Of Card-Counting, Startups, and the Real Story of the MIT Blackjack Team
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only about five people stuck with the training and qualified for the job. “I was just good enough,” Chang says, adding, “There’s no way when I got into it that I thought I was going to [keep] doing it.”
But all that changed when he tasted the thrill of beating the house in Atlantic City. “Once I got in the casino, I thought, ‘Oh this is actually a lot of fun.’ Unlike most of my classes at MIT, which started out with such promise but they hit you with a ton of work.”
Indeed, conventional work was never a big thing for Chang. (As an aside, I asked him if he had a day job now. There was a slight pause, and then he said, “Naahhh.”) But gambling was another story. “I advanced very quickly after that, just because I had the enthusiasm,” he says. He spent a lot of time practicing, and even found his Asian background was an advantage in that it allowed him to go unrecognized by casinos looking for card counters. “I’m Chinese, and when you go into a casino, it’s like you’re in an Ivy League college in terms of representation of Chinese or Asians—it’s too many.” And, he says, casinos definitely hold some stereotypes that further help his cause. “Being Chinese helps a lot in terms of being able to bet large and not get suspicion.”
Chang was not part of the first wave of MIT blackjack players. Students had been playing informally for years, and the first more serious groups seem to have formed soon after the first casino opened in Atlantic City in 1978. But it was still early days when Chang joined. The leaders at the time were J.P. Massar, the MIT alum who had put up the recruiting poster, and Bill Kaplan, a Harvard Business School graduate. Chang and Massar later bought the house in Inman Street together, using part of their winnings.
Massar is a blackjack legend in his own right. Chang says Massar was far more intense than he was about the game. “J.P.,” he says, got so stressed out training team members that he once left a bag with $125,000 in cash in an MIT classroom. Massar also took up professional poker and coached 2002 World Series of Poker winner Robert Varkonyi, another MIT alum. For his part, Kaplan had initially seen his acceptance to Harvard Business School revoked when officials learned of his role as a card counter. He had fought the decision and eventually was reinstated. Kaplan had also done his undergraduate studies at Harvard, where one of his classmates turned out to be future Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. At a class reunion in the 1990s, the two met up again. By that time, there was such an incredible buzz about the MIT card counting team that Kaplan was the class hero for some, not Ballmer—at least according to what Chang heard. “Steve Ballmer’s the billionaire in this class, but everyone is asking Bill about blackjack.”
(Editor’s note, March 27—John Chang passed on the following clarification and correction, courtesy of Kaplan: The year was 1992, Kaplan’s 15th Harvard reunion, and it turns out Ballmer had heard tales of the blackjack team through some Microsoft employees who had played on it. Said Kaplan, “The real story is that Steve (Ballmer) came up to me and said he was ‘so fascinated by the story of my blackjack team and wished he could have switched places with me and started and run the team.’ I told him I was ready to swap bank accounts whenever he was ready.”)
Before too long Chang, who finally graduated from MIT in 1985 (he did his undergraduate thesis, which you can find here, on blackjack), became the senior person on the MIT team. He says he got the leadership role, which included recruiting, training, and compensating players, almost by default. Few others stuck with blackjack through the many ups and downs associated with card counting—including not just dry spells, but some scary back-room encounters with casino security staff. Says Chang, “People would go, ‘It’s not worth it, ah forget it.'”
Throughout the 80s, there were no more than a dozen people on the MIT team at a given time. But by the early 1990s, the school probably had 80 people either playing or in various stages of practice or “checkout,” in which players must demonstrate their capabilities before being sent unsupervised to a real casino. A West Coast MIT team even started up. The efforts were funded largely by player investments (most of it from the older players) and a few outside investors. One very small stakes investor in the early days, says Chang, was open source software pioneer Richard Stallman, who had worked at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab before resigning in 1984 to develop a free Unix-like operating system known as GNU.
A big crisis came just before a July 4 weekend, probably in 1994. At the time, teams tried several … Next Page »