The MIT Blackjack Team: The Time the Casino Didn’t Always Win September 26, 2023
Their story is now legendary. Most gamblers who have a vested interest in learning how to enhance their chances of winning will know their tale.
However, for those just starting out in the internet gambling world, or wanting to improve their odds of success, the story of the MIT Blackjack Team is required reading.
In this article, we will chart the rise (and inevitable decline) of MIT’s famous squad of card counters. They successfully ran card counting operations from 1979 until the millennium, and theirs is a case that has been studied countless times.
It begins, as it always does, with an idea…
The Foundations of a Legend
If you aren’t aware of who the MIT Blackjack Team was, they were a group of students and former students from two of the United States’ significant educational bodies, namely the Harvard Business School, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Together they formulated that it was possible to beat casinos playing blackjack using card counting strategies and techniques. The system they devised was put into production so well, that their operations spanned from 1979 until reportedly as late as the turn of the millennium.
Of course, card counting had been used before and had been in existence (in some form or another) since the 1960s. At its most basic, it involves remembered the cards which have been dealt, as shuffling ensures that they cannot be towards the top of the deck.
The card counter, therefore, has a decent enough idea of how many “high cards”, namely 10s through aces, remain in the deck.
Although rudimentary at best, it was this early system that the group would improve and enhance and turn into a money-making enterprise.
The Story Begins
For the team to be successful, two crucial people had to come together. J.P. Massar, an MIT student with a keen interest in card counting, and Bill Kaplan, a graduate at Harvard who dreamed of creating a mathematical model for card counting at blackjack.
Massar took the initiative when the New Jersey Casino Control Commission recently made it illegal for Atlantic City’s many casinos to outlaw card counting.
To get around this, the casinos introduced more decks of cards, constant shuffling, and other tricks. Nonetheless, after recruiting a group of four fellow students from MIT an investor and a professional blackjack player, they took to Atlantic City and managed to increase their $5,000 capital four-fold.
Two Types Of Players In The Team
The MIT Blackjack Team consisted of two types of players – a Spotter and a Big Player (Gorilla). They did this as just sitting down at a blackjack table and counting yourself while adjusting the bets wildly based on the count would be way too obvious and get you banned fast.
The Spotters sit down at a blackjack table and always play the minimum bet.
They are counting cards but never changing their betting patterns thus are not detectable by the casino.
Once the deck gets to a count where the players have an advantage against the house (usually +8 or higher), the Spotters’ job is to alert the big player and make sure they are aware of the actual running count by using one of the codewords.
The Big Players (Gorillas)
The Big Players only join the table when the count is beneficial and an edge can be gained.
They are then alerted of the running count by the Spotters using one of the codewords and adjust their bet sizing according to the current advantage percentage.
Further card counting and count keeping is done by the Big Players themselves.
Code Words Used
Since the players in the team acted like they do not know each other, the spotters were not able to just tell the big players what count it is.
Instead, they used various code words that were associated with a particular count of the deck.
Most of the associations are obvious to make it easier to remember them under pressure of playing.
Tree: +1. A tree looks like a one.
Switch: +2. Binary. on or off.
Stool: +3. A stool has three legs.
Car: +4. Cars have four tires.
Glove: +5. Five fingers.
Gun:+6. Six bullets.
Craps: +7. Lucky seven.
Pool: +8. Eight ball.
Cat: +9. Nine lives.
Bowling: +10. Strike.
Football: +11. Eleven people on a football team.
Eggs: +12. One dozen per carton.
Witch: +13. Superstition, bad luck number.
Ring: +14. Fourteen carat.
Paycheck: +15: The day on which you get paid.
Sweet: +16: Sweet sixteen.
Magazine: +17: The name of a teen magazine (and 16 was already taken).
Voting booth: +18: The age you can vote.
Enter Bill Kaplan
By May 1980, the group had had success, but nothing on an unusually large scale. While eating in a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, Massar overheard a conversation by Bill Kaplan about blackjack.
Kaplan had already put together a team of blackjack players and using his own theories had managed to magnify his group’s funds by thirty-five times their value in less than a year.
Kaplan’s problem was that the group was forced to venture to European casinos play, having successfully rampaged through the casinos of Vegas.
Different rules and playing conditions across the pond hampered Kaplan’s team, causing them to split. That conversation in Cambridge would be the starting point for the MIT Blackjack Team, and Massar introduced himself accordingly.
Kaplan’s success had already caught the ears of Massar, who wasted no time in invited Kaplan to Atlantic City, to watch his own team in action. Kaplan – seeking a new project – agreed to mentor, train and manage the team.
Working Out How to Win
After watching Massar’s team in action, Kaplan made notes. He ascertained that Massar’s team was using too complicated card counting systems and that this led to errors that could be avoided. Kaplan’s approach (with Massar on-board) was strict, rigorous, but effective. It required the logging of cash in and cash out, time periods gambling, strategies used, betting limits, and the names of the players and casinos taking part.
It involved being supervised, having to go through checks and procedures before playing, and MIT’s group wasn’t happy about it. That would change, once the first signs of success began to come in.
According to Kaplan, most blackjack teams come unstuck because of finances. Like most gambling strategies, MIT’s required a considerable balance and a long run. The group thus needed to ensure that they had the necessary capital and investment to sustain losing periods, and this meant investors.
The system used would involve Basic Strategy, which ensures that the house only has an edge of 0.50%. Incorporating card counting into the mix would see the advantage switch marginally to the player.
It is thought that Kaplan’s methods earned the group an edge of roughly 4%, on top of their own 2% edge from basic card counting. Kaplan ran the team as a business, with approved card counting systems, and the track of casinos, so they didn’t arouse suspicion.
