Blackjack, also known as 21, is the one of the few casino games in which skill plays a part. This fact has encouraged “card counters” to improve their odds through card tracking and betting strategies.
Perhaps the most well known group of card counters was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) blackjack team, the center of the new film 21 starring Kevin Spacey. Based on the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich, the film follows five students who challenged Vegas casinos in 1993 with their ability to improve their odds in blackjack though strategy and mathematics. The origins of the team began in 1979 when a mini-course called “How to Gamble if you Must” was introduced at the school. Hoping to win their fortunes, the students headed to Atlantic City where they initially met with failure. The group then disbanded, heading their separate ways. However, interest within the MIT community still surrounded the idea of intellectually beating the casinos in the prospect of winning millions.
In 1980, a more organized team was formed with the guidance of Harvard Business School student Bill Kaplan, who had achieved some success in running card counting groups. He insisted the only way to achieve success was to run the operation like a “business” and would only lead the group if done so. From there an initial investment of $90,000 was attained and within two and a half months the team had more than doubled their profits. The team continued for several years, gaining and losing members mostly thought the MIT student body. Most of the team was made up of either Asian or Middle Eastern students, because, as one prominent team member told author Mezrich: “When you’re recruiting, you don’t recruit white kids. They look conspicuous. Asian kids, Greek kids, dark skin fits in better with lots of money in the casinos. White 20-year-olds with $2 million bankrolls stand out. A geeky Asian kid with $100,000 in his wallet didn’t raise any eyebrows.”
The novel Bringing Down the House and its film counterpart 21 focuses on the 1993 resurgence of the team, when Kaplan, J.P. Massar and John Chang decided to open up a new partnership named Strategic Investments. Garnishing an initial investment of over $1 million, the largest to date, they set off for Las Vegas. Although they won millions of dollars, the team eventually had to disband after being identified by the casinos as card counters and banned.