How College Students Beat the Dealer in the 1990s

The Team

The “MIT Blackjack Team” is now the stuff of the legends. The “team” was a group of current and former students from the Massachusets Institute of Technology and Harvard University who used card counting and mathematical models to legally win games of blackjack in casinos around the United States and the world.

The group consisted of dozens of members, and it operated between 1979 and the early 21st century. It became a massive news story, inspiring even a Hollywood movie that told what happened. They also gained notoriety in casinos and motivated the establishments to develop practices to avoid card counting.

The Origins and the Evolution

The group was initially put together by a professional blackjack player J.P. Massar, also known as “Mr. M,” and Bill Kaplan, a Harvard graduate student. They established strict rules and training regimes for the team to guarantee success.

The team observed professional players, the strategies they employed and used mathematical models to develop easier and more efficient strategies. They recruited undergraduate students to play and established themselves legally as a company. Their phenomenal success at the table provided generous salaries and returns on investment.

The team employed dozens of members during its time, and eventually contributed to the creation of several smaller groups. They came to be so well organized that the team even survived when its founding members retired from it.

The operations of the group became gradually more professional and extensive. The team opened locations globally and would operate multiple complex gaming operations in numerous casinos across the world.

The Increasing Heat

While card counting is not technically illegal in the United States, casinos actively try to act against it. The team often faced scrutiny, particularly after the first years.

Through time the team grew larger and more notorious. Casinos started to become more aware of the risks that capable card counters posed to their businesses and started to train their staff to detect card counting. It began to become ever more difficult for the team to operate without getting caught.

In most cases, getting caught did not bring dramatic consequences to the team. Most often, players who were identified would be banned from the table or from the casino.

There were occasions when the security would be aggressive with the players, however. During the period when the team’s activity was at its pinnacle, casinos even employed private investigators to discover team members and bar their access to casinos.

The most dramatic events took place outside the United States. In some cases, careless players could be assaulted or detained when caught, with little legal protection.

Legacy

While the team gradually dissolved, partially due to increasing pressure from the casinos to combat card reading, their story remains popular. The group inspired scores of books, documentaries, television shows, and movies. Maybe most famously, it was the inspiration for the film 21.

Many key members of the team still work with gambling and card counting. Some have found employment as business consultants, whereas others make a living as public speakers.