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.

Brian Molony

Brian Molony is a self-confessed compulsive gambler, who was paroled in 1986 after serving a little over two years of a six-year prison sentence for embezzling millions of dollars from his former employer, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Formerly an assistant bank manager, Molony stole £10.2 million from the Toronto bank to fund gambling sprees in Atlantic City, New Jersey and Las Vegas, Nevada, where he bet, and almost invariably lost, millions of dollars at a time.

Known as ‘Mr. M’ to casino staff, Molony reputedly visited all 297 casinos in Las Vegas and, in 15 months, visited his venue of choice, Caesars Boardwalk Regency in Atlantic City, 37 times. Following his final visit, during which he lost $1.4 million, he was arrested on his way home from the airport as part of an investigation into a bookmaking ring, although his employer apparently knew nothing of his fraudulent activity until informed by the police. Molony later described his obsession as ‘insidious, destructive and exhilarating’.

His story is chronicled in the 1987 book, ‘Stung: The Incredible Obsession of Brian Molony’, and inspired the 2003 film, ‘Owning Mahowny’, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Indeed, director Richard Kwietniowski held a private meeting with Molony before shooting started.

Dominic LoRiggio

Dominic LoRiggio, otherwise known as ‘The Dominator’ and ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’, is a professional craps player, who claims to have perfected a method of ‘dice control’ which, if he is to be believed, transforms the apparently random act of rolling dice into something altogether more skilful. Allegedly, by holding and releasing dice in a certain way, a shooter can discourage spinning and rolling and thereby reduce the probability of throwing a seven from 16.67% to 16.05%; the advantage so gained is equivalent to that achieved by counting cards in blackjack.

LoRiggio has featured in several television documentary series, including ‘Breaking Vegas’ on the History Channel and claims to have been banned from numerous casinos, including most of those in Las Vegas. LoRiggio also offers a ‘Golden Touch Craps Training DVD’, along with training seminars and private lessons for those that believe in, and wish to learn, dice control. However, critics suggest that, while dice control may be possible, at least to some extent, the rules of casino craps – which require a shooter to bounce the dice off the back wall of the craps table – are sufficient to negate any advantage that might otherwise have been gained.