MIT Blackjack Team

The exploits of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Blackjack Team inspired the bestselling book, ‘Bringing Down the House’, written by Ben Mezrich and, in turn, the Columbia Pictures film, ‘21’, starring Kevin Spacey and Jim Sturgess. According to Mike Aponte, who first played on the real MIT Blackjack Team in 1992, both the book and the film take artistic liberties.

In any event, the MIT Blackjack Team was a small group of students and former students, recruited not just from Harvard Business School, but from colleges throughout Boston and further afield, involved in card counting in the casinos of Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Under the strict supervision of Bill Kaplan, a Harvard graduate who had deferred his entry to Harvard Business School to form a highly profitable blackjack team in Las Vegas, the team was run like a business.

The original investment, $89,000, financed internally and externally, was doubled within the first ten weeks of operation in 1980 and four years later, when Kaplan ceased managing the team, the total invested in the enterprise had risen to $350,000. The MIT Blackjack Team continued to grow, and prosper, until 1994, when it split into two groups, known as ‘Amphibians’ and ‘Reptiles’, which continued, in various guises, until the turn of the Millennium.

Edward Thorp

American mathematics professor Edward Oakley Thorp is famous in gambling circles as the author of the 1962 book, ‘Beat the Dealer’, which is nowadays billed ‘The book that made Las Vegas change the rules’. Shortly after being awarded his doctorate in mathematics by the University of California, Los Angeles in 1958, Thorp played blackjack in Las Vegas. He realised that, unlike other games of chance, each hand of blackjack is influenced by the cards already dealt from the deck and set about developing a winning system based on mathematical probability.

After several years of academic research, during which he used computer simulations to calculate the precise probabilities of winning or losing for decks of various composition and number, Thorp first published his conclusions in an academic paper, ‘A Favorable Strategy for 21’. His work attracted the attention of Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Kimmel – unbeknown to Thorpe an illegal bookmaker with Mafia connections – who offered him $10,000 to take an ‘applied research’ trip to Las Vegas, in return for 10% of any winnings. Thorp naively accepted and duly won $13,000 in the space of a few days. The following year, Thorp published the first edition of ‘Beat the Dealer’, which introduced card counting and basic blackjack strategy to the masses and has been a bestseller ever since.

Doyle Brunson

Doyle Brunson, otherwise known as ‘Texas Dolly’ and the ‘Godfather of Poker’, finally announced his retirement from poker, professionally and recreationally, in June, 2018, less than two months shy of his eighty-fifth birthday. In modern terms, his total live earnings of $6.2 million are fairly modest, but his achievements in World Series of Poker (WSOP) tournaments – which, by his own admission, he ‘never cared for’ – are anything but.

All told, Brunson won ten WSOP bracelets, including the WSOP Main Event twice, in 1976 and 1977, which puts him in a tie for second place, alongside Johnny Chan and Phil Ivey and behind only Phil Hellmuth, in the all-time list. In fact, on both occasions Brunson won the WSOP Main Event, he was dealt 10-2 in the final hand, but hit a full house on the river card to take the title; thus, 10-2 is immortalised as the ‘Doyle Brunson’ hand.

Inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1988, Brunson may longer be playing WSOP tournaments, but still plays high-stakes cash games in Bobby’s Room at Bellagio, Las Vegas. At the WSOP First Fifty Honors [sic] Gala in 2019, he was named one of the four most important players in WSOP history.