How MIT students beat the casinos

Blackjack isn’t the most difficult of games to master. Known as one of the more solitary table games, players hit or stick their way to beating the dealer, hoping their cards don’t exceed twenty-one. Now that doesn’t sound like a game in which a team could play, but in the past there have been a number of blackjack teams, each sitting down at tables, playing anonymously in an effort to improve their ability to win big. Such team-based blackjack strategies require card counting, shuffle tracking and hole counting, amongst others, to bend the odds away from the house’s favour, but few teams have ever had as much success with these kinds of strategies than that of the MIT student blackjack team.

If you’ve ever seen the film 21, you’ll know what I’m talking about, although the Kevin Spacey biopic didn’t particularly stick to the actual story of the team. Nevertheless, since 2008 gambling has become an ever more flourishing gaming pastime as many across the world have cottoned on to the endemic enjoyment that resides within the playing of online games at websites such as Mr Smith Casino. Now taking off worldwide, and with many of our readers likely indulging in a little dose of net-based casino excitement, the MIT story is more relevant than it has ever been. These same players might be wondering just how they could get a leg up on the competition through games of online blackjack, or indeed how that winning, never-say-never mentality is formed within the head of the player. Just who were the MIT team? How did they manage to overcome the casinos? Can casino gaming really be a means to pay your way through university?

The MIT team was originally started in 1979 when J.P Massar decided to lecture a course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that featured content relating to card counting. Massar decided that, as a form of revision, he would send off teams of MIT students to Atlantic City in order to ply their new skills, however outright success eluded the students, individuals who nevertheless increased their initial investments by a factor of four!

Soon, Massar met professional gambler and ex-Harvard student Bill Kaplan, who himself had been running blackjack teams over the years previous. Using statistical analysis, the luminary had been able to generate a 35 fold rate of return over the course of nine months, however the team’s want to visit European establishments clashed with Kaplan’s want for intricate management, and they parted ways. Massar, though, soon invited the academic and invited him to view the MIT team in action, and soon Kaplan was critiquing the skills of the students, noting their complicated and varied methods, preaching instead that the team should use strict training, management processes and counting and betting systems in order to extract the greatest gains. The players, plus Massar, agreed, and an initial investment ‘bank’ was brought together using the funds of the ten players, plus those of outside investors.

Soon the team were off to a flying start. Thanks to lucrative profits, within ten weeks their initial shares had doubled, earning big sums for the undergrad players and bestowing investors with annualised returns far in excess of 250%! So started the team’s rip roaring success of the 80s. By 1984, the team began to suffer from its successes. Kaplan was finding himself followed in any casino he set foot in by staff, and the team was beginning to fracture owing to exhaustion, weakened management and the machinations of the casinos themselves.

The team responded by changing its focus. Moving to smaller casinos in nearby states and adding more and more players (there were up to 80 members at one point in the early 90s), the team stayed successful, however casinos were beginning to cotton on, barring and banning players wherever they were found. The investments were paid out, and the team disbanded, however what remained was one of the most electrifying examples of undergraduate work experience ever before seen, and ever likely to be seen!

Photograph by Scott Nazelrod

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  1. Pingback: Simple and creative ways to make some money in your spare time | Student Banker

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