The most legendary team of blackjack players, which beat the casinos for millions of dollars, was the MIT team. Several books (Bringing Down the House, Busting Las Vegas, The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big in Business), movies (21 and The Last Casino), and numerous magazine stories and television shows have been written about their accomplishments. What follows is a summary of how the MIT team originated, and who were some of the more famous members of this team.
It all started in 1979 when a group of poker-playing MIT students decided to attend the short-term course, “How to Gamble if You Must,” to learn about blackjack. They learned card counting and started playing blackjack in Atlantic City; however, they didn’t do very well so they disbanded. Later, one of the team members (J. P. Massar) met up with another blackjack player, and they decided to form a team to take advantage of the Atlantic City regulation that forbade casinos from barring card counters. They recruited an investor, who bankrolled them with an alleged $5,000, and the two made a nice profit card counting. That’s when they decided to recruit more players to expand the team.
This new team decided to play in Atlantic City (mostly on weekends), and even though they were generating a profit, some members decided to leave because it was hard for them to handle (emotionally) the pressure of large losing sessions that can, and did, occur, and the inconsistent earnings.
All this changed when Massar met Harvard graduate Bill Kaplan, who had moved to Las Vegas and was running his own blackjack team for a profit using his statistical analysis of the game. The two formed a new blackjack team, consisting mostly of Massar’s team players, with this proviso: Kaplan would run it as a business with strict management procedures, and a new playing system that required player training that included “check-out procedures.”
This new MIT Team (circa 1980), armed with highly skilled players and an alleged $89,000 bankroll, played in Las Vegas and doubled their initial team bankroll in ten weeks. (Undergraduate students, who were members of this team, were earning an average of about $80 per hour.) This team continued to recruit new players (about 30), and continued playing and beating the casinos throughout the 1980s.
The next big event that occurred in the history of the MIT team was when Bill Kaplan, J. P. Massar, and John Chang formed Strategic Investments (a Massachusetts limited partnership) to capitalize on the opening of the new Foxwoods Casino in nearby Connecticut. The limited partnership raised a million dollars from investors who bankrolled this new MIT team. They used the following playing strategy.
A “spotter” sat at a table and card counted. When the count became positive, he or she would signal a “controller,” who entered the game betting small while confirming the spotter’s count. When the confirmation was made, the controller would signal a big player (BP), who entered the game making very large bets when the count was favorable. Sarah McCoran, an MIT student, joined the team around1983 as a partner who was responsible for training and recruiting players on the West Coast. (At this point, the team had grown to over 80 players.)
As profits were rolling in, heat from the casinos escalated to the point where many team members were barred from playing. Casino managers finally made the connection of this team of players to MIT, and with many of the team leaders barred, Strategic Investments dissolved the partnership (on December 31, 1993), and paid out profits to its investors. (According to Mike Aponte, Strategic Investments disbanded because they “didn’t do very well.”)
In 1994, some of the players split off into independent teams. Semyon Dukach (the Big Player) led one team (known as the Amphibians Team) along with Kaite Lilienkamp (Controller), and Andy Bloch (Spotter). Mike Aponte led another team (known as the Reptiles Team). These teams had million-dollar bankrolls, with a combined total of over 50 players, and were quite successful extracting money from casinos.
In 1984, Kaplan became so recognizable that it was difficult for him to play anymore so he left the team. Finally, around 2000, the MIT teams ceased playing and players went on to other careers.
MOST FAMOUS MIT MEMBERS (ALPHABETICAL)
Aponte joined the Strategic Investments team and he eventually formed the The Reptiles Team with Manilo Lopez and Mes Atamian. He won millions of dollars playing with the latter team, and in 2004, he won the World Series of Blackjack. He created the mikeaponte.com site, which includes information on his live virtual coaching, private blackjack training, and hands-on blackjack card counting classes.
Bloch holds two electrical engineering degrees from MIT, and a Juris Doctorate in Law from Harvard Law School. He is most famous as a successful professional poker player, who has won many poker tournaments. However, while at MIT, he joined the MIT Blackjack Team. Bloch was featured in the book Bringing Down Las Vegas (in one session he won $100,000 playing blackjack). Additionally, he was mentioned in the book Busting Vegas, as one of the MIT Team members who played in Monte Carlo. Bloch was also featured in the blackjack documentary “The Hot Shoe, “and in the blackjack card-counting training DVD, “Beating Vegas.”
Chang took over for Kaplan as manager of the MIT Team. He was also one of the partners that launched Strategic Investments. Chang is one of the most prolific professional players ever. In 2007, he was elected by his peers at the Blackjack Ball to become a member of the prestigious Blackjack Hall of Fame. Chang frequently attends the annual Blackjack Ball.
Lori Chang (Tsao)
Wife of John Chang (also known as Lori Tsao), she was a long-time member and manager of the MIT Team.
Dukach was born in Russia and studied at Columbia University and later MIT. He was part of the Strategic Investments Team (1992), and later became leader of the team. He was the main character in the book Busting Vegas, which chronicled the MIT team’s experiences. Once Strategic Investments ended, he formed his own team (known as Amphibians Investments), which used not only card counting but also other advanced blackjack playing techniques like card sequencing. He stopped playing professionally in the late 1990s but continues to speak at events, coaching players in blackjack techniques, and formed the Blackjack Science website.
Kaplan was an MBA graduate from Harvard. After reading the classic book Beat the Dealer, by Ed Thorp, Kaplan started card counting in Las Vegas and eventually ran a successful blackjack team there (1977). He later met with Massar and together they formed the original MIT Team. Kaplan was the catalyst that introduced new scientific-based playing strategies and management techniques that raised the level of success for the team. After he left the team, he launched several businesses that became very successful, which made him much more money than he probably would have made by continuing to play/manage blackjack teams.
J. P. Massar (aka Jeff Ma)
Massar was one of a handful of MIT students in 1979 who attended the MIT short-course “How to Gamble if You Must.” He formed, what most claim, the first MIT blackjack team composed of MIT students. He took a one-year break from school, moved to Las Vegas to begin playing there as a card counter. He eventually met with Kaplan and together they formed a new MIT Team that was very successful. For a period of ten years, he was with this team. It was Massar’s story about the MIT Team in the novel Bringing Down the House that formed the basis of the movie 21. After his stint with the MIT Team, Massar became an incredibly successful entrepreneur, and also a Predictive Analytics Expert for ESPN (2014). He also wrote the book The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big in Business.
Willis is a math genius, a 1991 graduate of Harvard University, and one of the most successful spotters on the MIT Team. She was quoted as saying that her presence on the team is what probably allowed them to go undetected for so long, mainly because “casinos don’t necessary think that women are good at math.” After her stint with the MIT Team, she went to law school and works for a law firm on Litigation and Enforcement. In 2018, Best Lawyers named her as “Lawyer of the Year”.
There have been other MIT Team members who have achieved some fame. In 1999, one team member, “MIT Ted,” won the third annual Blackjack Ball competition. (He also earned the title of “Most Feared Man in the Casino Business.”) Additionally, Nathaniel Tilton, a student of former team leaders Mike Aponte and Semyon Dukach, wrote the book The Blackjack Life, which contained details of his playing and training experience with the MIT Team.
Note: As a long-time invitee to the Blackjack Ball, I had the privilege of meeting several members of the MIT Team. They are a great group of men and women, who legally beat the casinos at their own game. To learn more about card counting, and some of the techniques used by professional players, read Chapter 10 in my Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Guide.