MIT card counters

MIT Blackjack Team

Blackjack can be legally beaten by a skilled player. Beyond the basic strategy of when to hit and when to stand, individual players can use card counting, shuffle tracking or hole carding to improve their odds. Since the early 1960s a large number of card counting schemes have been published, and casinos have adjusted the rules of play in an attempt to counter the most popular methods. The idea behind all card counting is that, because a low card is usually bad and a high card usually good, and as cards already seen since the last shuffle cannot be at the top of the deck and thus drawn, the counter can determine the high and low cards that have already been played. He or she thus knows the probability of getting a high card (10, J, Q, K, A) as compared to a low card (2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

In 1980, six MIT students and residents of the Burton-Conner House at MIT taught themselves card-counting. They traveled to Atlantic City during the spring break to win their fortune. The group went their separate ways when most of them graduated in May of that year. Most never gambled again, but some of them maintained an avid interest in card counting and remained in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They offered a course on blackjack for MIT's January, 1980 Independent Activities Period (IAP), during which classes may be offered on almost any subject.

First MIT blackjack "bank"[edit]

In late November 1979, a professional blackjack player contacted one of the card-counting students, J.P. Massar, after seeing a notice for the blackjack course. He proposed forming a new group to go to Atlantic City to take advantage of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission's recent ruling that made it illegal for the Atlantic City casinos to ban card counters. Instead, casinos would have to ban players individually.

The group of four players, a professional gambler, and an investor who put up most of their capital ($5, 000), went to Atlantic City in late December. They recruited more MIT students as players at the January blackjack class. They played intermittently through May 1980 and increased their capital four-fold, but were nonetheless more like a loose group sharing capital than a team with consistent strategies and quality control.

"Mr. M" meets Bill Kaplan[edit]

In May 1980, J. P. Massar, known as "Mr. M" in a History Channel documentary, overheard a conversation about professional blackjack at a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge. He introduced himself to the speaker, Bill Kaplan, a 1980 Harvard MBA graduate who had run a successful blackjack team in Las Vegas three years earlier. Kaplan had earned his BA at Harvard in 1977 and delayed his admission to Harvard Business School for a year, when he moved to Las Vegas and formed a team of blackjack players using his own research and statistical analysis of the game. Using funds he received on graduation as Harvard's outstanding scholar-athlete, Kaplan generated more than a 35 fold rate of return in less than nine months of play.

Kaplan continued to run his Las Vegas blackjack team as a sideline while attending Harvard Business School but, by the time of his graduation in May 1980, the players were so "burnt out" in Nevada they were forced to hit the international circuit. Not feeling he could continue to manage the team successfully while they traveled throughout Europe and elsewhere, encountering different rules, playing conditions, and casino practices, Kaplan parted ways with his teammates, who then splintered into multiple small playing teams in pursuit of more favorable conditions throughout the world.

Kaplan observes Massar and friends in action[edit]

After meeting Kaplan and hearing about his blackjack successes, Massar asked Kaplan if he was interested in going with a few of Massar's blackjack-playing friends to Atlantic City to observe their play. Given the fortuitous timing (Kaplan's parting with his Las Vegas team), he agreed to go in the hopes of putting together a new local team that he could train and manage.

Kaplan observed Massar and his teammates playing for a weekend in Atlantic City. He noted that each of the players used a different, and overcomplicated, card counting strategy. This resulted in error rates that undermined the benefits of the more complicated strategies. Upon returning to Cambridge, Kaplan detailed the problems he observed to Massar.

Kaplan capitalizes a new team[edit]

Kaplan said he would back a team but it had to be run as a business with formal management procedures, a required counting and betting system, strict training and player approval processes, and careful tracking of all casino play. A couple of the players were initially averse to the idea. They had no interest in having to learn a new playing system, being put through "trial by fire" checkout procedures before being approved to play, being supervised in the casinos, or having to fill out detailed player sheets (such as casino, cash in and cash out totals, time period, betting strategy and limits, and the rest) for every playing session. However, their keen interest in the game coupled with Kaplan's successful track record won out.

The newly capitalised "bank" of the MIT Blackjack Team started on 1 August 1980. The investment stake was $89, 000, with both outside investors and players putting up the capital. Ten players, including Kaplan, Massar, Jonathan, Goose, and 'Big Dave' (aka 'coach', to distinguish from the Dave in the first round) played on this bank. Ten weeks later they more than doubled the original stake. Profits per hour played at the tables were $162.50, statistically equivalent to the projected rate of $170/hour detailed in the investor offering prospectus. Per the terms of the investment offering, players and investors split the profits with players paid in proportion to their playing hours and computer simulated win rates. Over the ten-week period of this first bank, players, mostly undergraduates, earned an average of over $80/hour while investors achieved an annualized return in excess of 250%.

Strategy and techniques[edit]

The team often recruited students through flyers and across the players' friends throughout college campuses across the country. The team tested potential members to find out if they were suitable candidates and, if they were, the team thoroughly trained the new members for free. Fully trained players had to pass an intense "trial by fire, " consisting of playing through 8 six-deck shoes with almost perfect play, and then undergo further training, supervision, and similar check-outs in actual casino play until they could become full stakes players.

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