The MIT Blackjack Team: How To Gamble If You Must

How a methodical approach helped beat the casinos at their own game

mit blackjack

The MIT Blackjack Team have been known in gambling circles for decades. Stories of their exploits are legendary in the industry and today most people know about them through the Kevin Spacey film ‘21’.

From very simple beginnings, the team grew into a huge operation with more than 80 members.

How To Gamble If You Must

The MIT Blackjack Team came together more by chance than anything else. In 1979, MIT decided to run a course called, ‘How To Gamble If You Must’. While it covered all aspects of gambling and the gambling industry, there was a particular focus on blackjack.

Blackjack is one of the few casino games where the player can, in fact, have an edge. If you’re able to track the ratio of high to low cards as they are dealt from the shoe, then you can gain an advantage if you bet at the right times.

The process is known as card counting and it immediately sparked the interest of a number of students in the class.

J.P. Massar was one of the top students in the class and was inspired by what he had learnt. He convinced some of the other members of the class to try out their new found skills at the casinos in Atlantic City.

Unfortunately for the group of card counters, their first effort was a failure and they walked away empty handed. As the members of the group graduated, most lost interest in card counting. However, Massar wasn’t giving up that easily.

Around the time Massar graduated, the New Jersey Casino Control Commission introduced a new law that no casino could ban card counters. Massar was contacted by another counter, who convinced him to head back to Atlantic City and start a new team.

They managed to raise a $5,000 bankroll from an investor and they started taking on the tables of Atlantic City. While they were successful, it wasn’t until they took the next step that the team went to the next level.

The Business Of Blackjack

In 1980, Massar reached out to Harvard graduate Bill Kaplan. Kaplan had previously been the manager of a successful card counting team in Las Vegas.

Before signing on to manage the new team, Kaplan flew out to Atlantic City to see what he was working with. While highly intelligent and talented, the strategies they were using to count weren’t all that effective. It was causing them to make errors and over complicate the process.

Despite this, he could see their potential. He immediately started by implementing more stringent requirements on the members of the team.

Kaplan began making team members fill out detailed betting sheets where they would record every little detail of there sessions. This included the money cashed in, time played and, of course, the stakes. Kaplan also created a table test that players needed to pass prior to being allowed to play.

Now that the strategies were on track, the group needed to go out and build a bankroll. The members of the team were growing, building their numbers to double figures. The group was a mix of undergrads from MIT as well as some more experienced counters.

Fortunately they were able to get some investors and the team raised $89,000 for their first attack on Vegas. This time around, the team were able to turn the tables on the casinos.

In a period of 10 weeks, the MIT Blackjack Team were able to double their investment. That meant that players pulled in around $80 an hour and saw a 250% return on their money.

This early success meant the team were able to grow and one of the ways they recruited potential new players was to hand out flyers at Ivy League schools. At the peak of their powers in the early days, the team grew to 30 players and they would travel to Las Vegas every weekend.

As time went on Kaplan started to get recognised. He began getting barred from the casinos, and other members slowly followed as the team began to disband. However not before taking huge sums from many of the major casinos in Las Vegas.

The team briefly got back together in 1992 when a new casino opened in Connecticut. They managed to build an 80 man team and set up an investment company to raise funds. 

The team was ultimately banned from that casino as well, however they will go down as some of the most famous gamblers in history.