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The MIT blackjack team has become famous worldwide for their success at beating the game of blackjack in the casinos of Las Vegas. Even people who are unfamiliar with blackjack and gambling know the story of the MIT students, thanks in large part to the popular movie 21. The movie 21 was based on the book Bringing Down The House by Ben Mezrich. The 2008 film starring Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne was largely panned by the critics, but audiences found it to be entertaining and 21 grossed more than $157 million dollars worldwide.
While 21 did much to glamorize Mezrich’s book and the MIT blackjack team, the true story behind this gifted group of college blackjack players is somewhat lost in the translation to the big screen. Hollywood thrives on drama, and the glamorization of the MIT blackjack team was the goal of the film. In reality, many parts of the actual story have little to do with the bright lights of Las Vegas and the high-rolling lifestyle. On many blackjack websites you will find a brief summary of the MIT team, and most of those summaries are just a recap of the movie. Counting Edge is about to take you behind all of the hype and beyond all of the glitz and glamour to reveal the accurate story of the whiz kids who became legendary card counters.
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In reality, the MIT blackjack team was not founded by an MIT professor, nor was it the brainchild of one man as depicted in the film. Three former MIT students lead the blackjack team at various points in the team’s history. In fact, the MIT blackjack team wasn’t born at MIT at all. It was all started by a Harvard graduate.
The year was 1980 and Harvard business school graduate Bill Kaplan had been successfully using the card counting techniques presented by Edward Thorp in his book Beat the Dealer for three years. Kaplan had successfully managed blackjack teams that were very successful in the Las Vegas casinos. With the advent of casino gambling in Atlantic City, Bill Kaplan decided to form a team on the East Coast to take advantage of this new goldmine. It just so happened that the first blackjack players recruited by Kaplan for his new team were from MIT.
“JP Massar and a couple of his MIT friends were the first players I trained and brought on board,” says Kaplan. “I brought JP on to co-manage with me about a year later and we ran the Team through the mid-1980s. One of the players we trained in late 1982 and 1983 was John Chang.”
Massar and Chang were the core members of the team. Massar was an MIT graduate who led the team in its early stages. John Chang was also a leader and member of the original blackjack team. Chang graduated from MIT in 1985 with an engineering degree. These three mean formed the basis of the team, but as time went on more members were added. While a few of these members came from MIT, all of them did not. The team included members from Harvard and Princeton as well.
As time went on, Kaplan and his team introduced more members. Two of these members became the inspiration for Mezrich’s book and the popular movie..
When 21 hit the movie theaters it immediately unleashed a firestorm of controversy among those who knew the real story of the MIT blackjack team. In the movie, the principal members of the team are Caucasians. The truth, however, is that the most successful members of the MIT blackjack team were Asians. Two of them became the major stars of the team.
Jeff Ma was the real-life Ben Campbell. Jeff Ma came from a very affluent family. Ma had a desire to attend Harvard Medical School, like his character in the film, but that dream was soon derailed when Ma realized he could make far more money counting cards at blackjack. Ma was well-versed in the theories developed by Thorp and his brain assimilated card counting with the speed and proficiency of a super computer.
While many of the actual members of the MIT blackjack team publicly criticized the movie, Jeff Ma was more understanding about Hollywood’s need to glamorize the story. In fact, Ma even has a small role in the film. He plays a dealer named Jeffery who is referred to by Campbell as “my brother from another mother.” Jeff Ma attended the premiere of the movie with his entire family.
After his blackjack playing days were over, Jeff Ma founded the sports stock market website Protrade. Jeff Ma no longer plays blackjack for a living but his interest in gambling remains strong.
Mike Aponte was recreated in the movie 21 as the obnoxious and cocky character named Jimmy Fisher. In reality, Aponte was nothing like the Fisher character. Aponte was a level-headed and smart student who also displayed an ability to execute Thorp’s card counting methods.
In one regard the film is somewhat accurate. Mike Aponte did in fact recruit Jeff Ma for the MIT blackjack team. The two students had been friends for a long time and Aponte was the one who taught Jeff Ma how to play blackjack and count cards. There was no rivalry between them at all. Both Aponte and Ma were both concerned with making a lot of money playing blackjack, and they succeeded.
As a youngster, Mike Aponte never had a desire to play cards. Aponte was an army brat and his family moved many times due to his father’s obligations in the military. Mike was the valedictorian of his high school class despite having attended 11 different schools. When Aponte arrived at MIT to study economics he was soon approached by a fellow student who told him that some other students were participating in a blackjack team that was using card counting to make a lot of money.
Aponte says he was hooked on blackjack from the first moment he met the MIT blackjack team. It wasn’t long before Aponte became the Big Player of the team. The Big Player was the team member who displayed the greatest self-control at the blackjack table, not necessarily the best card counting abilities. Other players would signal Aponte when a table was hot, and he would then sit and assume the counting and betting responsibilities.
Mike Aponte was so good at his job that he eventually became a manager of the blackjack team at MIT. Aponte was responsible for recruiting and training new members. He continued to lead the team right up until 2000 and helped the MIT group to make millions of dollars in profit. In the real life story of the MIT blackjack team, Mike Aponte was the star.
After the MIT blackjack team dissolved, Mike Aponte continued to count cards professionally. He also won the first ever World Series of Blackjack tournament in 2004, proving that his blackjack card counting skills were still as sharp as ever. Today, Aponte teaches others how to count cards and beat the game of blackjack through an instructional website.
