counted, another significant reason for its success resulted from the players working at peak rates. "In the casinos there were people who played better than they did in practice sessions," said Jon Hirschtick, who played at MIT from 1984 to 1993. "My best play in the casino happened under pressure, for high stakes. A lot of blackjack players are ADD; so they can concentrate more but can't regulate it (than people without the disorder). Nonetheless, one thing we should do is concentrate on cards coming off a shoe.
Chang became overly recognizable as a card-counter and drew heat that radiated to his fellow players as a consequence. "Unless I got into a fantastic disguise, my teammates wouldn't want to play with me," he said." My girlfriend told me she was able to dress me like a woman. Her shoes were my size and all I wanted was her. I have done it three times: in Illinois, the Bahamas and the Atlantic Region.
Without a delay the first two outings went off. Yet Atlantic City was a different story. "I was sitting next to a Chinese woman at the table; I saw her delicate hands and put mine under the table," continued Chang.“ They looked at my hands (in surveillance) upstairs, and smiled. Then an Asian host came up and whispered into my ear, ”We know who you are." I got up to leave and some security guard said to me, “Lose the pearls, Esmeralda.” I raced around the casino to make sure they didn't watch me as I made my escape.
In 1997 the best location to play in Las Vegas was MGM Grand. The casino took the biggest step and did not involve gender-defying disguises.
That year, the night of the Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield title fight on June 28, 1997, things seemed particularly positive.
"I was sitting at an MGM table, with all the yellow chips (worth $1,000 each), ahead $70,000; the war had started and there was massive activity in the pit; no one raised an eyebrow." - Chang said.
While blackjack games continued on the casino floor, the third round was approaching its close, inside MGM Grand Garden Arena, with a furious Mike Tyson chomping off Holyfield 's head. And there was a riot after the battle ended prematurely. Tables got overturned, chips got stolen out of racks, people got arrested.
It was the end of an era for advantage players on high stakes. In 2000 most team-members became untenable to play at the casinos.
Some counters at the MIT went on to different ways of gambling. Many consider new companies to be profitable and there are others who kept plugging away at blackjack. For example Andy Bloch became a professional poker player and has $5,369,285 in live poker tournament earnings.
Famous MIT Members
J.P. Massar, Bill Kaplan, Mike Aponte, Dave Irvine, Semyon Dukach, Johnny Chang, Andy Bloch.
Blackjack expert Mike Aponte explains how card counting works
The Movie 21 - How Hollywood Made the MIT Blackjack Team Famous
The story revolves around the main character Ben Campbell (played by Kevin Spacey), who is recruited into the MIT blackjack squad by his professor Micky Rosa. The young man meets his fellow students and excuses his actions with the argument that he has no other way to pay off his tuition debt of more than $300,000.