By Henry Tamburin
Bringing Down The House by Ben Mezrich, a book the describes how a team of MIT students won millions playing blackjack, has sparked a lot of interest from the general public in blackjack and in particular card counting. The book was a NY Times bestseller and it was made into a movie (“21”). Because of all this publicity about the MIT team and their accomplishments, I’ve been receiving a lot more inquiries about how this team of students was able to pull off their big score. Here is how they did it.
First off, they didn’t cheat. They basically learned the following skills- the basic playing strategy, card counting, and team play – to win at blackjack.
Basic strategy is simply a set of rules that tells you the best way to play every hand dealt to you. For example, one of the basic strategy plays is to always split aces and 8’s no matter what the dealer’s upcard. You can find the basic strategy in blackjack books (including my Blackjack: Take The Money & Run) and it is a pre-requisite for winning at blackjack.
Next the MIT team members learned a card counting system. This is a way to keep track of the cards as they are played after a shuffle. A grouping of cards, for example the 2 through 6’s, are assigned a value or tag of plus 1. Likewise the high cards – tens, picture cards and aces – have a minus 1 tag. They add and subtract the tags for each card that is played from the shuffled deck(s) to arrive at a sum known as the running count. The more positive the running count, the more high cards are left in the undealt cards which gave them the advantage, so they bet more (often tens of thousands). When the running count was negative, they bet less because there was an abundance of small cards left in the undealt cards a situation which gave the house a decided advantage. The team members, therefore, waited for the deck to get good before they bet large sums of money.
The member of the MIT team did not play solo much like most card counters would do. They went one step further by using spotters, Big Players, and a team bank. Here’s how this works.
Several spotters would enter a casino and position themselves at different blackjack tables. They counted and when the count went positive, they wouldn’t increase their bets, but rather signal another team member (known as the BP or Big Player) to enter the game with big bets. The BP continues to bet big until the spotter gives another signal that the deck has gone bad (or negative) and then the BP leaves the table. The BP basically wanders around the casino waiting for another call-in from a spotter.
Because the spotters always bet the minimum on every hand the casino is less likely to finger them as card counters. The BP acts and appears as just another high roller as he enters the game making large bets hand after hand. Depending on how high the count was when he’s signaled in to the game, the BP’s edge can be quite high.
The BP must know the spotter’s signals. For example here’s a few signals mentioned in the book: Arms folded across chest means the deck is warm; Arms folded behind the back indicates the deck is hot; Hands in the pockets indicate the deck is even hotter;
Running hand through hair means something is wrong – get out of the casino – fast!
Besides the physical signals, their team also used oral signals to indicate to the BP what the count was so the BP knew how much to bet. These oral signals were key words that they would use in a sentence. For example, tree meant a count of plus 1. Stool was plus 3, bowling was plus 10. So if the spotter said something like “I’d rather be bowling right now” that indicated to the BP that the count was plus 10 and. Therefore. he knew how much to bet.
Probably the biggest weapon the MIT team had going was a team bankroll. Not only did each player put up a sum of money, but investors had invested in the team. With one large team bank, every player on the team used this one combined, large bankroll as if it were his or her individual bankroll. This in turn allowed the MIT team players to bet larger amounts of money with the same risk compared to playing solo. And the greater amount of money that a card counter can get on the table, the more money he or she stands to win. This is what makes blackjack teams so powerful.
Here’s an example of how a team bank works compared to a card counter that plays alone. Suppose Player A plays solo with a $5,000 bankroll and wagers up to a $100 per hand when the advantage shifts in his favor. His earning potential as a card counter is $25 per hour.
Player B joins Player A to form a team. Their combined bank is $10,000 allowing each player to increase their maximum bet from $100 to $200. The team of two players profit potential is now $100 per hour so each player averages $50 per hour profit, twice the earnings compared to playing solo.
As a general rule the profit potential of a team of skilled players is equal to the profit potential of each individual if playing solo times the number of players on the team squared. So if a card counter has the potential to earn $25 per hour playing blackjack, this is what he could earn playing on a team.
Solo Earnings Potential Number of Team Players Individual Earnings on Team
$25/hr 2 $50/hr.
$25/hr 3 $75/hr
$25/hr 4 $100/hr.
$25/hr 5 $125/hr.
The more members on the team the more money a card counter stands to earn. And of course the more you money you wager the higher the individual earnings.
Playing on a team also smoothes out the bumps in the road and makes the negative swings more manageable and tolerable. Teams also play more hands per hour compared to a solo player so they will get into the “long run” a lot quicker. This means that the probability is higher that a team of players will be ahead after playing x hours compared to a solo player playing the same x hours.
The life of a card counter can be lonely, especially when they are losing. But when they are playing on a team and have a disastrous losing day, members often provide support and sympathize with their plight (this is clearly brought out in the book). There is also the possibility that even though one member of a team lost, other team members have won. Secondly, having a group of individuals trying to achieve the same goal (winning x amount of money) often provides an uplifting psychological advantage. Thirdly, team players are more apt to share intelligence about games with better rules and penetration which makes winning easier for all team members.
It took months and months of practice before the MIT team members were ready to take on the casinos. And even though they won money in the long run, over a few days and weeks of play they took their lumps, which is normal for card counting. Their key to success was their understanding of risk and return and their large bankroll.
By the way, in early 2010, American Casino Guide author, Steve Bourie, interviewed Mike Aponte of the MIT Blackjack Team. They discussed how Mike first became involved with the team; how they operated; his role on the team; and their biggest success. Mike also explained what he did after the team broke up; what he is doing today; and his best advice for blackjack players.
To listen to that interview, go to the Casino Gambling Podcasts section and look for the March 2010 interview.
Henry Tamburin has been a respected casino gambling writer for the past 50 years. He is the author of the Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Guide and was editor of the Blackjack Insider newsletter. You can read his latest articles on blackjack, video poker, and his personal playing experiences at