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In the early 1990's many students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) mystified their friends, family, and teachers by dropping out early, sometimes with even a semester to go before graduation. Equally mysterious was the fact that even though they were dropouts and had no jobs they always had tons of cash lying around - sometimes in the form of $100 bills. Why did they drop out? And where were they getting all that sweet cash?

The answer is blackjack, to put it simply. Those former MIT students and many current ones belonged to what they called the MIT Blackjack Club.

These geniuses belonged to an elite gambling club that had actually began a few decades earlier, but then it was more or less and after school activity. By the early 1990's it had become a business, run by a man who calls himself Micky Rosa. It was partly funded by seedy investors and the members were trained in mock casinos and underground warehouses in and around Boston. It was in places like that where the students, or members, learned how to beat the only truly beatable casino card game: blackjack.

The members of the MIT Blackjack Club developed a system of counting cards with their god-like mathematical skills that was so well-done that it took as long as two years before the casinos even began to catch on. This brought upon a game of cat-and-mouse between casinos, who consider anybody who doesn't consistently lose an enemy whether they use legal means or not, and the hyper-geniuses of the MITBJC. It got to the point where Rosa was organizing invasions of casinos not only in Las Vegas but Chicago, Louisiana, Mississippi, and even the Indian reservation casinos in Connecticut and Michigan.

Card counting has been around for a long time, ever since Edward Thorp's book Beat the Dealer was published in 1962. Blackjack is the one game where you can use the past of the game to predict its future. It is also the game where the player can have a slight edge over the dealer, because the object of the game is to reach 21, as close to it as possible but not over it, by being dealt cards and being "hit" with more cards if the player asks for them. The dealer must keep hitting until 17 and often busts, in which case the player can still win even with a dreadful hand. If one keeps track of the cards being played, assuming the same deck is played out entirely, the player can get the upper hand.

But casinos figured this out, too, and started counteracting card counting using various methods, including using six decks and watching players with video cameras. By the 1970's the casinos contained their enemy. Unfortunately for them, the enemy turned around and got smarter.

Since the casino countermeasures worked on stifling the ability for one person alone to card count, teams of card counters popped up where the labor was divided among players who tried to look unrelated with each other. This is where the MITBJC comes in. Not only did they work together and pretended they didn't know each other, each member had to actually adopt a completely fake persona. The roles each of them played were thus:

The Back Spotter
A counter of cards not even at the blackjack table who sees when the house is at a disadvantage and discreetly signals the other players to swarm in.

The Spotter
He or she counts cards while at the table, the classic card counter. They avoid detection by sticking to the minimum bet on each hand and tip off their teammates when the deck is favorable.

The Gorilla
No, they don't dress up in a gorilla suit (although that would be quite humorous). They don't do much except bet big, and all the time. He's steered to the better tables by the aforementioned Spotters and Back Spotters.

The Big Player
This is your stereotypical high-roller, the Big Man, a person probably every casino-goer has seen at one point or another. But for the MITBJC, he's just a card-counting Spotter with a gorilla's bankroll. He or she always plays a good deck so there's no need to lower the bets by much.

With these players, and the help of computers, whiz kid minds, and thousands of hours of simulated play, the MIT Blackjack Club figured out how to take Las Vegas, and other casino towns, for everything they're worth. They figured out other things, too, like the fact that because of time constraints, the dealers cannot achieve a completely nonrandom shuffle and clusters of cards that stay close enough together can be tracked. A trained spotter can also keenly spot Aces or groups of Aces. All these things add up to big bucks, until the members are finally found out for what they are. But that doesn't matter: each year brings more, new MIT students and new possibilities for team members. And usually by the time team members are had, they've made enough money that it doesn't matter that they're barred and blacklisted from every casino in Las Vegas.

But is there a price to pay?

Living a lie, especially if you have a busy conscience that's doing its job, is never easy. But if a player can get over that seedy aspect of being on the team, the rest of that life is easy: hundreds of thousands of dollars of extra cash sitting around, VIP suites, limos with stocked mini bars: it was a veritable Heaven on Earth. Rosa ran it like a business with strict rules against alcohol and fraternizing, but when the avalanche of money came tumbling down the mountain, many players broke off to form their own teams. And those teams continued to win like mad. Sure, there'd be times where they'd lose $100,000 in a couple of hands. But in the longrun they were mathematically guaranteed to win if they stuck to the system. And the system was legal. But sometimes the MIT players got high-tech, and illegal, by doing things like marking high cards with radioactive isotopes and wearing discreet Geiger counters. That kind of cheating lands you in jail, the other just gets you banned.

In the end, though, too many barrings proved to be the downfall of the group, as the MITBJC became too good. They were caught, intimidated, banned, even robbed because they were found out to be of the MIT team. By the late 1990's the team was divided, splintered even, and is now all but nonexistent.

But there are still some of them out there. Be on the look out for geniuses with huge wads of cash in their pockets. Of course, they could just be happy to see you. If you ever see anybody in a casino wearing a gorilla suit, though, just run.

Sources: Wired Magazine, www.mitblackjack.com

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