Of Card-Counting, Startups, and the Real Story of the MIT Blackjack Team
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different blackjack strategies—not just card counting but things like card steering and ace tracking—and profits were far below what was expected. Chang says he came to the realization that they really needed to focus on card counting. “I just canned all these games. I said screw that,” he says.
“After I made all these changes, we just won like gangbusters immediately. It was kind of astonishing really,” says Chang. In fact, it was largely about the next few years—1994 to 1998—that Bringing Down the House was written. Things reached a climax the night of June 28, 1997, with the famous “Bite Fight,” the boxing match where Mike Tyson bit off a piece of opponent Evander Holyfield’s ear. There was a riot in the MGM casino, with tables tipped over and chips flying. “The MGM was the center of the universe for the card counting community for a couple years. Players from all over the world would descend on the casino at that time,” says Chang. He estimates that at least a half-dozen teams from around the world, including several from MIT, were in the casino that night. “It’s like everybody was there.”
So much money was being bet in those days, he says, that teams didn’t draw that much attention even when players bet big. “At the moment of the riot, I was at a table betting $9000 at each of two hands and my action was not drawing any special attention,” he says. “Every single player at that table was playing yellow chips, which are $1000 each.”
But over time, the once close-knit teams fell apart. They were partly victims of their own success, says Chang. Everybody seemed to want bigger stakes or for their investments to grow faster, he says. A number of players decided to form new, smaller teams.
Chang draws a lot of parallels to the challenges businesses face. People become dissatisfied with their compensation as the company grows. Or they miss the entrepreneurial environment and go off to find it again somewhere else. “I guess this is the essence of startups,” he says. And it wasn’t like he had much leverage to convince people to stay. “I had not hidden anything from anybody. It was all transparent, so it was easy to break away. We had no contracts. We didn’t have golden-handcuff-type benefits. You didn’t vest, anything like that.” Chang estimates the MIT teams took about $10 million out of casinos over the years. “Although it seems like a lot of money, it’s not really a lot of money, not in a business sense,” he says.
Chang made investments in several teams that broke away from the big group but still wanted him involved as an advisor or in some other limited capacity. But before too long, he says, even that attitude changed and “a lot of my investment in these groups had been returned to me.” He didn’t really care that much about the money—it was beating the casinos that turned him on. “I just found it very fun, and once I got the money I was like, ‘Well it’s a trophy,'” Chang says. “I wasn’t going to use it for anything. And so when people gave it back to me, I really had no idea what to do with it…It was just like lying around in my apartment…I didn’t even know how much it was.” When Laurie, his fiancée at the time, came out to help him move west, she began cleaning his filthy Cambridge digs and discovered more than $150,000, mainly in chips, tucked into various nooks and crannies, bags and jars. Chang was mortified. Each time she found something, he says, “I’m like, ‘Oops…Please, please don’t tell anybody. I swear, there’s nothing more.’ But of course there was.”
By around 2003, the MIT teams had “fizzled out” in the face of lower profits and increasing scrutiny, says Chang. In 2004, though, he and Laurie moved to Las Vegas. “I had avoided living in Las Vegas for years,” Chang says. He thought of it as a cheap town, with no culture, and a joke of a university. But then he realized he actually knew more people there than in Boston.
He and Laurie play occasionally, but he makes it sound relatively tame—until, of course, Laurie’s recent arrest (after speaking with her, I’m not sure I’d want to be with the casinos on this one). It has definitely gotten harder to beat the casinos, which are much more on the lookout for card counters than we he got started and have taken steps to keep the odds more in their favor. But on the other hand, says Chang, the betting limits are also higher. “The actual profitability, that’s unclear. You may be able to make more than ever.”
So what about Bringing Down the House and 21? “It’s kind of a weird thing, you know, to have a movie and book that you’re a pretty main character in and yet not to be acknowledged in any specific way by the author or the producers,” Chang says. “We were never invited by the producers or anything to participate in anything.”
Still, he did go to a premiere of the film in Las Vegas a few weeks ago. Jeff Ma, the MIT grad who served as the model for Kevin Lewis, the main character in the book, even introduced him to the real Kevin—Kevin Spacey.