Geeks vs Vegas

Post by:
28 Aug 19

Geeks vs Vegas – Bill Kaplan

When you see the words ‘Geeks vs Vegas,’ you’d be forgiven for thinking it sounds like a title for a new Adam Sandler film, but you’d be wrong 21 times over.

Geeks versus Vegas is not a fantasy, but a real-life phenomenon where between 1980 and 2000 teams of highly intelligent individuals with a superior understanding of odds and mathematical probabilities utilising sophisticated practices, strategies and systems, took on Atlantic City and Las Vegas casinos in blackjack and won big.

You might know these ‘Las Vegas geeks’ by another name – The MIT Blackjack Team, which comprised a group of current and former students from many ‘Ivy league’ US schools and universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, Harvard Business School, Princeton and others.

The reason you may have heard of The MIT Blackjack Team is because they and their intriguing story have been immortalised in magazine articles, books, TV shows and yes even films, albeit none starring Adam Sandler. The most famous of these is the 2008 movie ’21’ based on the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich.

Where it all Started

Unlike many popular casino games like Roulette or Craps that are predominantly luck-based, Blackjack is a game where skilled players can substantially increase their chances of winning by using a ‘Blackjack basic strategy’ and various other methods of gaining an advantage over the House, i.e. the casino, thus boosting their winnings.

Long frowned upon by casinos because they’re perceived as an unfair advantage, these other methods include card counting and hole carding. Many of these techniques and methods have been around since the 1960s, and while some have been neutralised by casinos, others are still be employed by people skilful enough to use them.

The knowledge that Blackjack is ultimately beatable was the seed that gave root to The MIT Blackjack Team in the 1980s, where a group of intrepid MIT students (led ironically by former Harvard business school graduate Bill Kaplan) taught themselves how to ‘count cards,’ one of the cardinal sins you can commit at any land casino.

How Card Counting Works

In a nutshell, card counting is the practice of keeping track of low and high cards dealt from one or more decks, so that a player can determine if the next card dealt will likely be to their advantage or disadvantage and thus bet, hit, fold or double accordingly. Successful card counting can increase a player’s odds by as much as 1 percent.

Although there are many card counting techniques, the most common is High-Low. It works by assigning each card in a 52-card deck a positive, negative or zero value. For instance high cards like Aces, Kings, Queens, Jacks and 10s have a negative value,  while 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 cards have a positive value and 7, 8 or 9 cards have a zero value.

With the card values memorised, the player must then keep a mental count (without letting on to the casino that they’re counting cards) of every card dealt by adding or subtracting 1 as they go. For example, if they were sitting on a tally of +1 and the dealer dealt an Ace and a 10 in succession, their total card count would drop to -1.

If after that the next card dealt was a 2, their tally would increase to zero and so on. A total of +3 or +4 means a greater likelihood that the next card dealt will be high (a picture card) and is thus an indicator to bet big. A total of -2 or -3 means a greater likelihood that the next dealt card will be low and is thus an indicator to bet small.

A frequently asked question is whether card counting can be applied to online Blackjack games and the short answer is no. It’s not possible to game online casinos as they use infinite packs, but they do give you more of a chance of winning due to the numerous bonuses available across hundreds of sites.

Off to Atlantic City

In 1980, after they got their card counting and other techniques down cold, the team from MIT visited Atlantic City where they plied their trade at many casinos, putting what they’d learned into practice. It wasn’t long before the group started reaping the rewards of their hard work, and with that The MIT Blackjack Team was officially born.

Over the next two decades, while the members of The MIT Blackjack Team chopped and changed, the method was pretty much the same – swoop into Atlantic City (and later Las Vegas) to access a greater variety of casinos, and more importantly, rack up millions of dollars in winnings that were split amongst the various team members.

It wasn’t long after they cleaned up in Atlantic City that the team extended their reach to Sin City, home to the USA’s largest most lucrative casinos. It was at these casinos where the real big bucks were won by The MIT Blackjack Team (and variants thereof) i.e. where it was geeks vs Vegas, and where the geeks were victorious in the long run.

Code Words Used by The MIT Blackjack Team

One of the questions most commonly raised by the film 21 is whether the team used code words at the Blackjack tables. The answer is yes the team did use code words to give each other the current card count. Actual code words they used include tree (+1), switch (+2), stool (+3), car (+4), glove (+5), gun (+6), craps (+7) and pool (+8).