The MIT Blackjack Team was comprised of a group of students and ex-students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who set out to beat major casinos using advanced card-counting techniques and privately funded bankrolls. Their reign of terror against the gambling industry lasted from the mid-1990's until the early 21st century.
The infamous team began as nothing more than an after-school club held in campus classrooms where MIT students assembled to play card games and unwind. Somewhere along the way, an idea was born, and the allure of big money and statistically-based systems appealed to the mathematically-minded students.
A recruitment drive soon started, and many interested students applied after seeing flyers posted around the campus. As they slowly developed into a serious business, hopeful applicants were given tests to find the most suitable candidates and then thoroughly trained in the system.
An elaborate network of casino mock-ups were created, encompassing apartments, warehouses, and classrooms across the greater Boston area. The group expertly combined the natural individual player advantages with a team-based approach of counters and players to maximize opportunities and better disguise the betting patterns which card counting tends to produce. While it was worth it in the long run, this elaborate system required hours of drilling and repetition.
But before anyone would be allowed to advance to live casino play, each team member had to pass a grueling battery of tests, know the job of everyone involved and be able to perform it, and still be able to hold up under simulated distraction and harassment. After countless hours of practice, team members boasted that their system gave them a margin over the house of 10-20% or higher. By comparison, the methods of Edward O. Thorp (who wrote the first definitive book on card counting) gave players a 2% advantage at best.
But even after all the careful planning and preparation, the MIT Blackjack Team was still not yet ready to strike at Las Vegas. They carefully honed their blackjack skills in Boston's Chinatown, making certain that their techniques and calculations would hold up under real-world conditions. And they did.
They found financial backing from anonymous investors and created a corporation called Strategic Investments. With the backing of this new corporation, they were able to put their theories to the test with a bankroll of hundreds of thousands of dollars, far larger than would normally be available to the average gambler. And everyone profited in the end. One group of investors received a 154% increase on one investment, while the team once racked up a $400,000 winning weekend in Vegas. In the end, it's reported that the MIT Blackjack Team turned a profit of at least five-million dollars in less than a decade.
The ingenious team approach meant that casinos could not easily determine how the MIT players were winning, but several team members were eventually identified and barred. They were replaced by newly-trained MIT students and everything continued. Private investigators hired by the casinos eventually made the connection to MIT and so yearbook photos were downloaded into a database, which made identifying team members much easier. With most of the original team barred, many of the members retired to live on their winnings and pursue other interests, while some used reports of their successes to start careers as public-speakers or begin businesses specializing in blackjack seminars.
The networks eventually picked up on the story, and it was turned into a book entitled Bringing Down the House : The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. The story has also been told in the documentary Breaking Vegas, as well as an episode of the Game Show Network's series Anything to Win. And last, but certainly not least, is the upcoming feature film version of the story. Titled 21, the film is being produced by Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey and is expected in theaters by 2007.
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