The 4 Venoms of the MIT Blackjack Team
The MIT blackjack teams were vaulted into the public eye with publication of Ben Mezrichs book Bring Down the House in the early 2000’s, and the subsequent 2008 major motion picture 21. According to John Chang who was the original teams manger and investor “the book got it half right and the movie threw out that half.” It is natural for authors to take some artistic liberties regarding real events translated into entertainment form, but from a professional players point of view some of the aspects in the movie were laughable. The movie focused on the team play aspect that was used by Chang’s original group. It was the most widely used technique, and it took the most coordination to pull off. There were others methods that were used and some were more effective, but also a lot more complex to execute.
When the MIT teams first started applying these techniques they were designed for the traditional brick and mortar casinos. Online casinos were not around in the early 1990’s and are an altogether different animal. The online casinos rely on Random Number Generators (RNG) for their probability outcomes.
An RNG is a complex computer program that is embedded in the online casino games code that ensures that the outcomes of the games are as close to random as possible. They are used exclusively for games that have no live dealers. RNG’s are the key to getting a fair casino game online – whether it’s Slots, Blackjack, or any other game of chance. Simply stated, the RNG technology makes online gambling possible. You can use an RNG to simulate throwing dice, flipping a coin, and it can also act as a shuffle for games involving playing cards. Not much different from a continuous shuffling machine in a casino.
The way a Random Number Generator works is by starting with a “seed number” and then applying a complex mathematical operation on that number so that a new number is generated. The new number now becomes the seed number, and again the complex mathematical operation is performed on it. The methodology is repeated over and over again. The end result is that the new seed number is based on the previous result. It is impossible to determine what the next number will be unless the original seed number is known. The possibilities of “initial-seed” numbers is infinite, and dictates an impossible solution given the limitations of current mathematical knowledge.
In the beginning of the online casino boom all games, table and slots, used RNGs. Several years ago live casino dealers for online casinos were introduced. For example, 888casino is a leading online casino with a strong presence in the UK, and they do offer live casino games with real dealers. Blackjack, Roulette and Slots are available to players. The biggest aspects of the MIT team’s play is not applicable to online casino’s because it requires the use of spotters that keep track of the proportions of high to low cards that have yet to be played. Since a player can not choose which table they will play this approach is moot. The lone wolf counter approach is still applicable. It is possible to utilize the various bonuses that an online casino offers to gain an edge, but this is beyond the scope of this article. Let’s take a look at each of the four methods used by the MIT teams.
The most visible technique for the MIT teams is the “big-player“ approach developed by inaugural Blackjack Hall of Fame Member Al Francesco. Here several players, usually around 10, each stationed at a separate table and play low level bets. When a shoe becomes favorable for the player the “spotter” signals the big player who then bets large amounts. The major benefit in the big-player approach is that the group is playing on a centralized bankroll. So instead of one player at rate of 70 hands per hour you are playing at a rate of 700 hands per hour, and with that you multiple the hourly win by 10.
The second method used by MIT Blackjack teams was the key card sequencing method. This method is more of an art form than a science. The objective is to target 4 cards that are adjacent to one another as they are picked up and placed in the discard tray. By noting the 4 cards and following the packet through the shuffle and cutting about a deck before the packet the player can gain a top advantage of approximately 46%. The player looks for the first key card then three random cards, then the second key card and three random cards, then the third key card and three random cards and finally the fourth key card. This application works best when the shuffle is a two pass shuffle with the target card being an Ace. Lots of things can go wrong with this technique. Breaks can occur between the sequence and players have to make adjustments on the fly. Players often have to make unorthodox plays, standing or hitting where it’s not expected. This can get unwanted attention of some overzealous pit personal.
The third method employed by the MIT Blackjack teams was shuffle tracking. This is an opportunistic technique and cannot be used in all instances. The central idea is to look for groups of high cards or low cards that come out in close proximity of each other. The player then visually follows the group of cards through the hand shuffle. Depending on the type of shuffle and the number of riffs (two grabs of cards shuffled together) the packets of cards will get slightly diluted, and some assumptions are required to make it work but there is still a sound mathematical advantage in the long term.
After the shuffle is completed the player uses the cut card during the cut to put the diluted packet of cards where they want them. If the packets of cards is 10s and Aces the player cuts the shoe in a way that brings those cards to the front of the shoe. The player then bets max bets off the top of the shoe for about a deck or so. This not only gives the player a large advantage it also confuses the eye in the sky because the player is betting big off the top of the shoe.
The final method implemented by the MIT teams was “cut-play.” Cut play focuses on determining what the card at the end of the shoe is. It gets complicated if the back card is covered by a plastic card. When the player catches a glimpse of the back card value they use the cut card to cut 52 cards from the back and then count down the cards played until the targeted card is about to come out. They then use the knowledge of the card to maximize the financial benefit to them. If the card is an Ace or ten value card this presents a substantial benefit to the player if the player can line up the card as one their first cards.
These were the methods of the MIT Blackjack teams. Sometimes they worked great other times not so great. These approaches led the original members to develop new and better ways of attacking casino games. Andy Bloch was an original member of MIT teams. He is now a world class poker player and gaming theoretician who expresses his ideas on 888casinos’ blog. He initially learned his analytical approach to poker and game theory; as well as his patience and discipline from his time with the MIT teams.
No matter which way the cards fall when you play, hundreds of hours have to be spent perfecting the techniques, and even with all that effort the results could never be accurately anticipated. It’s rare that a person can execute these plays successfully. But if you choose to tackle such a steep task be aware that there are countless hours of preparation to be had.
James Edwards is the Economic Director at Alea Consulting Group, a player centric casino gaming consulting firm.
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