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The MIT Blackjack team

At the beginning of the 1990’s, the MIT Blackjack team proved that it is possible to win money with card counting. They became famous by amassing a small fortune in the casinos of Las Vegas. This group was made up of gifted students from the renowned MIT in Cambridge, the most famous college of science in America. In this article, we are going to introduce you to the technique that they used to beat the bank.

A profitable game

Blackjack offers one of the weakest house advantages among all casino games. What’s more, to benefit from a still higher payout rate, it is possible to use Basic Strategy, Shuffle Tracking, or even a Card Counting system. The latter, invented by Edward O. Thorp in his book Beat the Dealer, is relatively complex, but numerous texts published since the 1960s make it easier.

The team strategy

The idea of winning big using card counting germinated in the minds of mathematics students at MIT. Their strategy was to combine the advantages of the individual player with a team card-counting approach to maximize their winnings and disguise their behavior. In addition, they used shuffle-tracking and ace-tracking methods. Card counting already brought a 2% advantage to the players, but the complete set of the techniques used by the MIT Blackjack team gave them an advantage of 4%.

The division of labor

The team held a simple principle: the division of labor. This allowed them to be much more difficult for casino surveillance to detect. It is simple to recognize the actions of an isolated card counter who increases or decreases his bets according to whether the shoe is advantageous or not. However, a team in which each member has a predetermined role, working together without seeming to do so, is more complicated to unmask. The team recruited new members often to avoid casinos noticing the same faces together too often.

Each member’s role

Team members filled one of three principal roles: Spotter, Gorilla, or Big Player. Spotters are not supposed to win. They must play at a table and count the cards. They always bet the minimum number of chips allowed. As soon as the shoe’s total becomes positive, and therefore in the players’ favor, they signal the Gorillas and Big Players.

The Gorillas don’t need to count the cards. They content themselves with making large bets whenever the Spotters signal them to do so. As for the Big Players, they are a sort of Gorilla, but Gorillas who do count cards. As soon as the Spotters tell them to go to a table, they begin to play, while trying to be as discreet as possible by varying the value of their bets. At any rate, they always play on a good shoe, so as not to have to lower their bets.

The aim of the Gorillas and the Big Players is to place large bets while the shoe contains the most favorable cards without attracting the attention of the dealers or the casino’s security team. Since they only arrive at the table at the opportune moment, they cannot be taken for card counters who are increasing or diminishing their bets according to the advantage conferred by the cards remaining in the shoe.

Dismantling the team

As they became more and more rich, team members began betting large sums of money. The casinos became suspicious. They found it strange that simple students could afford to bet so much on a single hand of Blackjack. As a result, they increased their surveillance, a measure that complicated the team’s efforts. After a few losing game sessions, the members decided to dismantle the team. Other teams replaced them, but gambling establishments began to distrust students and purchased university organization charts, complete with photographs, from the most prestigious universities in order to recognize student teams.

One of the members of the MIT Blackjack team, Ben Mezrich, published a book, Bringing Down the House, that retraced the saga of this now legendary group of students. More recently, the movie adaptation of this book was released in theaters. The adaptation is called Las Vegas 21, and was produced and acted by Kevin Spacey.