MIT Blackjack Team

MIT Blackjack Team

This famous team hails from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1979 a number of MIT students followed an independent activities course on gambling and probability theory, and tried their newly learned theoretical skills in the casinos of Atlantic City directly after. Their trip was far from successful, and only two members of this initial blackjack group retained enough interest in the game to continue giving their own independent activities course on card counting the next semester, again organizing a trip to Atlantic City to test their skills. The mixed results of this trip boggled the participants, and the sequence of ups and downs made the team doubt whether they were capable of beating the game in a real casino setting, regardless of their counting skills. Again, many students lost interest.

However, one of the original Altantic City team students who had been involved in both trips, J.P. Massar (“Mr M”), came across a professional gambler named Bill Kaplan, who had run a much more successful blackjack team in Las Vegas. Since Kaplan’s own team had disbanded because many players could no longer play in Vegas casinos and some had left for Europe to continue playing there, Massar’s suggestion that he observe the MIT Team and assess their faults came at a very favourable time.

Reorganizing the Team

Kaplan was shocked at how disorganized the MIT team was. Despite being mathematically very talented players, their chaotic approach to counting and betting and their focus on theoretical discussions rather than actual casino experience was preventing the team from playing at an optimal advantage. Kaplan proposed a rigorous reorganization of the team, its playing and data processing systems, and its candidate selection procedures. During their first sponsored casino run, this new MIT team doubled their original bankroll of 89,000 USD (about 670,000 ZAR) within ten weeks of hitting the casinos, and was making an average profit the equivalent of about 1,200 Rand per hour.

Using the blackjack team approach developed by Al Francesco and described by Ken Uston in Million Dollar Blackjack, Kaplan had arranged the team as follows:

Spotters – A spotter counts cards while playing. Since the spotter must not attract the attention of the casino staff, they must play the minimum bet and refrain from increasing their bets when the deck becomes favourable. Instead, they leave the table at this point, allowing a more aggressively betting team member to join the table instead.

Back-Spotters – These spotters do not play while counting cards for the team. They can thus only be used when the casino is crowded enough to stay close to the tables without attracting attention.

Gorillas – These players always bet crudely. That is why it is essential that they join a table at the right moment.

The Big Player – This team member is profiled as an unmistakable high-roller, betting large amounts of money. The big player needed to play the part of big spender convincingly and must additionally be capable of counting cards while playing without being detected.

In the mid-80s, Kaplan became so infamous that he could no longer enter the casinos without attracting the attention of casino personnel and endangering the rest of the team, and therefore handed over the management of the team to Massar, John Chang (“Johnny C”), and Bill Rubin. However, in 1989 the team finally stopped due to changing playing conditions and player exhaustion.

Strategic Investments


In 1992 Kaplan, Massar, and Chang (joined in 1993 by Sarah McCord) set up a Limited Partnership to bankroll new blackjack teams. They raised 1 million USD (R7,5 million) to bankroll their almost 80 recruited players, playing across America as well as outside of the US. This team was very successful, generating great profits as well as pressures. As soon as casinos identified and barred a player, a new player would replace them, and the team took the casinos for millions, though the need to pump out more players for the team did reduce its selective standards. Eventually, however, private investigators discovered that the link between many of the recruited players was the MIT. They obtained an MIT yearbook and added the photographs to their image database. With most of their top players banned from the casinos and having made some spectacular wins, Strategic Investments payed out to their investors and players and disbanded in 1993. It was this incarnation of the MIT Blackjack Team that has been popularized in Bringing Down the House, 21, and Breaking Vegas.

After SI

Afterwards a number of team members split into two independent groups, the Amphibians and the Reptiles. Though both successful, by the turn of the century many of the players had drifted into other professions. David Irvine and Mike Aponte set up the Blackjack Institute in 2004, a company that provides instructional material on how to win at blackjack, such as the DVD 60 Minutes to Winning Blackjack.