MIT Blackjack Team Fact or Cinema
Humans, by nature, love the thrill of a good chase; including the chase for money and success. This is why movies and books about gambling do so well. There was a movie in 2008 that did very well called “21.” The movie was mostly fictional, but it was based off of real life events. There was a team that had MIT students and included students from Princeton as well as from Harvard that chased the money and beat the house at blackjack. They did this by becoming card counting teams. In real life there were multiple teams and they were formed and worked from 1979 until the early 1990s. They were set up like a business and their business definitely made money.
The man who brainstormed and began this group was not an M.I.T graduate or professor. Bill Kaplan was a Harvard Business School graduate. Kaplan ran a Las Vegas blackjack team on the side while he was in school. When he graduated in May of 1980 his players had hit a wall in Nevada. He choose to move to the international circuit. He thought that he could run a gambling team as a business and pulled his partners J.P. Massar and John Chang into it. John Chang, an original player and influence on the team, graduated from M.I.T in 1985. J.P. Massar was also M.I.T alum. The business model was built around a model that Kaplan had used for a team he had run in Vegas the three years before.
Bill Kaplan brought in J.P. Massar and some of his M.I.T. friends. They trained Chang on the system in 1982. They enlisted players with flyers and through current team member’s friends all over the country. The leaders tried out possible associates to find a good fit. Then the new player would be trained by the team for free. Trainees had to face intense scrutiny and play almost perfectly to undergo even more training. Then, they would be tried out in a casino and become full members of the team.
These three men set up a company called Strategic Investments. This allowed them to accrue venture capital. They were able to raise one million dollars for beginning cost in their business venture. This company finally disbanded in 1993 because of players who were banned and long losing streaks.
After Strategic Investments died, a former player, Semyon Dukach, began Amphibian Investments. He ran teams over five cities that had a total of sixty players. They gained over four million dollars during their run, which made them the most effective M.I.T. team.
In the movie,”21,” the main character was Ben Campbell. He was based off of a real student named Jeff Ma. The character in the movie wanted the money so that he could go to medical school. In real life Jeff Ma had wanted to go to Harvard Medical but he didn’t need to play blackjack to earn the money. In Jeff Ma’s life blackjack, and the money he was able to make from it, actually made him choose against medical school. The movie also fictionalized a few things about his background. For instance, his mother’s life savings wasn’t pooled so that he could go to medical school. His father was also quite alive and well where he was dead in the movie. The fact is that Jeff Ma brought his parents and his sister to the premier of “21” as his guests. Another of the fictionalized aspects in the movie was a love interest for the main character of Ben. Jill had been another player on the team that Ben had fallen for. The character was based off of Jane Willis; a woman Jeff Ma had recruited onto the team. He was friends with both her and her boyfriend and these two friends never shared anything more than friendship.
In the movie “21,” a casino security expert is brought in to investigate the team. In the real world a company was hired. The M.I.T. teams were brought to the attention of Griffin Investigations, which was an international security agency. This agency has been used by casinos worldwide. A man by the name of Andy Anderson worked on the case for almost five years and was a major reason the strategy for the M.I.T. teams was exposed. The teams would have a member placing low bets until a table got hot; then their partners would come over and play higher bets until the table went cold. Anderson also helped to get many members of the teams blackballed from the casinos. This didn’t stop the most dedicated members though. John Chang dressed up like a woman to continue playing. He shaved his head and added a wig. This worked when he played in the Bahamas but he was caught when he played in Atlantic City. The team members say that security was usually nice about the situation. They would be tapped on the shoulder and told they were welcome to play any game at the casino but blackjack. This was not always the case. One couple was arrested in the Bahamas for counting cards and their stake, they brought with them was confiscated along with their winnings. They were released but they did not return to work for the teams.
Another character from the movie was known as Fisher. He has a real life alter ego by the name of Mike Aponte. Aponte would agree, one of the points the movie got right, was that the M.I.T. teams would carry money on their bodies to get through airport security. Mike said that if they carried chips in their carry- on bags, that security would not be able to tell how many chips they were carrying. However, the movie did not get everything correct. In the movie Fisher was seen being beaten by the head of security that was trying to catch the M.I.T. team. This didn’t happen. Aponte has said in numerous interviews that he was never manhandled by security. Aponte is one of the players that started his own team after Strategic Investments was shut down. He continued playing the game until he was blocked from playing in most casinos. Today he is still earning his livelihood from the game. He has moved over to the other side of the table. He is now training people how to play the game. Aponte also consults with the casinos. He is in fact working with some of the people who worked so diligently to stop the M.I.T. blackjack teams and put them out of business.