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The Return of the Card Counters

MIT’s blackjack maestros paid a visit before their story hit the box office

The movie 21 earned little praise from critics, and it disappointed alumni who’d hoped for a less Hollywoodized adaptation of Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. But the week before the movie’s March release, MIT students crowded into 26-100 to hear Michael Aponte ‘92 and David Irvine ‘95 talk about their adventures on the MIT blackjack team, whose exploits Ben Mezrich retold in his best-selling 2002 book.

The house always wins? Hah! Jeff Ma ’94, who helped the MIT blackjack team beat Vegas at one of its signature games, appears in a cameo role as a blackjack dealer in Columbia Pictures’ 21. Other members of the team also found their way into the film.

In the 1990s, the team (which was not an official, Institute-sanctioned organization and included members not affiliated with MIT) applied rigorous training and teamwork to the decades-old art of counting cards dealt in blackjack. “The only thing I knew about card counting is what I saw in Rain Man,” said Aponte to the audience. He joined the team as a senior; after training, he lost $10,000 in 10 minutes during his first game of blackjack at Caesar’s Palace, but he went on to net $25,000 that weekend. Card counting is legal, Aponte says, because everyone at the table has access to the same information; counters are using only their intellect to gain an advantage. However, casinos reserve the right to bar players who engage in it. Thus the drama of the story centered on the MIT players’ attempts to avoid detection.

“We weren’t a bunch of gamblers. First and foremost, we were a business,” said Aponte. He explained that the team kept strict records of gains and losses and calculated individual players’ totals depending on time played and money made. But when Irvine’s Italian grandmother found out about the card counting, she advised him, “Don’t get rubbed out.”

Aponte and Irvine told students that they and their teammates eventually had to use pseudonyms and disguises–wigs, mustaches, and even a fat suit–when casinos started to track them as “undesirables.” Griffin Investigations, a detective agency working for the casinos, didn’t catch them until they were exposed by an anonymous tip. The tipster was probably a former team member, the two mused.

Though the characters in 21 meet with violence, Aponte said he was never physically threatened by casino management. Usually someone would just firmly tell him he had to leave. “Because of MIT’s reputation, the casinos had an overblown image of our threat to them,” he said. Aponte retired from card counting in the spring of 2000, and now he and Irvine run the Blackjack Institute, which offers instructional DVDs and personalized training. For $7,000, one of them will visit clients for a day to teach them the “MIT way” to count cards.

Observant viewers will spot MIT alums throughout 21: Jeff Ma ‘94, the inspiration for the main character in both the book and the movie, appears as a Las Vegas dealer, and Henry Houh ‘89 (who has five MIT degrees, including a PhD) plays a dealer in a card house in Boston’s Chinatown. Albert M. Chan, SM ‘99, PhD ‘04, also makes a cameo appearance as a card dealer, and iRobot cofounder Colin Angle ‘89, SM ‘91, plays Professor Hanes, who calls out the winner of a robot competition.

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