Part 2 of 2: You can beat the casinos
This is part 2 of an article on beating casinos. The first part focused on how it’s impossible to beat the casinos playing legitimately. This second half is about how you can beat the casinos and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Blackjack Team. They are also frequently called the MIT card counting team because that’s what they did to beat the casinos!
Beating the odds at a casino and getting away with it takes a lot of training, skill, patience, and finesse. You have to understand the game inside out before learning about how you can beat it in a casino setting. It takes skill and patience to learn the different methods of card counting and perfect it. Finally, once you get to the casino, you have to be casual and unsystematic so as not to attract attention to yourself. Obviously some players are better than others but in theory, anyone can learn to win at a casino blackjack table.
You Can Beat the Casino
Casinos are in business to generate vast sums of money. Aside from great marketing, they are highly successful because they offer many types of games that appeal to different tastes. Each game has its own odds of winning. One of the most popular casino games is blackjack.
Blackjack is one of the most frequently targeted games by scammers because it’s the one game in which a skilled player can tip the odds in their favor with relative ease. Well, this being a big “relative.” The truth is that the weakness in casino Blackjack has been known for decades.
How Blackjack Card Counting Works
Here is a very simplified explanation of how to play blackjack: Blackjack is played with one dealer and typically 1 to 6 players. Each player is dealt a hand of cards. Each card in the deck is assigned a specific number. Players can take as many cards as they want to achieve their goal of 21 points.
In order to win at casino blackjack, your cards must add up to 21 or be as close to 21 as possible without going over. If the house (the casino) has a lower hand (total score) than you or goes over 21, you win. If it’s a tie, neither side wins.
Based on a 1956 scientific paper he read in a statistics journal, UCLA Professor Edward O. Thorp proceeded to systematically study blackjack patterns. He examined the cards and devised a system that accounted for the variations in those that remained after certain hands were dealt. In other words, he figured out that if you count the cards that are dealt you could make an accurate guess as to whether the rest of the cards in the deck would favor the player or the house. He published the book “Beat the Dealer” in 1962 and it is now considered a must-read classic.
Thorp’s book detailed a rather complex system of card counting. It was the first of its kind and brought a lot of attention to the practice of counting cards in blackjack. Many gamblers and theorists have since modified his ideas and developed much more efficient and effective ways beat the casinos.
Many gamblers have exploited blackjack at casinos and made a lot of money. This list includes the world’s most famous card counters, the MIT Blackjack Team.
Enter: The MIT Blackjack Team
University students frequently play cards and it’s not surprising that young, intelligent, ambitious students with a propensity for math and science would master the card counting method of beating casinos at blackjack. The students who would later become famous for their roles on the MIT Blackjack Team initially began by joining an underground card counting club. The students would play cards and pretty much try to beat the system.
During the 1980s, these MIT students played cards for fun until some of them decided to take advantage of their skills by attempting to beat the casinos. A former MIT professor gathered a group of students and weeded them out to find the ones who could best mesh his unique brand of verbal and non-verbal cues in combination with disciplined training and play skills to beat the casinos.
Gamblers try card counting all the time but few can keep it up for very long. The MIT Blackjack Team was composed of bright students who were used to working hard, staying focused and remaining on task. Under the ex-professor’s guidance, the team kept detailed records of their playing and devised a computer software program that would help them gain a further advantage over the casinos.
There are several types of card counting methods and the MIT Blackjack Team used the most efficient strategies in conjunction with their unique twists that would give them that much more of an edge at the blackjack table.
The MIT Blackjack Team Plays to Win
The MIT Blackjack Team benefited from the help of sketchy investors who would put up money for their training time, flights and other expenses in exchange for a promise that the team would be successful and they’d make a good profit. Team members apparently never even met them.
