When it comes to card gambling, everyone knows that the house always wins—right? But in the 1990s, a team of brilliant students disproved this theory and walked away with tons of Vegas money. Such is the story of the MIT Blackjack team.
The MIT Blackjack Team became famous all over the planet thanks to their success at beating several Vegas casinos at the game of blackjack. Even those who were quite unfamiliar with the card game itself and with gambling, in general, knew the story of these MIT students due to the movie “21”; a 2008 film starring Kevin Spacey that was based largely on the book “Bringing the House Down” authored by Ben Mezrich.
Yes, so they’ve used math to mine the casinos for a living, and technically, that’s not really “illegal”. But this group of “baby-faced” card counters managed to haul millions of dollars out of casinos from coast to coast throughout the ‘90s. The team has long been gone, but below is how they’ve started as recounted by some its previous members.
Unlike in the movie, the MIT Blackjack team was not founded by a professor at the MIT nor was it a brainchild of a particular person. In fact, there are three former MIT students who led the team at seemingly various points during their entire history. In reality, the MIT Blackjack team was not even created inside MIT at all. It was started by a graduate of Harvard University.
Bill Kaplan always laughs when he goes to remember his mother’s reaction when he initially told her that he was postponing his entrance to Harvard to pursue and make a fortune at gambling. During that time, Kaplan read a book about card-counting written by Edward Thorp and believed that he could use the same strategy to make it big at the blackjack tables. That path was certainly not his mother’s dream for her son who used to be a straight-A student.
Kaplan’s stepfather wasn’t wild on the idea but was certainly more open to it than his mom. So to get the point across, his stepdad challenged him to a play and if Kaplan wins, then he could have his stepdad’s blessing to play the tables.
“I crushed him for 2 weeks straight,” said Kaplan on an interview. “He told my mom that I can maybe really win at this game, and told her to just let me go. So that’s how I got to spend a year at Vegas after”.
That was way back in 1997 when he took $1000 and turned it into an amazing $35,000 in roughly nine months. He went back to Harvard and eventually graduated then moved on to play blackjack all over the world. And for him to capitalize on his newly-found goldmine, he created a small team and trained JP Massar, an MIT engineering graduate and a couple of his MIT friends and brought them onboard.
Massar and another blackjack whiz in the name of John Chang went on to be the other core members of what would be the original and (in) famous MIT blackjack team. And while a few of their members indeed came from MIT, not all of them are. Some people are from Princeton and Harvard as well. As time passed by, they introduced more members to their existing team, and two of those members became the inspiration for Mezrich’s book and its movie adaptation.
That was in 1992–the time when the gambling industry is booming and Kaplan saw this as a huge opportunity for him and the team. Friends and business partners somehow were able to produce a startling amount of a million dollars to set up a new company—Strategic Investments. This company has one goal in mind: to train bright students at the art of card counting and then unleash their wrath on unsuspecting casinos.
One of those students recruited was Mike Aponte. Also from MIT, he was twenty-two years of age, with good brains but was somehow unsure of what to do with his life at that time. After practicing the technique to near perfection at empty classrooms, he was then given $40,000 in cash in behalf of the team. More so, he lost $10,000 of it within his first ten minutes at a blackjack table at Atlantic City.
He recalls how volatile a blackjack game could be even with a method that’s been scientifically proven. “I relied on the team’s method consistently that weekend and was, in the end, able to walk away with a profit of about $25,000”, Aponte mentioned.
He also goes to say that “while math skills won’t be a problem for anyone at MIT, what was important was being comfortable and being able to deal with lots of attention because money equates and attracts a whole of it”.
Mike Aponte was so good at his job he was able to climb up the team’s “ladder” of success. From being a money mule for the team (normally what a new member does), to being a Big Player, to being a team manager. He was made responsible for recruiting and training new team members. He continued to lead the team until 2000 and helped the MIT team rake millions of dollars in net profits. When the MIT Blackjack team was dissolved, he moved on to become a professional card counter. He managed to win the first-ever Blackjack World Series Tournament in 2004, proving that his skills at counting cards are as sharp as ever. Nowadays, he teaches people how to count cards and how to win at blackjack via an instructional website.
They had a very successful run until the year 2000 and there were several factors that ultimately led to their dissolution.
First, casinos are getting smarter in pinpointing and catching those who count cards. The greatest blow was maybe the casinos’ introduction of facial recognition software which can alert the pit bosses about the presence of a known card counter. And it doesn’t help that MIT yearbooks were being used by casino security and investigators to identify possible members of the team.
Second, apparently, there have been members who went greedy and sold inside information and names to the Griffin Agency—an investigative/security agency that casinos hire to track players who often win big.
So the bottom line is there was a time when they all concurred that the risks no longer equaled the rewards. Besides, many of their team members have already landed great jobs at the private sector after completing their degrees. None of them were quite willing to get their careers ruined by being caught red-handed at card counting. So one by one, the members dropped out of the game and resumed to have normal careers.
There are some team members who chose to continuously play blackjack like John Chang while there are others who opted to stay at the gambling business like Jeff Ma and Mike Aponte. They may not play professionally anymore but they still use their skills in a variety of blackjack and gambling-related businesses. Ironically, they have become friends with some of those people who used to hunt them. And they all look back at their MIT Blackjack team days with great fondness.
We were able to pull something that most other people can’t. Everybody said that you can’t bring the house down, but that’s what we exactly did and it was fun.