In Las Vegas, the house always wins — unless you're a math whiz from MIT.
Through the years, a group of math students at the world-famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology has focused their considerable brain power on a very extracurricular activity: gambling — specifically blackjack.
The students realized that blackjack was the only beatable game in casino gambling — and beat it they did. By the 1990s, the team — whose membership rotated over the years — was making regular trips to Las Vegas and winning big.
"They took over $400,000 in one weekend out of the casinos in Las Vegas," says Gordon Adams, a casino security investigator.
The team used a method known as card-counting, which helps players predict when the cards being dealt will be favorable to them. By knowing which cards have been spent and which ones remain in the shoe, savvy players can keep a running "count" which works as a rough predictor of how many high cards are left. High cards work to a player's benefit because they boost the odds that they will beat the dealer.
The MIT players were not the first to count cards. But they used their math expertise — and advanced computer models — to hone their skills to a devastatingly effective science. They wrote computer programs to devise the best strategy for specific situations, then updated their data with real-life experience.
"After a trip to Vegas, we would enter all the information about what happened into the computers," remembers Semyon Dukach, a student who was a member of the team in the early 1990s.
New members of the team were "trained" for weeks or months, starting on MIT's Cambridge, Mass., campus, then getting experience in backroom card games in Boston's Chinatown. Then they would be sent to Vegas, where they would start out as a "mule" carrying cash, then work their way up in the team's hierarchy.
The team visited Las Vegas regularly, peaking in the 1990s with trips nearly every weekend.
When they hit a casino, they would first deploy a counter to sit in on a table and track the cards. When the counter calculated that the high cards were coming up, he or she would secretly signal the team's designated "big bettor" to the table, using code words to signal how "positive" the shoe was.
The big bettor would then start wagering large amounts of money until the counter would signal that the shoe was no longer "hot."
The High Life
Card-counting is not illegal and is not considered cheating. But casinos, being private establishments, can eject and ban anyone they feel is a threat to their bankroll — whether they're cheating illegally or counting cards legally.
The casinos employ specialized security agencies to spot potential cheats and card counters. Knowing their work was verboten in the casinos, the MIT team assumed different aliases to avoid detection.
The identities they chose were "high rollers," regular gamblers whose heavy betting makes the casinos court them vigorously. Dukach used his Eastern European heritage as inspiration for his cover.
"For a good year almost every weekend, I went to Caesar's Palace as Nikolai Nogoff who was a Russian arms dealer," he recalls. "I never said I was an arms dealer, but it was implied."
Even while using assumed identities under the watchful eye of Vegas and its security dragnet, the team lived it up on its trips to Sin City. They were given tickets to all the shows and soldout fights. They would party all night with strippers. "It was a blast," Dukach says.
"The whole experience in a lot of ways was surreal," remembers another MIT student, whose experience as a member of the team in the mid-1990s is recounted in the book Bringing Down the House, by author Ben Mezrich.
"All this stuff was free," added the student, whom the book identifies by the pseudonym Kevin Lewis. "Rooms with two floors and their own pools. And I stayed in rooms with their own butlers. My own butler, and I didn't know what to do with him."
"Lewis" — an Internet executive who requests anonymity when talking about his days on the blackjack team — even dated a cheerleader for the Los Angeles Rams for a time.
The Party's Over
It was not long, however, before the agencies started spotting the kids from MIT and tracking them.
"We'll see them here. We'll see them there. And then, look, the same girl's on the table. Look, this same guy is on the table," recalls Beverly Griffin, owner of a firm that tracked unwanted players for many of the Vegas casinos and published their photographs in an index known as The Griffin Book.
Griffin's investigators began to put Cambridge addresses to the faces they kept seeing at the tables. And then they thought to look one step further — at MIT yearbooks.
"We were able to identify positively quite a few of them from the yearbooks," says Adams, one of Griffin's investigators.
Soon, the team began to be recognized by security guards at casinos all across town and asked to leave, thrown out of the nice suites and denied the luxury perks.
"Lewis" remembers security guards at the New York, New York casino telling him, "We can't let you play blackjack here anymore. … You're too good for us and if you try to play blackjack, we'll have to arrest you for trespassing."
Eventually all the doors to all the casinos they had won from were closed.
For "Lewis" and the other members of the team, the game was up. They had won millions of dollars, but their playing days were effectively over.
Mezrich's book is being turned into a movie produced by Kevin Spacey. "MGM is making the movie," Mezrich says, "which is ironic, considering that MGM is one of the casino systems that these guys beat for so much money."
Turn a loss of hundreds of thousands to the MIT team into potential millions from a movie about it. One is tempted to say that the old adage is true after all — the house always wins.