During the early 1990s, the team really got going and as the playing became routine, the players would bet tens of thousands of dollars per hand. Their levels of playing time and spending meant that they’d get comped with VIP status at the casino-hotels in which they played. Casinos love having big spenders around because in theory and on average, gamblers will lose a lot more than they win so keeping them around longer is good idea. Unfortunately for the casinos, they didn’t realize what was happening until they were taken for hundreds of thousands of dollars, possibly into the millions.
On some weekends, team members would fly from Boston to Las Vegas, returning with hundreds of thousands of dollars, while on others, they would return empty handed. Overall, they returned with a hefty profit.
On more successful trips, blackjack team members would have so much money they would have to hide it. Sometimes they would even smuggle the money or poker chips under their clothes as they sat on the airplane. All this and they’d be back in Boston in time for their Monday morning math exams!
Fake Identities for Team Members
Cheating casinos is no easy feat. The MIT Blackjack Team had to keep up a charade. They made up fake identities for each individual and then played up that falsehood as much as possible. For example, Semyon Dukach was one of the main MIT Blackjack Team members and happens to be of European decent. He used that to his advantage by implying that he was a Russian arms dealer with lots of cash to blow. Oh, if only their parents knew!!
Once they were on the casino gaming floor, each member had different roles. Some would be the main players while others act as support. For example, if the cards counted indicated that the rest of the deck was in favor of the house, the main player would go to the bathroom. That player would return and look for non-verbal cues from another member of the team who was still counting at the table. A sign could be something simple along the lines of playing with one’s hair which might indicate the main player should stay away a little longer. By not having to bet on hands that were sure to result in losses, they maximized their financial returns.
The MIT Blackjack Team and then individual players used their training and smarts to beat the casinos throughout the 1990s. The Las Vegas casinos were used to one-man shows and certainly never expected carefully planned, systematic teams to take them for a ride.
Is Card Counting Legal?
Believe it or not, card counting is allowed at casinos. The reason is that if you’re doing the counting in your head, it’s impossible to prove. It is a legal way to play blackjack. However, if casinos do suspect that someone is counting cards and that player continuously wins excessive amounts of money, they have the right to ban the player.
The MIT Blackjack Team Gets Busted
The MIT Blackjack Team eventually brought itself down. Team members played it cool in the beginning but their wealth and success eventually went to their heads. I think it was only a matter of time since the team was comprised of players around the age of 20 or so. Imagine being 20 years old, getting free flights to Las Vegas, tickets to the biggest shows and sporting events, and enjoying VIP status from hotel staff.
One thing they didn’t account for was that security at the different casinos would talk to each other about players who were suspected of being card counters. As time went on, team members would get together when not gambling and certain patterns of friends emerged which the casino staff recognized. Eventually, they were tracked back to Cambridge (the city right next to Boston where the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is located) addresses and someone from one of the casinos picked up an MIT yearbook. It was all they needed.
The players were immediately banned from the casinos and although they tried to get back in with new identities (putting wigs on, etc), they would get caught fairly quickly. It was all over for them as a team, although some still played in casinos around the world on an individual basis.
Blackjack Card Counting Today
Card counting players using Blackjack as a means of getting rich continues to be a problem for many casinos around the world. However, casinos are using increasingly sophisticated technology to fight back. Modern technology such as face recognition software has helped casino staff keep everything in check.
The Future of the MIT Blackjack Team
The adventures of the MIT Blackjack Team have been featured on ABC, the History Channel, and several other media outlets. Rumor has it that another black jack team is being formed.
In 2002, team member Ben Mezrich released the book “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions” and a movie based on the book is apparently in the works.
Mike Aponte, Mr. J, and Johnny C, all members of the MIT Blackjack Team founded the Blackjack Institute where they currently teach their winning strategies and techniques.
Semyon founded Blackjack Science where he teaches an intensive one-day seminar. His blackjack seminars include lessons he learned from his experiences, such as playing as a team, cut card techniques, shuffle tracking techniques, how to avoid detection, and so on.
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