The casino always wins, right? Kind of…
Most people who know something about gambling will be aware that the house has the odds in their favour. Even if the odds are just slightly favouring the casino, this almost certainly guarantees the casino will come out on top over the long run, even if they give away huge jackpots along the way.
However, one group of nerdy 90s students from MIT in Boston found a way to beat the casino at Blackjack. The story of these students is mind-blowing and has gone on to inspire the writing of books and even a film.
What Is the Full Story?
Bill Kaplan was a model student with outstanding grades and an acceptance letter to Harvard. The pathway to a secure career was paved, until he read a book about card counting to win at Blackjack.
His mother was bewildered when he told her that he wanted to postpone his studies and try to win money playing a casino game, but his stepfather was more convinced after Kaplan beat him every night for two weeks using the card counting strategy.
Kaplan spent a year in Vegas winning a small fortune before returning to his destined path as an academic. Life was much more normal again until one of his MIT students, where he was employed at the time, overheard his story. The student requested that Kaplan teach a small group of gifted students to count cards – and the MIT Blackjack Team was born.
Kaplan and his student team started winning modest sums and gave investors 100% returns. This caused their partners to set up a company and invest $1 million for students to flock to casinos with and gamble.
The students often lost big and won bigger, which prompted casinos to try and keep them there by offering free suites and stays. This was problematic for the students because although they were excellent at counting cards, they were not adept at looking and playing the part of a high roller.
Unfortunately for the team, many players started getting caught and kicked out of the casinos. Some members were even thrown in jail for the night, which deterred many students to play again. In the end, Kaplan decided that life would be easier without the chaotic business and the team separated.
It is estimated that the team had 80 players working for the company and most of them stopped playing. However, because many players within the team remain unknown, there is a chance that the MIT Blackjack Team are still at large in some capacity, even if in a much smaller number.
But, What Is Card Counting Anyway?
When playing Blackjack, the player needs to accumulate cards with a value of 21, or as close to it in the fewest cards possible. This means high-value cards help the gamblers and low-value cards are better for the house.
To try and predict what type of card will be next, a player who is counting cards will keep a running tally of the cards which have already appeared. They will add one every time they see a low-value card and minus one every time a high-value card hits the table.
So, how does this help? When the gambler has a high tally, they know that lots of low value cards have already appeared, meaning statistically there is a greater chance of high value cards being dealt. At this stage, they know they are more likely to beat the dealer and will place higher bets.
Card counting is not a bulletproof strategy, but as the MIT Blackjack Team showed the world, if you are good at it then it can reap rewards. Card counting is not classed as illegal, but casinos use methods to spot people counting cards and will stop them from playing if they believe they are using this method.
To avoid detection from casino workers, card counting is often done in groups where one person will count cards and signal to players when the count is low or high. To count cards, excellent mental mathematics is essential because of the pace that the dealer will play at while having to remain social at the table.
In 2020 with live blackjack being all the rage, there are many people attempting to count cards and make a profit, but most fail. Though there are still some around both at brick & mortar casinos and online. One was kind enough to start an AMA thread on Reddit.
Inspiring a Movie
The interesting story of the MIT Blackjack Team even inspired a movie. In 2008, a film by the name of 21 was released and based on the team. The film’s cast included names such as Kevin Spacey and Jim Sturgess.
The film received mixed reviews from the press and was also criticized for featuring a predominantly white cast, although the real team and the book it was based on – Bringing Down the House – included mostly Asian-Americans.
Nevertheless, if you want a visual performance of the story of the MIT Blackjack Team, 21 is still worth watching.