The MIT Blackjack Team, as the name suggests, was a group of students and ex-students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who attempted to beat casinos at blackjack worldwide. The team and its successors operated from 1979 through the beginning of the 21st century.
The plan and operation
Blackjack gives the house a low statistical advantage compared to other casino games. Beyond the basic strategy of when to hit and when to stand, individual players can use a combination of betting strategy, card tracking, and card counting to improve their odds. Accurate card counting is a fairly difficult skill, but since the early 1960s a large number of schemes have been published — and casinos have adjusted the rules of play to counter the most popular methods.
The chance to make large amounts of money card counting appealed to some mathematically minded students at MIT. The university had card playing clubs, but some students decided to develop their hobby. The group combined the individual player advantages with a team approach of counters and players to maximise any opportunities and disguise the betting patterns card counting produces. In a 2002 interview in Blackjack Forum magazine, MIT team manager Johnny Chang reported that, in addition to classic card counting and blackjack team techniques, the group at various times made use of advanced shuffle tracking and ace tracking techniques. While the card counting techniques used by the MIT team can give players an overall edge of up to about 2%, some of the MIT team’s methods have been established as gaining players an overall edge of up to about 4%. However, in his interview Chang reported that the MIT team had difficulty attaining such edges in actual play, and their overall results had been best with straight card counting.
The original team recruited students through flyers posted around campus. The team tested interested students to find out if they were suitable candidates, and if they were, the team thoroughly trained the new members. A corporate called Strategic Investments bankrolled the team. With the backing of the corporation, they were able to play with a bankroll of hundreds of thousands of dollars, far larger than would normally be available to college students. Eventually, with team morale suffering after a series of large losses, the corporation closed shop, and the original team disbanded, to be replaced by several new teams founded by alumni of the first group.
The team approach used by the MIT groups was originally developed by Al Francesco, elected by professional gamblers as one of the original 7 inductees into the Blackjack Hall of Fame. Blackjack team play was first written about by Ken Uston, an early member of Al Francesco’s teams. Uston’s book on blackjack team play, Million Dollar Blackjack, was published shortly before the founding of the first MIT team. The team methods devised by Al Francesco, and later used by the MIT team, at first made it more difficult for casinos to detect card counting at their tables. Unfortunately, Uston’s books alerted casinos to the methods of blackjack team play, and several MIT team members were identified and barred. These members were replaced by fresh MIT students, and play continued. Investigators hired by casinos eventually realized that many of those they had banned had addresses in or near Boston, and the connection with MIT became clear. The detectives obtained copies of recent MIT yearbooks and added photographs from it to their image database.
With most of the original team barred, most members retired, having made an amount variously reported as $1 million to $10 million. Some members have used reports of their successes to start public-speaking careers or businesses selling blackjack card counting systems or running blackjack seminars.
In the media
The story of the MIT Blackjack Team was told in the documentary Breaking Vegas, in the book Bringing Down the House, and on an episode of the Game Show Network documentary series, Anything to Win. The private investigation firm referred to as Plymouth in Bringing Down the House was Griffin Investigations.
- Wired Magazine: Hacking Las Vegas
- Discussion of the Team and card counting
- BBC documentary about card counting and the Team