The MIT and How They Broke Casinos in Vegas Back in the ’90s

A team of students bringing the house down? If you’ve been playing blackjack for some time now, you probably heard about the MIT blackjack team. They are students and graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who happen to break the bank of one Las Vegas casino in just one weekend. In the ‘90s, they would take weekly trips to Vegas to gamble. But they’re not there to have fun; they’re intending to use their MIT card counting technique to make money – lots of it.

In one weekend, they were able to rake up to $400,000 in Las Vegas. During the MIT’s heydays, they have over 70 members all trained for weeks based on the experience digitally logged by the active members. Their exploits were documented in a popular book called “Bringing the House Down” which later inspired the hit movie “21”.

How the MIT Blackjack team started

In the span of 1979 to 1989, MIT blackjack has been rounding casinos with the aim to make money. It all started with Bill Kaplan, an aspiring Harvard student. But after reading a book about card counting, he decided to put his entry to Harvard on hold to spend a year in Las Vegas. For what? To gamble.

Of course, Kaplan’s mother wasn’t thrilled about it. But after crushing his stepfather’s bankroll in just two weeks, he got the nod he’s waiting for. So he flew to Vegas with $1,000 in his pocket. After nine months, his bankroll is already at $35,000.

Eventually, he entered Harvard and graduated but he continued playing blackjack around the world after getting his MBA. During the late ‘80s, students from MIT heard about his gambling prowess and asked him to join them on their card counting group.

During the early 1990s, the casino industry is at its peak. Kaplan and the MIT students gambled their way through until they made $1 million.

 

They used this money to establish the company called Strategic Investments that sought to train math whiz students to learn Hi-Lo card counting. Once they are ready to gamble, the team will release them to casinos to make money.

From there, the company was making tons of money. However, things went sour when casinos start to notice that some players are making more money than usual.

In this documentary entitled ‘Breaking Vegas’, the MIT blackjack team’s casino adventures were revealed based on Ben Mezrich’s book, ‘Bringing the House Down’:

The perks and luxury

As students, Kaplan’s team is used to canteen meals and regular classroom life. But as they become high rollers in the casino, they started getting the attention of casino executives. They will get invited to lavish penthouses with expensive drinks, Jacuzzi, and other perks only millionaires can have. During that time, executives reward high rollers with food, drinks, and luxurious accommodations regardless if they are winning or losing.

Why is this so? So they would keep on gambling at their house. But the MIT card counting story isn’t always a bed of roses.

Taking on heat

As they rake thousands of dollars every night, Kaplan’s team became a notorious subject of monitoring and casino banning. Casinos would even hire private detectives just to hunt them down and mark their addresses. At some point, a detective even got a copy of their yearbook just to make sure that they are indeed part of the infamous MIT blackjack team.

As much as card counting and exploiting the loopholes of the game isn’t illegal, casinos are eager to take the team down. One of the members that are still on the blackjack field is Mike Aponte who was one of the big guys of the MIT team back in the ‘90s.

Mike remembered losing $10,000 in just a few minutes. This is when an executive invited him to a penthouse to enjoy a luxurious treat. This went on and on as he keeps being a high-roller.

After a few weeks, Aponte earned $25,000 and became of one the key players in the Strategic Investments. Hi-Lo card counting is one of his major methods.

Since casinos are taking a close look on the MIT team, Aponte has to dress for the part. He needed to look like a gambler and not a nerd student. One advantage he had is his Asian roots. Since casinos stereotype Asians as reckless and high-roller gamblers, Aponte remained off the radar of private detectives.

The end of the MIT Blackjack team

It didn’t take too long for the casinos to spot MIT students playing on their tables. Soon enough, many of the players have been banned in Las Vegas and other domestic casinos. Mike said that most of the time being caught isn’t really worrying. The security officers in U.S. casinos would just give him a tap on the back and tell him that he’s banned to play blackjack.

But when it comes to playing abroad, back-offs are more aggressive.
One anonymous MIT member who high-rolled and brought the house down in the Bahamas was jailed together with this wife who’s also part of the team.

Mike said that the guy is a little conspicuous than usual, wearing glasses and looking nerdy. It turned out that this player is a Ph.D. student.

What happened is that the player’s money was seized, including the team’s money used to bankroll the game. He and his wife were thrown to jail. After that these members never played for the MIT again.

This started the demise of the MIT team. More members are bailing out due to the fear of being caught. Still, some went to great lengths just to stay in the group.

Soon, MIT card counting members started spooking and spotting. Someone out of the table counts cards and then signaling it to the seated player. One of the members even shaved his head and dressed as a woman just to avoid the prying eyes of the casino.

Although their gambling isn’t federally illegal, the growing pressure against the team made Kaplan decide to end it on December 1993. At this point, the team already has 80 members. Kaplan also realized that running the business is bringing “more headaches than fun”. With that, they called it quits.

