What's the first thing that enters your mind when you think of MIT, the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology: engineering genius, mathematical wizard, visionary, geek, hacker? If you chose any one of those, you would be correct. Mix them all together, add some smoke and mirrors, big-time anonymous investors, a dash of anarchy for good measure, and you get one of the best scams of all times—the MIT Blackjack Team—the ultimate in high stakes, genius-backed hacking! Infamy is nothing new to MIT. Some of the world's wiliest hackers hailed from the hallowed halls of MIT; but when one gifted math professor and six gifted students banded together, they propelled organized hacking to dizzying heights and snookered organized gambling to the tune of millions! That was sweet music to the ears of millions who have left behind small fortunes in their quest to beat the casinos.
After school club
The MIT Blackjack team began as an after-school club held in campus classrooms where students assembled to apply their genius to card games, unwind (at least, by MIT standards), and have fun. The club eventually evolved into serious business. The team set up a complete underground system of casino mock-ups spanning apartments, warehouses, and classrooms scattered across Boston where they worked diligently to perfect their scheme. Before advancing to live play in the casino, each player had to pass a rigorous battery of tests encompassing all of the roles under simulated casino conditions, including distraction and harassment. Still, they were not ready for the big league until further honing their skills in Boston's Chinatown before heading to Las Vegas.
Card counting, the heart of their system, is a proven winning technique. Blackjack odds offer the one opportunity for those with skill, dogged determination, and discipline to consistently beat the house. The casinos know that Blackjack is vulnerable (that smart, disciplined players actually have a fighting chance of winning), and that is why they ban the big winners and harass and threaten potential big winners.
Casino management further understands that it takes only one or two mistakes to turn a player's winning system into a house win, and that is the only reason that they tolerate card counting—until it turns against them. They rely on human frailties, such as lack of discipline and distraction, to return the advantage to the house.
The MIT team used card counting as the foundation of their system; it was only one among a number of tools in their magical tool box, and even then, it wasn't traditional card counting. It added a high-low system, based on the statistical probability of receiving high or low cards, and they added an additional technique for cutting the cards that further skewed the odds in their favor.
Team members traveled together, seemingly as total strangers. Each assumed one of a number of well-crafted fake identities, the teams included several types of players, each member playing a well-defined role. Anonymous investors provided the stake and expected a return on their investment. One such outing netted a 154% ROI after expenses. Transporting huge amounts of cash back and forth was another obstacle they overcame with ingenuity. Cash traveled in every conceivable manner: strapped to bodies, on "mules," in hollow crutches, just to name a few.
High Tech vs Low Tech
Their reign spanned a good part of the 1990s when they traveled the casino circuit with total abandon. Their $400,000 winning weekend in Las Vegas is legendary. Casino technology was not yet at a stage where it could match wits with MIT genius. At least, it had not made its way to practical application in Las Vegas, Ironically, it would be low-tech sloppiness that brought the team down in the end.
The casinos had learned to deal with the card counters long before the MIT pikers hit the scene. When they identified a card counter, they would ensure that his play at the tables was a living nightmare, and should the card counter take the house for a large sum, they would immediately ban him. Technology in the 1990s had matured to a point where bad news traveled fast. When the card counter was detected at one casino, it became nearly impossible to escape detection at any other casino.
Profiled MIT Blackjack Team
Las Vegas casino bosses relied on a long-established profile of the Blackjack card counter, but since the MIT team ran counter to the profile, that also worked in their favor, helping them to escape detection. The profile assumed one lone card counter. The team's nonchalant, seemingly random style of play also ran counter to the profile. But they were crazy like foxes—until they were no more.
Finally, sloppiness brought them to their knees. Eventually, they lost their discipline and their cool; the well-oiled machine built with the precision of a Swiss watch began to fall apart. They began to fraternize, and not just with the usual Las Vegas temptations, but with each other—in public. A total chance spotting of the teams relaxing and playing at a Las Vegas pool blew their cover. The tale of their unraveling wound its way back to the back streets of Boston before they finally disbanded. The odds had finally turned against them, and the stakes were far too high for even the geniuses from MIT.
The last remaining team player was escorted from the table with the parting words, "You can't play here. You're too good for us."
Blackjack Team in the News
The tale of the MIT Blackjack Team doesn't end with its demise. ABC, CNN, History Channel, and CBS's 60 Minutes all picked up the story. Bringing Down the House : The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions (Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group, 2002), by Ben Mezrich, chronicles the escapades of the team from its inception to the end of the line through the eyes of team member, Kevin Lewis (not his real name). One enterprising former member currently offers seminars based on the system.
The final irony has yet to play itself out. Kevin Spacey is producing the movie version of the book, due to be released by MGM sometime in 2006. One has to wonder if the movie will help MGM recover its losses to the MIT Blackjack Team.
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