Really smart guys are unlikely Las Vegas wise guys. But a group of MIT students defied the odds. They beat the blackjack tables for hundreds of thousands of dollars. They might still be doing it, but for something few tourists know about Las Vegas: Consistent winners are told to get lost.
The exploits of the MIT Blackjack Team, said to have been the most feared group of gamblers on earth a decade ago, is chronicled in the History Channel special Breaking Vegas, a fast-paced documentary that's as entertaining as a feature film.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology students didn't break Las Vegas. Given the casinos' vast resources -- most are now owned by blue-chip conglomerates -- and their exclusionary attitude toward successful gamblers, that wasn't going to happen. But they did dent it pretty well until they were hounded out of business.
Breaking Vegas is not only fun, it could be profitable. The MIT system, a refined version of card-counting, could be instantly mastered and utilized by casual players heading to Las Vegas or even to one of the locally based floating casinos.
The key is that blackjack, unlike other casino games, is only partially a game of chance. No matter how many times a number hits in roulette, the odds of it coming up again in the next spin don't change. Same goes for the craps table. However, the odds in blackjack fluctuate according to the cards already dealt until the deck or decks are reshuffled.
The MIT formula was to break cards into three groups: from 2 to 6 were assigned a value of plus 1; 10s through aces were tabulated as minus 1; 7s, 8s, and 9s were neutral with no value. The team made minimal bets when the total was low and increased their wagers as the running sum exceeded plus 5. It's explained for neophytes why this is a winning strategy.
Alas, card-counting is easier in theory than in practice, given the distractions of a casino. So Mr. M, the nervous, self-styled nutty professor who assembled a colorful team of fortune-seekers and nerds aspiring to be cool, subjected candidates to a boot camp-like training regimen. As they tried to maintain their count, loud music was played, drinks were spilled and attractive members of the opposite sex came onto them. In one extreme test, a bucket of ice was dumped on them from behind, the way an unsuspecting football coach is nailed after a big victory.
This was merely to qualify to get into the game. Staying in it was more daunting, because of the intense scrutiny of casino tables. The better a player fares, the more closely he or she is monitored. As a result, the MIT team also had to become actors and masters of disguise.
Card counting is technically legal, because all it does is shift the odds from the casino's favor to the player's. It's still possible to have long losing streaks, as the MIT team did. However, casinos, which are really poor losers, regard it as cheating and treat those caught as if they are members of al-Qaida. When the mob ran Las Vegas, card-counters would disappear in the desert. Corporate owners don't play that rough, but they use menacing goons to intimidate card-counters into fearing that they might.
The rewards make the travails worthwhile. Until they are identified as undesirables, big players -- "whales" in gambling jargon -- are treated like visiting royalty. Even as the MIT team was winning big, the casinos were housing them in suites that make Trump Tower look like tenement flats. The finest in food and drink was on the house. A story is told of one big player who got a casino to spring for an elaborate wedding.
However, nowhere is the thin line between love and hate so explicit as in the relationship between casinos and players. A whale identified as a regular winner, especially if it involves suspected card-counting, is not just banished from one casino. His or her picture, description and other identifying traits are dispatched to gambling operations around the globe in a fat volume known as the Griffin Book. Every member of the MIT Blackjack Team is in it. That's almost as cool as being one of Ocean's 11.