Jan 4 2010
Andy ‘The Rock” Bloch is a well known poker player. He has earned over $4.1 million in career tournament earnings, but did you know that he was also a member of the infamous MIT Blackjack Team? He had already graduated from MIT (in l992) but had been accepted to Harvard Law School, and it was the Blackjack Team that funded his tuition (a hefty $41,500 a year), and all his living expenses, as well.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
In 1979 there was an Independent Activities Program offered to the MIT students called “How to Gamble if You Must.” It was just an informal club held on campus where students could apply their high IQs and beat each other at a variety of card games. It did not take these bright students long before they realized they could have fun and make some money doing it.
They did not have to be geniuses to realize that Blackjack was the game to play! In order to win at casino blackjack your cards must add up to 21 or be as close to 21 as possible without going over. If the house has a lower hand (total score) than you, or goes over 21, YOU WIN. If it’s a tie, then nobody wins. If the house gets 21, YOU LOSE.
The students at MIT just happened to be exceptionally intelligent students with a gift for mathematics and science. When they put this all together with cards, they quickly figured out that they could count cards with ease and that card counting techniques came naturally to them.
If a blackjack player counts the cards that are dealt to him, then an educated guess can be made about what cards have yet to be dealt. Using this information, a player can play accordingly and devise his next moves, determining whether to hit or stand. Gamblers attempt card counting all the time, but few can keep it up for very long. It requires intense concentration. A dealer can spot it really quickly, though. The MIT team used card counting only as the foundation of their system. They had a number of other tricks such as statistical probability of receiving high or low cards, and they had a technique for cutting cards that further put them in favor of the odds.
By the 1990s the team, with investors to foot the Vegas weekend trips, were experiencing real success and their backers were enjoying big financial returns. Traveling as complete strangers to one another, they made up fake identities for each student. Playing this part and living the life of an alter ego was not only lucrative, but a lot of fun, as well, as you can imagine the adrenalin rush these kids had. For example, Semyon Dukach, a talented team member, who was born in Russia, used his accent and pretend that he was an arms dealer with lots of money to spend.
The players never drank, fraternized with each other, or with anyone else for that matter. They never visited brothels or strip clubs on these gambits and followed very strict rules as to how they behaved because time was too valuable, and they needed to be at their best, mentally. If you broke the rules, you were off the team, and this worked well for a while, but kids will be kids, and it was ultimately not following the rules that brought them down.
Every team member had a specific role to play in the system, and they would signal each another in a language of hand gestures and coded conversation, like you may have seen in the movie 21 that depicted their stories. One factoid about the movie, though, is that while it was pretty accurate, the gestures in the movie were not the identical ones that the team actually used, nor were the code words the same. What was dead on accurate was the representation of the experience for the players, for instance when they suddenly arrived in Vegas and felt that feeling like the world was their playground. The real members of the team say that this was the most moving part about watching the movie—remembering the feeling of power and opportunity.
And an opportunity it was. Flying back to Boston after a successful weekend, team members would have to hide their winnings to get it through security. Because it was a cash only business, tens of thousands of dollars had to be smuggled through the airport. Packs of money were strapped to their bodies and jammed into their pockets! But they didn’t win every time, as there were some pretty big losses from time to time, and some would even return empty handed and utterly disappointed.
ALL GOOD THINGS COME TO AN END
Like most people in their twenties, the MIT team thought they were bullet-proof. Eventually, though, carelessness would take them down. They lost their discipline and became complacent. The teams started to relax and have fun with each other out in public rather than adhering to the rules of their system. Instead of acting like they didn’t know each other, they were basking in their glory and partying together. What ultimately brought them down was a total chance spotting of some of them fooling around together at a Las Vegas hotel pool. Vegas is a small town, so it wasn’t long before their cover was blown.
Ironically, it was intelligence that helped the team beat the system, and it was intelligence and their own field of technology that ultimately bought them down. The casinos had hired the best in security surveillance to investigate the team, the Griffin Investigation Agency. This agency discovered that all these big blackjack winners were coming from the Cambridge area of Boston, Massachusetts, and it wasn’t long before the connection was made. With the aid of MIT Yearbooks and facial recognition detection technology, the players were abruptly stopped in their tracks, as investigators put an end to their fun. 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.”
By that point, some of the students were meeting with professional makeup artists, but the disguises weren’t enough in the end. Wigs, baseball caps, even colored contacts could not fool the security officers who had kicked them out before and taken their photos. While it was over for them, as a team, some still played individually in casinos outside of Las Vegas.
Andy Bloch, Kati Lillenkamp, and Semyon Dukach decided to take a three-week junket and use their system of card counting in many of the best European casinos. They had great success in London and Paris. In Monte Carlo, they were winning big, but when Lillenkamp got up and left the table, security would not let her return, and before they knew it, Bloch and Dukach had security agents surrounding their tables, as well. All three of them had their photos taken and a call was placed to the Griffin Agency, as the agency’s database had gone worldwide on the Internet in order to prevent the team members from succeeding in fooling any other casinos. They were marked as known card counters and were told to leave Monaco immediately. They were also asked to never come back.
Andy Bloch has said, “Once your face gets in the database as a known card counter, unless you want to have surgery, your career is pretty much over to any casino that subscribes to this database.”
One thing you might not know is that, at its pinnacle, the MIT team had as many as 80 players, but getting busted wasn’t the worst thing that happened to them. Since the end of their reign on Las Vegas, a great deal of money has been made off their story, as books, movies, and documentaries have told and re-told the incredible tale, depicting all the likely scenarios that may or may not have occurred during the time that the MIT students had their run. There’s just something so enthralling about the whole idea of these guys being smart enough to beat the casinos like that, and it’s all true. Had they not have been kids and been a bit more mature about the whole operation, they might not have been taken down, but there’s an old saying that all good things must come to an end.