What transpired when a group of enthusiastic MIT students and a Harvard graduate collaborated to beat the house advantage in Las Vegas casinos?
Achieved success. They were able to consistently win hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time by employing the skill of card counting. The MIT blackjack team drove casinos insane, but served as an inspiration for card counters worldwide.
Please continue reading to learn more about the formation of the MIT blackjack team, how they managed to survive for nearly a decade, and their enduring impact on the media.
How It All Began
After reading the classic novel How to Beat the Dealer by Edward O. Thorp, Bill Kaplan desired to play blackjack professionally. He took a year off from school and moved to Las Vegas to see if he could use a mathematical approach to traditional blackjack strategies to surmount the house advantage and make a respectable profit. With the assistance of a few recruits, he was able to multiply his initial $1,000 investment into a staggering $35,000.
According to the commitment he made to his mother, Kaplan returned and enlisted ina Harvard Business School. While attending school, he managed his staff of Las Vegas card counters. He continued this for two years until the casinos caught on and banned too many members of his team. His team decided to relocate to Europe, where conditions were more favorable, leaving Kaplan behind.
In the meantime, MIT began offering a course titled “How to Gamble If You Will,” which taught the fundamental principles and straightforward strategies for winning numerous card games. Card counting was one of these techniques. J.P. Massar, one of the first students to enroll in this course, persuaded several of his compatriots to travel to Atlantic City to test their ability to tally cards in a physical casino. Massar and his newly formed team had some success and were able to win some money, but their performance was unremarkable.
Dave, a professional blackjack player, noticed the team’s abilities and asked if he could join them, explaining that he had a $5,000 investment from a private investor. Their performance improved with the additional funds. Despite having quadrupled their investment, the team was still not winning consistently. They frequently made costly mistakes.
Kaplan required a new team, whereas Massar’s group lacked a leader. When a mutual friend introduced Kaplan and Massar, there was an immediate connection between them. Both parties were anxious to establish the official MIT blackjack team together.
The Official MIT Blackjack Team
Kaplan rapidly reshaped the team by instituting numerous modifications. He immediately observed that each competitor was employing their own intricate tallying system. Therefore, his first adjustment was to convert everyone to Edward Thorp’s high-low counting system.
This system required three distinct player types: an observer, a controller, and a large player. Based on his tally, it was the spotter’s responsibility to ascertain when a deck was positive. A controller worked alongside the observer to confirm the presence of a positive deck while consistently placing small wagers to maintain his position at the table. Once both parties confirmed that the deck was favorable, they would alert the major player. The major participant would take advantage of the favorable deck and, presumably, win a substantial quantity of money.