MIT Blackjack Team – the true story behind Hollywood’s gambler blockbuster “21”

General December 3, 2018 8:09 am

"Winner Winner Chicken Dinner". With this sentence begins not only the internationally acclaimed feature film "21" starring Kevin Spacey from the year 2008, it also stands as a symbolic exclamation of the unprecedented success story in the field of gambling, which seems almost too unbelievable for a real reference. Ever since the release of the star-occupied blockbuster, this sentence has been adopted, as a modern "eureka" synonym so to speak, in a wide variety of online gaming areas and has since served as an exclamation of victory not only in Las Vegas for a big win or an incredible run of luck. Just like in the movie, but without counting cards. What many don’t know, however, is that the gambler thriller is based on a true core which, like the film itself, has its origins at the renowned MIT College.

We are talking about the so-called MIT Blackjack Team, which, organized as a student group, facilitated casinos on the Las Vegas Strip by millions of dollars between 1979 and the end of the 20th century. With the help of specially developed mathematical card counting strategies and privately financed funds the team later also took over other locations such as Atlantic City and Casinos in Canada. Over the years, teams led by Harvard Business School graduate Bill Kaplan developed special entrance tests and rituals for newcomers. Having been recruited at various American elite universities, those youngsters were also enthusiastic about the idea of profiting from their cerebral capacities in combination with a predictable game of chance on the hunt for big money.

Once appointed to the team, members were assigned according to their individual abilities as counters or players, just like in the film. The system, designed for team play and secret signs, not only allowed them to count more effectively and thus maximize profits, but also to effectively conceal their own activities. In the mid-90s, however, casinos responded with various measures to put a stop to card counters. For example, different decks were played at one table at a time, eye-catching counters were registered, tracked and entire teams were banned from playing. As a result, the recruitment of new members became more and more difficult. On December 31, 1993, the last successor of the MIT Blackjack team finally took the consequence and dissolved – which marked the end of a dazzling era and the stuff from which stories are still spun today.

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Want to know more about our favourite casino movies and "21"? Click here!