Where are the MIT Blackjack team members now?

After the Strategic Investments wrapped up, Mike Aponte formed his own group. This time, it’s friendlier to the casinos. He’s teaching people how to play and in 2004, he became the first-ever champion of the World Series of Blackjack. Currently, he’s still teaching gambling and advising casinos on the side. Here’s one of his card counting tutorials published by Wired:

Mike also finds it funny that he’s now friends with the casino executives who hunted him down in the ‘90s. When he’s not playing blackjack, he’s the Chief Research assistant at Peerless Analytics.

As for Bill Kaplan, he planned to invest in properties after closing the MIT blackjack team. Currently, he’s the CEO of Fresh Address, an email address expert company that provides solutions to companies including America’s Fortune 100. Fresh Address is helping companies to gain revenue through email marketing and related services.

Another member, John Hirschtick from Chicago had made good use of the money he earned through blackjack. During his career as a blackjack player for the MIT team, he earned about $1 million. When it’s time to end their gambling days, he invested this to a software company called SolidWorks Corp. He’s still banned to play in some casinos but newer ones are open to his exploits.

Semyon Dukach, on the other hand, founded different companies. One of which is the Fast Engines which earned him $35 million. Currently, he’s an investment guru.

The two masterminds of MIT Johnny Chang and Laurie Tsao got married and kept playing even after the team has been dissolved. Johnny is a coach and speaker. Meanwhile, Laurie got in trouble with a big casino in 2012. Many big casinos banner her from playing.

Meanwhile, Jane Willis who’s considered as one of the biggest sharks of the MIT blackjack team is already a lawyer. She has stopped playing since the team parted ways.

Some members are still making a living out of blackjack, but their goal to bring the house down isn’t as keen as their passion back in the ‘90s.

MIT isn’t the first to count cards

Many think that the MIT paved the way of card counting in casinos. However, other card counters started more techniques. The MIT students like Mike just improved it by applying mathematical calculations. What they came up with is a whole new level of the mathematical and scientific approach that no other blackjack teams have ever come close to.

Although many members remained anonymous up to this day, the MIT card counting legacy in gambling will be remembered forever, thanks to Kevin Spacey’s movie 21.

How can you count cards like the MIT Blackjack team?

Let us clarify this first: the MIT blackjack team isn’t illegal. Legally, no one’s banned to count cards and exploit the loopholes of the game. However, casinos have taken too much heat on their team because they’re earning a fortune every single time. Casinos don’t want intelligent players. They want players who can they milk money from.

So how do you count cards like the MIT Blackjack team? Well, we will skip the nerve-racking mathematical calculations and make things easier for both of us.

Master the basic strategy. If you haven’t even memorized a single chart, you need to back off and go back to basics.

 

Card counting is useless without this and you simply can’t understand the concept of the methods without knowing the basic strategy.

 

If you’re confident that you have the basic strategy slated at every corner of your mind. It’s time to reads some books. Remember, Kaplan started his journey to Vegas after reading a card counting book. The same goes if you want to master the game.

Stanford Wong’s Professional Blackjack is a good read as well as Lance Humble’s The World’s Greatest Blackjack Book. If you want to add more pages to your study, you can also read Jerry Patterson’s Blackjack, A Winter’s Handbook.

If you really want to achieve the MIT-level of playing, you need to be a mathematical whiz. There’s no exaggerating here: Aponte, Kaplan, Dukach, and other guys are MBA and Ph.D. students when they first earned their million. For them, blackjack is purely mathematical and it’s proven to be true with their wads of cash after weeks of playing.

The strategy

Still, you don’t have to be a math whiz just to learn how to count cards. Mike Aponte will attest to this. Practice and consistency is the key if you want to make decent profits. One proof to this is Colin Jones. He’s an expert card counter who makes a living out of playing blackjack. However, he’s far from being a mathematician.

In many of his tutorials, Mike suggests using the Hi-Lo card counting methods. This is the manner of keeping track of the card’s composition and which cards are still left in the shoe.

You’ll add one whenever a low-value card (2 to 6) is dealt while you’ll subtract one if the high-value card (all 10s and Ace) on the table. For other cards, the value is zero.

While the players and dealer play the rounds, you’ll keep a running count. The higher the count gets, the bigger your edge becomes. But when the count becomes lower, the shoe is on the casino’s side. Through this, players can make betting and playing deviations to minimize losses and maximize winning hands.

What if there is more than one deck being used? You’ll compute for the true count. You divide the running count with the number of decks. In Wired’s video of Mike Aponte, he discussed this part thoroughly.

MIT card counting is one of the most admired – and feared – method back in the days. It breaks banks and brings houses down. If they can earn that much, you can, too, with enough practice and methods.

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