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The MIT Blackjack Teams

Millions of people watched the famous film called “Rain Man” in which the character of Raymond Babbitt exhibits some remarkable “card counting” abilities. While there are those individuals in the world with almost superhuman skills, such as the character in the film, there is actually a scientific method of achieving the same results without any extraordinary level of ability.

From the late 1970s until, well into 1990s, a team of students and graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) operated an, eventually, successful effort at developing a fail-safe card counting technique that was put to use as a method of making great profit at Blackjack.

To begin, a simple explanation of card counting is required. Card counting actually does not memorize or track every card revealed during a game, instead it assigns values to cards that can effectively determine if the deck is structured in a way to be advantageous to the dealer or to the player. There have been many different systems designed, and several books of card counting theories published, but the MIT team actually took their theories into the reality of worldwide casinos to prove them correct.

Of course, as in any science or theory there was trial and error, as well as a measure of failure. However, the team had many individuals that came and went and it was in 1980 that the MIT team came under the organization of an individual with a business background and finally achieved remarkable financial success.

The story of the MIT team began in a classroom where students were able to take an officially sanctioned program entitled “How to Gamble if You Must”. This was a 1979 “Independent Activities Period” program. It was attended by current students of the school who liked to play Poker in their spare time. As many students do, they decided to use their newfound knowledge and skills for their own benefit and visited a professional casino. Here they did not find the success that they had hoped or intended and gave up on their venture.

Two of these students were convinced that success could be found in card counting and determined to work on their own theories. They even taught their own IAP course a few months later.

In 1979 one of the original group members, J.P. Massar, was contacted by a gambler looking to put Massar’s education and experience to work again in the casinos of New Jersey. They arranged an initial investment of five thousand dollars to be available to the team of four players. This time the group’s theories worked much more successfully and they turned a comfortable profit. Comfortable enough in fact to build a bigger team of trained card counters.

They did this by conducting yet another MIT IAP class in gambling and card counting and returned to New Jersey in early 1980 to work towards even bigger profits. This is the point they ran into difficulty and many of the players quickly burnt out and gave up on the idea of winning big through the card counting method.

In 1980 good fortune allowed J.P. Massar to meet Bill Kaplan. Kaplan was another MIT graduate interested in beating casinos by effectively applying card counting techniques. He had all ready enjoyed success with his own team in the Las Vegas, Nevada casinos. Kaplan’s group had been so successful that the players disbanded and headed into international gambling houses to seek out their own fortunes.

Over a dinner meeting Kaplan and Massar agreed to work together to try to build a new team. Kaplan would observe Massar’s team in an actual casino environment and offer his analysis and suggestions.

The trip was not successful because of the various approaches to Blackjack and card counted used by the team players. They argued over theories and methods, spending little time actually playing and did not leave Kaplan with a great impression of their likely success. He did however recognize their capabilities and agreed to support the team, but only if the entire operation were run the same as a standard, professional business. As an MIT Business School graduate, Kaplan was the ideal candidate to organize and effectively run the “business” venture.

This meant the team was to follow strict guidelines in procedure and daily operations; including time sheets, documentation of strategies employed and total winnings earned. It also required the team to use a set card counting system that involved formal training and levels of achievement in order to move on to professional team player status.

Referring to the training period as a “trial by fire”, players could not enter into a professional status until they won against at least eight to ten games against the team’s six deck shoe player. What this meant was the player would play Blackjack in the “shoe” style, counting cards against their dealer and several other players if necessary, and only gaining access to team play if they succeeded.

With Kaplan’s roughly ninety thousand dollars in financial backing, the team began playing in mid-1980. In only a ten week period they attained an average winnings level of roughly one hundred and seventy dollars an hour, and earned each student approximately eighty dollars an hour for their efforts.

Kaplan, Massar and the MIT team continued to play, and increase in team size throughout the 1980s. By the mid-1908s however most casino management recognized Kaplan’s face and tried to identify his team by following and observing his every movement. This led to Kaplan stepping aside and allowing Massar to manage the affair. By the 1990s the team had run its course and decided to cease their activities.

In 1992 however one of the largest, and soon to be most successful, Native American casinos opened in Connecticut. The Foxwoods Casino became a target of Massar, Kaplan and one of the team players, John Chang. They initiated a new team around a formalized investment company called Strategic Investments. They had great initial success, and once again the MIT team was back in action.

There were soon almost eighty team mates playing throughout the world. Their tremendous success led them to soon be banned from dozens of casinos that relied on face recognition software and MIT yearbook photographs to identify any and all team players. By the end of 1993 the team was once again disbanded, and Strategic Investments ceased formal operations.

Since that time a great deal of media attention has been focused on the group, with documentaries, books and films depicting the successes, failures and theories of the powerful minds and successful theories behind the Blackjack card counting achievements of the MIT team and its many players.


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