The actual workings of the MIT blackjack team have long been held in confidence by those who participated in the project, for obvious reasons. Some of the members of the team still play blackjack today. It would not serve them well if all of their methods were revealed. There is enough information, however, to fully describe the basic methods of the team.
The MIT blackjack team was led by a team manager. Bill Kaplan, JP Massar, and John Chang all served as team managers throughout the team’s history with other managers being introduced near the end of the MIT team’s run. Mike Aponte functioned for a short time in a dual role as the team manager and Big Player.
The team manager was not typically someone who participated in actual play. As a rule, managers of the MIT blackjack team were the ones responsible for organizing the playing sessions and making sure the players could get their large bankroll transported from place to place. It was often necessary for the players on the team to conceal large amounts of money on their bodies to avoid scrutiny by airport security officials. Had the money been discovered, many questions would have been asked. Most of these questions would have come from the Internal Revenue Service who would have wanted to know how college students could have so much money that was unaccounted for on their taxes.
The team would be strategically placed in various casinos by the team manager who oversaw the entire operation. If there was ever a problem with a member of the team, the team manager was the one to deal with it.
The second member of the team was the signaler, or prop. The job of the signaler was to locate blackjack tables which were hot. The signaler would sit down to play like any other blackjack player and bet only the table minimum. As they played these players would track the true count of the blackjack table. As soon as the count became very favorable, the signaler would then alert another member of the team by means of a gesture. In the movie, the signaler crossed their hands behind their back. It is unlikely that such a signal was ever used by the MIT team because it was too basic and too easy to spot.
One of the primary signalers on the MIT blackjack team was Jane Willis. In the movie 21, Willis was portrayed by actress Kate Bosworth. Willis was actually a graduate of Harvard and today she is a respected attorney. Willis would give the signal which would then introduce the final piece of the MIT blackjack team puzzle, the Big Player.
The job of the Big Player was very simple and straightforward. The Big Player came in when the count was very high and bet big. As soon as the deck cooled off, the Big Player was signaled once again by the signaler and would cash out their winnings.
While the Big Player had to also understand card counting and keep a true running count at the blackjack table, counting cards was not their primary responsibility. The Big Player was expected to control their emotions at all times. Self-discipline was a hallmark of the Big Player. Without it, the urge to gamble could easily take over and the MIT team would lose a large portion of their bankroll. In addition to this, the Big Player had to be an expert in evading the scrutiny of the casino bosses hired to catch card counters.
During the height of the MIT blackjack team’s successful run, Jeff Ma and Mike Aponte were the Big Players. These two young men deserve most of the credit for the team’s success.
21 depicts the MIT blackjack team as living a free-wheeling, high roller lifestyle that was all champagne and lap dances. Nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout their entire run, members of the team made every effort to fly under the radar. There were several reasons for this.
The most important reason was the fear of being caught and banned from the casinos. Casinos have never liked card counters, and they hire operatives who are given the specific task of catching card counters and punishing them. In today’s world, being caught counting cards will most likely get you banned from the casino. When the MIT team was playing blackjack, things weren’t always so cut and dried.
In the early days of casino gambling, especially in the casinos of Atlantic City where the MIT team made most of their money, being caught at the act of card counting often involved a trip to a windowless room in the casino where the “bulls” would interrogate the counters. These interrogations were often violent. A blackjack player who suffered the wrath of an interrogation was usually very happy to leave the casino and stop playing blackjack forever.
If the students from the MIT blackjack team had been partying and throwing large sums of money around, they would have been in the crosshairs of the casino bosses. Their risk of getting caught would have increased dramatically. It was in their best interest to keep quiet, do their job, and leave as quickly as possible.
Another factor which prohibited the MIT team from leading a lavish lifestyle is that many of them were still students pursuing degrees that required serious academic study. Getting kicked out of the casino was one thing, but getting kicked out of MIT was more serious. None of these brilliant students was going to risk this by staying drunk and partying all of the time. The simple fact is that the members of the MIT team were able to view their blackjack team as a business. They approached it with businesslike seriousness.
The team had a very successful run before playing out near the year 2000. Several factors ultimately contributed to the MIT team’s demise.
Casinos were becoming smarter in identifying and catching card counters. The greatest blow dealt by the casino was perhaps the introduction of facial identification software which can alert the casino bosses to the presence of a known counter.
By this time things had become so difficult for the MIT team that they were forced to don disguises in an attempt to conceal their identities. This worked well enough in the beginning, but as the facial recognition software became more advanced the disguises no longer worked.
The bottom line is that there came a time when the risk no longer equaled the reward. Besides, many of the MIT team members had completed their degrees and landed valuable jobs in the private sector. None of them were willing to ruin their career by being caught at card counting. Little by little the team members dropped out and resumed a normal career.
There were a few team members however who continued to play blackjack well after the MIT team was dissolved. John Chang was one of these. Chang made a very successful living as a professional card counter, and he actually still plays blackjack today. Chang has been caught counting cards many times and most often is forced to use elaborate disguises in order to enter the casino.
A few others, like Mike Aponte and Jeff Ma, are still involved in the gambling business. They no longer play professionally but use their skills in a variety of blackjack and gambling-related businesses. For some, like Jane Willis, blackjack is just a fond memory of their youth.
No matter what they are doing now, the members of the MIT blackjack team can always look back upon a time when they were the masters of the casino.
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