A Look at How Six MIT Students Won Millions Counting Cards

June 8, 2003, 1:55 am EST

Casinos have elaborate methods of keeping tabs on card counters. They employ agencies that seek out and keep tabs on suspected card counters. Card counting is legal, but casinos are allowed to kick anyone out that they want, because they are privately owned. Casinos love the amateur gambler that will come to Vegas for the weekend and drop 500 dollars playing blackjack; they don't like the professional card counter that will win $10,000 in one night. So casinos make sure that their employees can recognize suspected card counters, and if one is seen, then they are escorted outside.

But what happens when a team of brilliant MIT students forms a card counting group? What happens when the people involved are not your typical hustlers?

Ben Mezrich examines these questions in his book, Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students who Took Vegas for Millions. During the 1990s, these six MIT students made millions of dollars playing blackjack in Vegas casinos on the weekends, while attending school during the week. Not wanting to draw suspicion by carrying around large sums of money, these students carried around money that was velcroed to their legs and stashed huge sums of cash in their socks.

How did they do it? It was a sophisticated combination of teamwork and mathematical prowess. An ordinary individual card counter can be spotted quickly; if he/she makes large bets for no apparent reason, it is likely because they are counting cards, and suspect that a high card is about to show up. But these MIT students had four people spread out, involved in the card counting, so it was much harder to detect.

First off, they used a back-spotter, who would stand and count cards, but not play a hand. Then you had the spotter, who would make small bets at the table, and relay messages to the Gorilla. The Gorilla would move from table to table, placing huge bets when the spotter and back-spotter indicated that there might be an advantage at a table. Then finally you had the Big Player, who would play large hands and count the cards.

So you can see from this team that it might be hard to spot. A dealer is probably not going to be able to figure out that something is going on, especially when there are nerdy looking guys and women involved in the take.

The whole system was based on arbitrage. Statistically speaking, if there is a mathematically advantage in the deck and enough hands are played, then the player will win money. Sure, they lost money sometimes, but it balanced out with their wins.

Who knows how long they would have gone undetected if someone from their own inner circle hadn't sold their names to an agency in Las Vegas. After that, anytime they entered a casino, they would be tossed out almost immediately. Card counting is legal, but casinos go to great lengths to discourage card counting. If that involves pulling someone into a back room and giving them a talking to, then they'll do it.

It's an interesting story because there were no major repercussions for the students. They didn't end up in jail. They just made their millions, and then decided to stop.