Formed as the “Bank”, the MIT Blackjack Team began its new operations in August 1980. Outside investors put in $89,000 and the players put up the capital.
Within ten weeks, players such as Big Dave (Coach), Jonathan and Goose, alongside Massar and Kaplan had managed to double their funds.
The MIT Blackjack Team was raking in profits of approximately $170 an hour, with payouts to investors and players determined by their win rates (simulated) and the number of hours played.
Once the investors had taken their cut (which was considerable at 250% their investment), the players were taking home on average $80 an hour.
An Ever-Changing Team
Unsurprisingly, the success of the operation meant that new members came on board. By 1984, the MIT Blackjack Team had around 35 players in its squad, and as much as $350,000 player with.
Unfortunately for Kaplan (who had been playing since 1977), his recognisability at casinos was now a hindrance. He cut his losses shortly afterward, with the team now run by Massar, and latest players John Chang and Bill Rubin, and would feature rising stars such as Sarah McCord.
Over the first decade of their existence, up to 70 blackjack players formed the team, with some acting as counters, others “Big Players” and more. Investors typically gained anything from 4% to 300% of their investment back over a year.
By 1992, Kaplan, Chang, and Massar were back in business together once more, under the newly formed Strategic Investment group. This time, they headed to Connecticut to train players and develop a new team.
Targeting the Foxwoods Casino in the state, the three-man teams would make a killing. Spotters kept an eye on the deck until it went positive, controllers would waste small stakes double-checking the spotter and signaling the big player when the count was ready to go.
By now, over 80 players were involved, with mini-groups springing up out of California, Cambridge, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington. With over 22 partners involved, the operation was immense.
At any one time, over 30 players were in action in various parts of the United States.
Declining Fortunes Set In
The team didn’t have everything their own way. A handful of MIT players eventually aroused suspicion at casinos. When that happened, their days as members of the team were numbered. A steady stream of fresh recruits was needed to keep the operation going. Casinos would go one step further, hiring investigators to hunt down the team members.
Using yearbooks and database, it became apparent that the lucky winners were part of a card counting syndicate. With players rapidly being banned from casinos, Strategic Investments closed its doors in time for the New Year in 1994.
Following the closing down of Strategic Investments, two new groups emerged. One – the Amphibians – was led by Semyon Dukach, Katie Lilienkamp, and Andy Bloch. The second – The Reptiles – featured Mike Aponte, Manlio Lopez, and Wes Atamian.
Aponte would later go on to claim that he got away with wagering large sums (as the big player) at casinos, as he played to a stereotype that Asians were known for big wild gamblers and big spenders.
These groups had (at times) a million dollars to play with. They had intermittent success, but by 2000, even the days of these teams were up.
Some formed new groups, some left to pursue other projects, and some were so well-known that they could never set foot in a major casino again.
After a career of over 20 years, the light of the MIT Blackjack Team and its subsequent successors finally flickered out.
While it was hot, the operations of the MIT Blackjack Team were secret and hugely successful. Many have tried to learn lessons from the operation that they ran, including (and not surprisingly) the casinos themselves.
The MIT Blackjack Team would never have encountered the success they had without the right rules, the correct games and each other executing their roles to perfection.
An influx of new blackjack games has admittedly made things tricky for those hoping to follow in the MIT Blackjack Team’s footsteps. As players now gamble online, one might find themselves asking, could the system work online?
Whether the MIT Blackjack Team’s card counting system could be used to play online blackjack with live dealers has been the subject of much debate. Several experiments have shown that it is possible to use the same card counting techniques, although the yield is substantially less.
Live dealers also mix things up by regularly shuffling a deck when deck penetration is between 40% and 50%. This makes things even more challenging for card counters.
The Legacy and Being Immortalised on Screen
Since the end of the MIT Blackjack Team, several former players (not to mention Kaplan himself) have come forward sharing their stories in various interviews and books.
All those years of keeping their activities secret have now seen a few members seek to gain publicity and fame with tales of their exploits. Naturally, their story makes for the plot of a Hollywood film, and so it has turned out.
The success of the MIT Blackjack Team is now well-known. In recent years, they have been honored and their legacy immortalized in books and on screen.
Documentaries from The History Channel (Breaking Vegas) and the BBC (Making Millions the Easy Way) brought new insight into their operation, and their story has inspired numerous other television series, such as an episode of Numb3rs, as well as films which include The Last Casino, and 21.
Where Are They Now?
Not all those associated with the MIT Blackjack Team have sought publicity. Others have preferred a quieter life, though, most still have an affinity to blackjack and other gambling games.
Since the glory days of the MIT Blackjack Team, J.P. Massar turned his attention to poker and claimed to have “mastered” the game. He reportedly coached 2002 WSOP (World Series of Poker) winner Robert Varkonyi to victory. His face is still seen at casinos, although nowadays he prefers playing hold’em poker tournaments.
Much of what we know of the MIT team’s exploits come from interviews with Bill Kaplan. He has run other businesses since and still plays from time to time, although on his own for leisure. He maintains his claim that blackjack is the only game you legitimately beat.
Another member who has taken to telling his tale is Mike Aponte. The MIT Blackjack team member and former leader of The Reptiles known as MIT Mike won the World Series of Blackjack in 2004 and provides assistance via his company to fledgling blackjack players while advising casinos at the same time.
The Amphibians’ Semyon Dukach has since taken a step back from professional blackjack. He now devotes his time to the Blackjack Science Company, a business he founded which coaches players interested in learning the techniques required to be successful at blackjack.
Since the end of Strategic Investments, John Chang has continued to play blackjack. He was inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame in 2007 and is still one of the few recognized people who can count two decks of cards in less than a minute. He can still be found playing at blackjack tables in whichever casinos will have him.