What was it like to be a part of the MIT Blackjack Team?

Answer by A Quora admin:

Well, it was completely secret, so you couldn't tell anyone. We were totally paranoid about security—it was an all cash business—so it was all hush hush. Starting in 1979, I never talked about it publicly  until after the movie came out in 2008.

At first it was very chaotic. We had a $135 per week hotel room—technically it was a suite and had 4 or 5 beds? Atlantic City was a real dump at that time: nice buildings that hadn't been maintained in decades, so everything outside the casinos was very cheap. We were all broke, so we were trying to live on the $5 a day per diem the team paid—that paid for one meal unless you paid to ride the jitney bus to and from the casinos. There could be 8 to 12 people sleeping in that room.

At the beginning, our bank was too small for the $25 tables—the only ones where you could consistently get a seat, so some of us would stand and count a table and when the shoe went to +2 or better you would signal, and one of the players would sit down and bet $25 (or more, depending on the count). As we won it got easier, especially when we could just sit down and bet $25.

We figured you could play really well for an hour—that was your estimated attention span—so you would go to Resorts (for example), walk around until you found a table that looked good, maybe wait for a positive count, then sit down and play. We were all too young and tried to play inconspicuously. After you had played for about an hour, you cashed out and went to the men's room where you counted your money and filled in your player sheet, then you walked to the next casino (there were only two or three at the beginning) and did it again. We had check-ins where you'd meet the banker at certain times—usually in a gaming arcade on the boardwalk—and report your cash position, and the banker might adjust our betting (kelly criteria).   After a year or so we had "big players" so you would sit and flat bet at a table and someone's uncle would shill for us—a real adult <smile> who knew basic strategy and how to read our signals.  We kept on doubling our bank and accumulated over $100k. At first we would play until we doubled our bank, we'd pay out profits (50% of the profits split among the investors, 50% split among the counters based on hours played) then we'd have a new bank.  When the amounts of money got big ($100k plus) the banks would last 90 days.  Once Bill arrived and we hired him to manage the team, we had serious capital ($500k+) and that made things much easier.

Playing in a casino was a real grind. We all had "real jobs" or were students. You'd get to Atlantic City Friday night at 10 or 11 pm, play about an hour at each casino then go to sleep until the shift changed. Sunday night at 8 or 9 pm we'd drive back to Boston ( or New York). It wasn't glamorous and it wasn't interesting—just follow the formulas, DON'T make mistakes. And you could play perfectly and lose $3/4/5,000 in a night—that was hard to watch. Since it was statistical the luck and gambling elements seemed minimized – so it quickly became dull. And we were always counting cash—you'd count your cash 7,8,9 times a day, and you'd be walking around slummy Atlantic City with $15k or $20k in cash spread out through your pockets, hanging out playing Galaxians in the video arcade waiting for the banker to arrive for a check in, and worrying about getting your pocket picked or getting mugged. At night in the apartment between shifts, people would discuss (or argue) in base 13—no personal computers back then so people did real math, or at least talked math. The real computer models were back in Boston / Cambridge.

There was a certain depressing aspect to it. You'd quickly see that most people had no idea how to play and were just giving money to the casinos. People too drunk to sit on a stool betting $25 or $50 a hand.

During the week in Boston there would be practice sessions. Couple hours of play. You'd practice counting 6 decks, and you'd play a couple of shoes. JP was always experimenting, running his model. I remember trying to learn to play the 'non-random shuffle' – that was a bitch.

Back then you really had to have a computer model to have the correct basic strategy for a given rule set, and to calculate the correct true counts for altering play for each hand combination. How to set up and run a team? How to recruit, train and qualify counters and "Big Players". Today it's all been worked out, and it's all on the net.

Today the casinos know all of this, and have incredibly sophisticated models, and know the exact bottom line impact of each rule change. Lots and lots of casino employees know how to count, and anyone who counts can quickly spot other counters, so you'll get spotted and booted quickly. They know everything about using Big Players and shills and signaling. Since these days you might have a 1% edge – ie for $100 bet you'd make one dollar profit – you need to bet large amounts and because your edge is only probabilistic you need to play lots and lots of hands for the law of large numbers to be on your side – you'll probably play 60 to 80 hands per hour. In the short run, it's normal to have swings up and down – variance, and you have to ride that out. Because of the likelihood of being barred, and the rule changes and procedure changes ( instant shuffling) you have a smaller and smaller edge and less and less time you can play before being barred. So there just isn't the opportunity to make serious money anymore.

What was it like to be a part of the MIT Blackjack Team?

About akiramorikawa

superconnection . pattern-recognition . iDesign
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