Since its creation several hundred years ago, blackjack has become one of the most popular card games in the world. In most casino games, a player's strategy, no matter how elaborate, has no impact on the outcome of a game. In Blackjack, however, it is possible to significantly reduce the casino's advantage over the player by following a mathematically based strategy.
You are probably familiar with the table principle in Blackjack. By choosing to draw, stand, double or split according to the exact guidelines of the table, the theoretical return to the player, otherwise known as RTP, rises to over 99%. This means that by sticking to the board and over the very long term, a blackjack player is not expected to lose more than 1% of his wager.
For this reason, young students from top universities have decided to take the strategy one step further to beat the casino. Indeed, blackjack is, in theory, the only casino game where it is possible to win in the long run.
From 1979 to the early 2000's, mathematicians and brilliant students from prestigious universities teamed up to strategize against casinos in Las Vegas and around the world to achieve RTP's ranging from 102 to 104%!
Today, Lucky7Bonus mascot Matoupris tells you the true story of the famous MIT Blackjack Team. How did they win against the casinos? Are the best-selling Bringing Down The House and the famous movie 21 telling the truth? Is it still possible to count cards to win at blackjack? Matoupris answers all these questions in this article!
What is card counting in Blackjack?
In 1962, the American probabilist Edward O. Thorp** proposed the first card counting method for blackjack in his book Beat the Dealer. This was the first book to prove mathematically that it is possible to win at blackjack and this strategy, called High Low is still considered the most effective today.
While teaching mathematics, Timorp traveled to Las Vegas to test his strategy against casinos that did not have the means to defend themselves at the time. Thorp is also considered one of the first inventors of the laptop computer. He used the latter to win at roulette by calculating the wheel's rate and the speed of the ball. The aim was to bet on a series of numbers close to each other on the wheel and increase the chances of winning in the long run.
In blackjack, the strategy invented by Thorp is actually quite simple. Each card has a value, which the player must add up to get a count that gives a clue to the probabilities of the remaining cards in the deck:
Cards 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 are worth +1 ;
Cards 7, 8 and 9 are worth 0;
Cards 10, J, Q, K and the Ace are worth -1.
If you count all the cards in a single pack, you always get 0.
The aim is then to count each card dealt to get an idea of how many high cards are left in the deck(s).
If a large number of low value cards (2-6) are dealt, then the count will be positive (e.g. +9), meaning that there is a statistically much greater chance of getting high value cards in the rest of the deck. This position increases the player's chances of winning due to the possibility of doubling down, the fact that the dealer can get past 21 more easily, and most importantly, the fact that getting a blackjack pays more than a single bet.
The strategy is to bet as little as possible while counting cards and when the remaining card count is high, bet much more to get winnings during this statistically advantageous period.
This strategy is legal and casinos have several methods to counter it. Using multiple decks and shuffling them earlier reduces the advantage and makes it harder for the counter to count. Some casinos do not hesitate to change the basic rules by paying less for blackjacks or drawing a soft 17, but this also penalizes players who do not count cards.
The creation of the MIT Blackjack team
In 1979, six students from the Massachussets Institute of Technology, a highly regarded science university, learned to count cards and traveled to Atlantic City during Spring Break to win a small jackpot at the casinos. As the group breaks up after graduation, two gamblers, J.P. Massar and Jonathan, decide to teach a blackjack class to other interested MIT students.
This class will interest Dave, a professional blackjack player who offers J.P Massar to recreate a team to go to Atlantic City.
At the same time, a man named Bill Kaplan, a graduate of Harvard, had just scoured every casino in Nevada with his blackjack team. With his players being known in every casino, their access to the blackjack tables was compromised and they had to travel to the rest of the world to continue playing by abandoning their leader.
Massar meets with Kaplan and offers to watch his team play for a weekend. The more experienced man concludes that Massar and his teammates are using overly complicated methods to achieve a 104% RTP and end up making mistakes that reduce their profitability.
Professionalization of the blackjack team
Bill Kaplan was interested in running a team again. He offered his services, but wanted to implement a more professional operation with extensive recruiting, testing of new players, training, and accurate bookkeeping and gaming.
On August 1, 1980, the first true MIT Blackjack Team was launched with $89,000 in seed money from outside investors and the players themselves. 10 players travelled to nearby casinos to double the initial investment in less than 3 months.
The way they work is much more precise:
Counters are placed at different blackjack tables and always play the minimum bet while counting cards;
A controller checks that the counter is not wrong and makes a discreet sign to announce when the table is hot (the count is high) to the big player;
The big player then goes to the announced table to play much bigger bets to win.
