As a college senior in the early 1990's, Mike Aponte was invited to join the MIT Blackjack Team. Over its long and storied history, the team had developed sophisticated strategies for gaining an advantage over the casinos, combining team play with card counting — tallying the dealt cards to calculate whether the remaining cards favor the player or the blackjack dealer. Card counting techniques have been in use at least since the 1960's and can give players a small but crucial advantage over the house.
Introduced to this world of high-stakes calculation, Aponte was immediately intrigued. He became a "big player," cultivating a high-roller persona and being called in by "spotters" when the time came to lay down big bets. He also led a team that won millions at the tables, leading to several documentaries about its exploits. The MIT team inspired Ben Mezrich's book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. Mezrich's best-seller took considerable artistic liberties; the movie based on it, 21, moved even farther away from the actual story. (Mezrich's fast-and-loose-with-the-facts style served him well later, when he wrote The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding Of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal, the basis for Aaron Sorkin's script for The Social Network.)
Card counting is perfectly, 100% legal — no matter what the casinos imply
Card counting is perfectly legal — it's hard to outlaw mental math, after all — but casinos often ban the most obvious, high-winning counters. Early in his career, Aponte earned a spot in the Griffin Book, a database of card-counting "advantage players," slot-machine cheats, and other undesirables. (Free advice: dealers are on the front lines when it comes to spotting card counters; would-be high-rollers should remember to tip them generously.) By 2000, Aponte and the MIT team had become well-known among pit bosses and security personnel, making it harder to play. Aponte retired soon after, though in 2004 he became the first winner of the World Series of Blackjack.
He also began teaching others how to count cards and became a professional speaker. At this year's Def Con 20, he hosted a viewing of 21 and took questions from the crowd. Drawing connections between the MIT team and Def Con's hacker ethos, he said that both look for hidden advantages within complex systems, whether that's in a router's poorly secured firmware or at the blackjack table. They share an anti-authoritarian streak as well: one of the things that most excited the MIT team, Aponte says, was outwitting the powerful casinos.
In the spirit of sharing information and sticking it to the Man, Aponte gave us a quick introduction to card counting. Of course, even with a working system, the real secret to profitable blackjack is hours and hours of practice. But Aponte's demonstration made it look easy enough that at least one member of The Verge crew was eager to hit the tables.