MIT counting cards

How a team of students beat the casinos

When it comes to gambling, everyone knows the casino always comes out on top - right? But in the 1990s a group of students proved the punter didn't have to be the loser. This is the story of the MIT Blackjack Team.

Bill Kaplan laughs, remembering his mother's reaction when he told her he was postponing his entrance to Harvard to make his fortune at gambling. "Oh my God, this is ridiculous! What am I going to tell my friends?" she said.

Kaplan had read a book about card counting and believed he could use a mathematical model to make good money from blackjack. It was certainly not his mother's dream for her straight-A student son.

But Kaplan's stepfather was more open to the idea and threw down a challenge. "Play me every night and prove you can win, " he said.

"I crushed him for 2 weeks straight, " recalls Kaplan. "He told my mother 'I can't believe this but he can really win at this game - just let him go.' So my mother wasn't wild about it but I went to Vegas and I spent a year there."

That was in 1977 - Kaplan took $1, 000 (£600) and within nine months had turned it into about $35, 000 (£20, 000). He went on to graduate from Harvard and over the years kept playing blackjack around the world.

His life took a dramatic turn when the leader of a small group of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who had dabbled with card counting overheard him discussing his Vegas exploits.

They asked him to train and manage what would later become known as the infamous MIT Blackjack Team.

In 1992, with the gambling industry booming and new mega-casinos springing up, Kaplan and his partners saw an opportunity for them to go mega as well.

Friends and partners who had previously seen 100% returns on smaller investments, stumped up a startling $1 million to fund a new company, Strategic Investments, which would train bright students to card count and gamble - and then unleash them on the unsuspecting casinos.

One of these students was Mike Aponte, then a 22-year-old who was unsure what he wanted to do with his life. After perfecting the technique in empty classrooms, he was shocked to be handed $40, 000 (£24, 000) in cash to gamble on behalf of the team.

He was even more shocked to lose $10, 000 (£6, 000) of it in his very first ten minutes at a blackjack table in Atlantic City.

"An executive casino host came over right away and greeted me and took me up to a penthouse suite. It had a jacuzzi, pool table - it was amazing. I was in awe of the room but I didn't enjoy it as much as I would normally have, because I was still upset about losing all that money."

It was a lesson in just how volatile blackjack could be - even with a scientifically proven system. But he continued to rely on the team's method that weekend and was, in the end, able to return to college with a net profit of about $25, 000 (£15, 000).

Casino hosts look after high rollers - clients who gamble big money - and reward them with perks of free food, drinks, tickets and rooms, whether or not they win. So the students, who spent the week going to class, eating in canteens and sharing dorm rooms, soon got used to being treated like VIPs.

But they also had to look the part - something that wasn't easy for many. For Aponte, it was like going undercover. "You just have to pass that initial test where they size you up and think, 'OK, is this someone we're going to make a lot of money from?'"

I had $125, 000 in a paper bag... I totally forgot about it. I ran back and it's not there

He says that while skill at maths wasn't a problem for anyone at MIT "what was important was being comfortable, being able to deal with the attention, because money just attracts attention."

As an Asian, Aponte says he had a big advantage. "We really played off that stereotype that Asians are big crazy gamblers. So my standard story was that I came from a rich family and I was the spoiled son."

If the students soon got used to enjoying the perks of casino life, they also grew very relaxed about carrying around a lot of money. Sometimes too relaxed.

One night some members of the team came straight from a gambling trip in Las Vegas to join in a practice session in a MIT classroom. One put a brown paper lunch bag under his chair.

At 06:00 the next morning Kaplan received a phone call. "You won't believe what I've done!" the student said. "You know I came back from Vegas and I had $125, 000 (£74, 000) in a paper bag? Well I left in the classroom. I totally forgot about it. I ran back and it's not there."

It turned out that a cleaner had put it in his locker. It took six months and investigations by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI before the team eventually got their money back.

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