The evolution of the blackjack team
In the 1980s, more than 70 people worked as players, counters, or controllers on the MIT Blackjack Team, which accumulated several hundred thousand dollars with capital gains of up to 300% per year for outside investors.
Within a few years, Bill Kaplan's face was known to all the casinos and it was impossible for him to enter any of them without the security team following him around looking for the players under his tutelage. **Kaplan managed the team from the outside for a few more months before retiring to concentrate on his real estate business.
In 1992, Kaplan, J.P. Massar and one of the first recruits, John Chang, decided to form Strategic Investments LP in order to recruit new players and build a bankroll in a much more professional and official manner to take on the newly formed Foxwoods Casino.
In less than two years, the team has employed over 80 players allowing for nearly 30 players to be playing simultaneously in casinos around the world. When a player was discovered by too many casinos, he or she was replaced by a student from MIT or another university who was trained and deployed within weeks.
Soon, an investigative team employed by several casinos discovered the connection between the players and linked their places of residence to the various universities involved. Recruiting gamblers from MIT or Harvard became complicated and Strategic Investments was forced to dissolve on 31 December 1993.
The End of the MIT Blackjack Team
After the dissolution of Strategic Investments, two teams were formed to continue in their chosen field: the Amphibians and the Reptiles. They were to be incredibly successful again, with bankrolls of several million dollars and teams of several dozen players.
Despite sophisticated legal structures and sophisticated operations, the reign of the MIT Blackjack Team came to an end in early 2000. After more than 15 years of terrifying casinos around the world, the last of the professional players withdrew their profits to begin their new lives.
Is it still possible to count cards in blackjack?
Nearly 60 years after the discovery of the probabilist Thorp, is it still possible to implement a winning technique in blackjack? In theory, yes. But in practice it is much more complicated.
Today, casinos have changed the way they operate and do not hesitate to use an automatic shuffler for example. The cards are then constantly shuffled and counting the cards that come out is completely unnecessary. In the case where the casino still uses manual shuffling, it is not uncommon to see not 1, but 4, 6 or even 8 different decks shuffled together. This greatly reduces the impact your account will have. This is referred to as the Current Count and the Actual Count. A +6 count on one package is not worth as much as a +6 count on 6 packages.
Actual count = Current count / number of packages.
This doesn't mean you won't have an advantage over the casino, but it will be much less and earning real profits will require spending a huge amount of time at the blackjack tables. You can play with a 101% RTP and still lose for your first 500 hours.
Finally, without using a team that you trust enough to split huge sums of money, becoming a professional blackjack player takes far more time than most casual jobs.
Las Vegas 21 a movie that is close to reality
Although the movie 21 is based on the true story of the MIT Blackjack Team, Hollywood needs to romanticise the facts. Here are some anecdotes you won't find in the movie.
The hidden bundles of money
Although John Chang did not hide his winnings in the ceiling of his university room like Campbell in the movie, it is true that players hid chips and notes in various places. As Chang was about to move out, his wife came to help him clean out his flat. The couple then found several stashes that the gambler had forgotten about. In the end, more than $165,000 was found during the move.
MIT Blackjack Team's Biggest Win
According to Mike Aponte, one of the MIT players and founder of the Reptiles, the team's record is $500,000. These winnings were obtained during the Superbowl weekend in 1995. "My personal record for winnings on a single trip is about $200,000" recalls Mike Aponte.
Luck doesn't always smile on you
Of course, the movie 21 is almost all about winning and successful weekends, but sometimes the team would come back from a trip with losses even though they played perfectly well. According to Mike Aponte: "The biggest loss the team had on a single trip was about $130,000 and I think I lost close to $60,000 on my worst weekend."
Jeff Ma's cameo in 21
Jeff Ma, the MIT student who was the basis for the character of Ben Campbell, makes a cameo appearance in the film 21 as a dealer named Jeffrey. The Ben Campbell character actually waves to the dealer Jeffrey calling him "my brother from another mother!"
John Chang in a dress
John Chang, who partly inspired the character of the professor and leader Micky Rosa, was not actually a professor, but a graduate of MIT. As in 21, Chang sometimes disguised himself in order to enter the premises of certain casinos. To do this, he pretended to be a woman by wearing a wig and a long dress. He quickly realized that the size of his hands would destroy his cover at the blackjack table before the security team "burst out laughing and escorted me out" explains Chang.
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