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The MIT Blackjack Team

3 January 2006

Nothing fires up a gambler's imagination like the possibility of beating the house at its own game.

Beating the house at its own game, of course, is just what a team of students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology did in the 1990s, counting cards at blackjack and earning millions along the way. The story has been well-chronicled in Ben Mezrich's 2002 best seller, Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions and two television documentaries. The book has been adapted into a screenplay for a movie to be called "21," expected to be released in 2007.

In the January issue of the monthly Midwest Gaming and Travel magazine ($24 a year, (507) 835-1662; www.midwestgamingandtravel.com), team member Mike Aponte steps forward to give an insider's account in "The MIT Team's $500,000 Weekend."

I spent some time with Aponte and team member David Irvine on the phone to talk about the article, the MIT team's notoriety and the home training course they've developed, available through www.blackjackinstitute.com.

Successful blackjack players know that no matter how good you are and how sound your strategy, there will be losing sessions. That's just what happened at the start of the trip chronicled in Aponte's article, when the team found itself down $53,000 before turning it around. And turn it around they did, walking away with so much cash that the only place Aponte had to put the last $30,000 was under his baseball cap as he flew back to Boston.

"Money management is one of the most misunderstood concepts in blackjack," said Aponte, noting that the team knew losing sessions had to come, and were sufficiently bankrolled to withstand large losses. "That wasn't even that big a swing, down $50,000. One bank was down $300,000. Over the next two months, we won half a million."

An ordinary player with a too-small bankroll could never withstand such swings. Even a player with a bankroll sufficient for his bet size, regardless of whether his big bet is $50 or $5,000, might even start doubting the math when things started to go sour. That didn't happen with the MIT team. They knew the system would make money in the long run.

"Everything just went so smooth from the start," Aponte said. "Even when we were down $300,000 in '96-'97, we had been successful for so long, we never doubted."

The MIT counters didn't get too fancy with their counting system. They stuck to the Hi-Lo, one of the most common used by card counters. The art wasn't so much in the count itself, but in knowing when the balance of high cards and low cards remaining to be played was favorable enough to call in the big player, who would make large bets until the counter signaled an end to the session.

"The Hi-Lo as a balanced count is one of the easiest out there," Irvine said. "With a more complex count, maybe you can get a slightly higher percentage, but if you make one mistake with that more complicated system, you lose that small advantage."

And getting that advantage meant practice, practice, practice, not only in counting the cards, but in how to act in the casino. Big players were drilled on how to play their role. Casinos are there to cater to players with big money, but it wouldn't do to raise suspicions that the big player came to the table only when the count was advantageous.

Players were drilled in "how to act and not be over the top," explained Irvine, who after the MIT team experience went on the tournament trail and won the 2004 World Series of Blackjack. "First and foremost, you have to be natural. You have to be believable as someone who has money."

Now that they can look back on the team days, Aponte and Irvine can enjoy their slice of fame, as well as the financial rewards. The notoriety is not something they ever envisioned while the team was in action.

"It was an amazing time," Irvine said. "We were students. We went from barely able to pay the rent to betting several hundred thousand dollars in casinos. Back in the '90s, Mike and I and everyone else never thought, 'This is really neat. There should be a tell-all book.' But we look back now and wow, it was kind of neat."

"We had kind of a dual life," Aponte added. "We'd be studying for a chemistry test on Friday, then get on a plane to Vegas and play for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the weekend."

Now the MIT guys are trying to help others who would like to apply counting skills in the casino. The Blackjack Winning Strategy home course includes a blackjack table felt, chips, six decks of cards, an hourlong DVD on counting cards in the casino, a basic strategy card and an 84-page instruction manual. It's geared toward moving players beyond theory and developing the skills they really need to count cards in casinos.

You can check all that out at www.blackjackinstitute.com. And in the meantime, for a fascinating, fun glimpse on the big team's big weekend, look for the January issue of Midwest Gaming and Travel.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Beat the Odds" tips Saturdays at 6:20 a.m., 2:50 p.m. and 7:41 p.m. and Sundays at 8:20 a.m., 2:50 p.m. and 10:42 p.m. on WBBM-AM, News Radio 780 in Chicago, streaming online at www.wbbm780.com

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

Winning Tips for Casino Games

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski