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What Was It Like to Be a Part of the MIT Blackjack Team?

06/03/2015 02:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

What was it like to be a part of the MIT Blackjack Team?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

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Answer by George Sawyer, One of the original founders of the MIT Blackjack team

Well, the whole thing was completely secret, for years and years and years.   It was something where you couldn't tell anyone. We were totally paranoid about security--it was an all-cash business-- and the casinos could throw you out at any time - so it was all hush hush. From the beginning in 1979, I never talked about it publicly  until after the movie came out in 2008.

In 1979 I lived in the kind of crummy housing you live in after college when you have your first job but haven't gotten paid yet - a Cambridge "triple decker" with no front door. I first heard about card counting when a kind of rough-looking guy who wasn't too clean with a backpack showed up at our apartment door looking for someone I'd never heard of  [someone whose name was on the lease from 5~6 years back].  Turned out the guy at the door, Dave, used to live in our apartment years ago, and was coming from Las Vegas to meet some MIT people about playing blackjack for money. One of my roommates knew the person Dave knew, so Dave got to sleep on the floor in the living room.

I was convinced the whole thing was a fraud - including Dave's story of playing with Ken Uston - whom I'd never heard of. That, and Dave's talk of anarchy and anarchists - it was very all entertaining in a "you aren't staying long, are you?" sort of way.  A couple of days later he introduced me to JP, who was 'the real deal' from a mathematical point of view.  JP had a master's in math, an elegant recursive computer model (which I understood), he had the numbers, he had all the math, he had a copy of Richard Epstein's The Theory of Gambling and Statistical Knowledge (which became like the bible to us). In a few days he convinced me, he gave the basic strategy and the sheet of numbers and I started memorizing and practicing.  And although some of the guys had jobs, I was the only one with money.

When we actually went to the casinos to play - those first few weeks and months - they were very chaotic. We had a $135 per week "hotel" room--technically it was a suite and had 4 or 5 beds?  It was a run-down building, walk up three or four flights of stairs.  Atlantic City was a real dump at that time: buildings that hadn't been maintained in decades, so everything outside the casinos was very cheap. We were all broke, so we were trying to live on the $5 a day per diem the team paid--that paid for one meal (calzone) unless you paid to ride the jitney bus to and from the casinos. There could be 8 to 12 people sleeping in that room on Friday and Saturday night.

At the beginning, our bank was too small to sit down and play the $25 tables at an acceptable level of risk (kelly criteria). At that time the casinos were so crowded that the $25 tables were the only ones at which you could - sometimes - get a seat without waiting.  When there were empty seats at a table some of us would stand a few feet from the table and "discreetly" keep the count and when the shoe went to +2 [true count] or better you would signal - put your hand on the back of your neck - and one of our roaming players would sit down and bet $25 (or more, depending on the count). As we won it got easier, especially when we could finally just sit down at the start of a new shoe and bet $25.

We figured you could play really well for an hour--that was your estimated attention span--so you would go to Resorts (for example), walk around until you found a table that looked good, maybe wait for a positive count, then sit down and play. We were all too young and tried to play inconspicuously, but we were 20-25 year old kids with thousands of dollars, and it stood out. After you had played for about an hour, you cashed out and went to the men's room where you sat in a stall and counted your money and filled in your player sheet, then you walked to the next casino (there were only two or three at the beginning) and did it again. We had check-ins where you'd meet the banker at certain times-- 11 pm or 2 am - usually in a gaming arcade on the boardwalk. You'd play Galaxian (video game) and when the banker arrived you'd report your cash position, and the banker might adjust our betting using the Kelly Criterion.   After a year or so we started to have "big players" so you would sit and flat bet at a table and someone's uncle would shill for us--a real adult who knew basic strategy and how to read our signals on betting.  We kept on doubling our bank and eventually accumulated over $100k.

At first we would play until we doubled our bank, we'd pay out profits (50% of the profits split among the investors, 50% split among the counters based on hours played) then we'd have a new bank.  When the amounts of money got big ($100k plus) the banks would last 90 days.  We had trouble running the team, some of the NY guys played a different system - one team played Hi Opt 1, one played Hi Low - we were all doing different stuff, it wasn't going smoothly.  I don't remember how we (or JP) found Bill, but once Bill arrived and we hired him to manage the team he got us all onto the same page. He also got us  serious capital ($500k+) and that made things much easier - some of the NY guys stayed, some split and formed their own team.

Playing in a casino was a real grind. We all had "real jobs" or were students. You'd get to Atlantic City Friday night at 10 or 11 pm, play about an hour at each casino then go to sleep until the shift changed. That was the rule - one hour of play during a given shift at a casino - you didn't want to be recognizable - so you would go to the casino once during each of the three daily shifts.  Sunday night at 8 or 9 or 10 or 11 pm we'd drive back to Boston ( or New York). It wasn't glamorous and it wasn't interesting--just follow the formulas, DON'T make mistakes. And you could play perfectly and lose $3/4/5,000 in a night--that was hard to watch. Since it was statistical the luck and gambling elements seemed minimized - so it quickly became dull. And we were always counting cash--you'd count your cash 7,8,9 times a day, and you'd be walking around slummy Atlantic City with $15k or $20k in cash spread out through your pockets, hanging out playing Galaxians in the video arcade waiting for the banker to arrive for a check-in, and worrying about getting your pocket picked or getting mugged. At night in the apartment between shifts, people would be counting cash, or sleep or discuss (or argue) in base 13--no personal computers back then so people did real math, or at least talked math. [The real computer models were back in Boston / Cambridge.]

There was a certain depressing aspect to it. You'd quickly see that most people in the casinos had no idea how to play and were just giving money to the casinos. People too drunk to sit on a stool betting $25 or $50 a hand.

During the week in Boston there would be practice sessions. A couple of hours of play. You'd practice counting 6 decks - the test was 6 decks in under 2 minutes, and you'd play a couple of shoes. If you didn't play perfectly, you couldn't "work" that weekend. Friday was 'visit the safety deposit box' day. JP was always experimenting, running his model. I remember trying to learn to play the 'non-random shuffle' - that was a bitch.

Back then you really had to have a computer model to have the correct basic strategy for a given rule set, and to calculate the correct true counts for altering play for each hand combination. How to set up and run a team. How to recruit, train and qualify counters and "Big Players". Today it's all been worked out, and it's all on the net. Bill had experience and common sense - it must have been like herding cats for him some times.

No one talked about this stuff (counting cards) at all until they had been banned so many times and were too famous / too well known to play. We would have preferred that Uston and Revere et al. would have not written their books - we didn't want publicity.

At first the casinos were new, most of the employees were new, and if you could count, there was more money to be made playing than working for the casinos. I remember when the first 'counter catchers' started working for the casinos - we watched the people in the pit, and tried to figure out who the counter catcher was and what they looked like.  After a few years, you really needed a Big Player, we were all still way too young.

Today the casinos know all of this, and have incredibly sophisticated models, and know the exact bottom line impact of each rule change. Lots and lots of casino employees know how to count, and anyone who counts can quickly spot other counters, so you'll get spotted and booted quickly. They know everything about using Big Players and shills and signaling.

We got started during the famous Dec 1979 "experiment" - those two weeks are a whole story in themselves. There were certainly difficulties of running an "all cash business": what do you do when you think someone is skimming (it happened)?  Once there was one picked pocket. Personalities and personality conflicts - really smart people who wanted to play their own method, or do it their own way - early on many of the NY people from an investment bank (Citi) split off right after Bill took over management, and ran their own team for a while.

Since these days you might have a 1% edge - i.e. for $100 bet you'd make one dollar profit - you need to bet large amounts and because your edge is only probabilistic you need to play lots and lots of hands for "the law of large numbers" to be on your side - you'll probably play 60 to 80 hands per hour. In the short run, it's normal to have swings up and down - variance, and you have to ride that out. Because of the likelihood of being barred, and the rule changes and procedure changes ( instant shuffling) you have a smaller and smaller edge and less and less time you can play before being barred. So there just isn't the opportunity to make serious money anymore.

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