The Story of the MIT BlackJack Players

October 27, 2010

It doesn’t matter if you’ve read the book, Bringing Down the House (which waswritten by Ben Mzrich), or seen the movie ’21’ which was produced by and acted in Kevin Spacey and Jim Sturgess, you’ve likely heard of the MIT Team.

Without ruining the book or movie we will discuss some of the happenings at the Harvard and MIT Universities.

It was quite well known in the mid to late 70’s that MIT had a group of scientists, human behavior students, and mathematicians that decided to take a stab at busting Vegas. There were various groups at both of these schools, and they competed against one another.

The groups dissolved in the early 80’s with a pair from each team working together with a man named Bill Kaplan. He had made a group that was somewhat successful, but soon burnt out.  Another fellow named JP, Massar, also known as Mr. M., was deeply involved with the blackjack. He soon joined forces with Bill Kaplan as his team was having difficulty with different card counting techniques and inappropriate betting.  Massar met up with Kaplan and asked for his view on what his group was doing incorrectly.

Kaplan broke down what the problem was and agreed to create a new team, but the team would need to adhere to his guidelines. He and Massar worked together and made the first ‘bank’ of the group.  Very quickly, the team was earning between $150-$170 / hour.

Obviously they required to remain somewhat inconspicuous so they recruited new players as necessary.  By the late 80’s they had 30 players working together.

The book “Busting Vegas” better describes the story, whereas the movie ’21’ and the book “Bringing Down the House” sticks with certain individuals involved. The story in the movie is also hollywoodized as there are some aspects that did not happen.

The team really took off in the early 90’s making anywhere from $100,000-$500,000 per trip.  The select group began changing their appearances in order to avoid detection.  The main group consisted of Jeff Ma, John Chang, Mike Aponte, Jane Willis, and Laurie Tsao. Once the group hit the tables, each member had a role. Some would be the high rollers, others the degenerate lowlife, the bimbo etc. Each member had a particular duty; they were a signaler, bettor or monitor. Signals included brushing hair out of their face to signal a hot shoe, or exit for the restroom if things were cold. They also used code words that represented the count, Pool for +8 (eight ball), +9 was Cats (nine lives) etc.

The team or select members were soon figured out, and the rest is history, as casinos began changing the rules adding more decks, using cutoffs etc. The group certainly made millions, and today each has their own story to tell.

Some facts and myths

– None of the team were every battered up

– Jeff Ma was not spending is tuition at the tables he came from a well to do family

– The group was not all from MIT

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