When Mathematics Attacks!

posted by Jason Kottke Aug 15, 2002

Hacking Las Vegas is "the inside story of the MIT Blackjack Team's conquest of the casinos". The article is excerpted from Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, due out in October. Math, money, and discipline made them millions:

"The team worked at the mathematics — the expected advantages, the proper Spotter payouts, the appropriate BP betting scheme — in rigorous detail, with the aid of computers and countless hours of simulated play. Average profit percentages ranged from between 10 and 20 percent per gambling foray, but could go much higher depending on the number of open tables and the number of possible player hours. 'The first year I played, we returned 154 percent to our investors,' brags Lewis. 'That's after paying off expenses. You try and do that on Wall Street.' The real genius of the MIT scheme was how it turned the casinos' own profiling techniques against them, using stereotypes to camouflage the big money bets."

When I was in my teens, my dad was working on devising his own system for blackjack. He had a book outlining basic counting strategies and the odds for various hand combinations and played with various betting systems with the aid of Lotus 123 spreadsheets. We played blackjack for hours with both one-deck & two-deck shoes and his sizable spare change collection, just noodling around with different approaches. I had the odds for all the hand combinations memorized so that even without counting, I could play nearly break-even blackjack for as long as I wanted.

Reader comments

weddoesAug 15, 2002 at 2:12PM

With all the experience playing "break-even blackjack" do you ever go out and exploit that situation?

Also, how close is "nearly break-even"?

AnilAug 15, 2002 at 2:27PM

That's amazing... my father came up with a very complete system as well, that he had completely memorized. He used to run nearly break even for years at a time, and since that was enough to get our rooms and meals comped in Atlantic City, we came out way ahead overall.

I never had the inclination to memorize the whole system, so my dad used the very early versions of Excel (and, before that, Jane Spreadsheet for the Commodore 128) to make pocket reference cards of the appropriate response to any deal.

jkottkeAug 15, 2002 at 2:28PM

With all the experience playing "break-even blackjack" do you ever go out and exploit that situation?

how close is "nearly break-even"?

If I remember correctly, if you play each situation by the numbers (e.g. if the dealer is showing a 2 and you have an ace and a six, always hit), the house has something like a 0.5% advantage over you. Compare that to the 10+% house advantage of slot machines and that's a pretty good deal.

However, that 0.5% is still going to bleed you dry eventually...which is why you can't really exploit the situation. That and I don't remember the odds anymore. But blackjack is a good game to play if you're not concerned with winning because if you follow the odds, you can play for damn near forever...rather than getting hosed playing keno, roulette, or (shudder) the slots.

(I've heard that craps has a fairly low house advantage as well if you play properly.)

PJAug 15, 2002 at 2:50PM

I used to remember the odds of each hand by heart. But knowing in theory, and trying to count the cards in practice is a different story [especially with the free alcohol].

I still remember a guy at 4AM dropping 3000 on the table, winning 4 hands, and leaving with more than 11000 in less than 10 minutes. Me and an elderly black gentleman who were battling the 5$ chips for hours just looked at each other and sighed.

Craps for me is more fun, and the odds are slightly better than blackjack. The key is to put odds [more chips] on the bets you already have down to increase the ratio of the payout.

vitafloAug 15, 2002 at 2:51PM

For the record, roulette has the worst odds of winning, especially the tables with two green numbers (which most casino's have). It's not much worse than slots, but it is worse.

And you can get cheet sheets on blackjack at just about any little shop in vegas. While they're not illegal to use, casino's usually frown upon them. Here's an example of one.

boogahAug 15, 2002 at 2:52PM

thanks for the good read jason... however, it leaves me wondering when the book will be optioned into a movie. i know i'd pay to go see it in the theatres.

MatthewAug 15, 2002 at 4:39PM

On a related note, the third act of this This American Life episode -- all about the professionals at The World Series of Poker -- is a fascinating listen. The most interesting aspect of professional poker playing, I thought, is that, for the most part, the same pros tend to play in the big games, which means that everything winds up as a big zero-sum game: pro A wins $10,000 one week, they all reunite a week later and pro C wins $12,000. These guys (and gals) just sort of pass bucketfuls of money back and forth. What fuels the whole thing are those moguls who want to "play poker with the best". A tycoon joins a game, the pros fleece 'im for a couple grand, and that infusion of cash keeps everyone afloat. An odd way to make a living, for sure.

barlowAug 15, 2002 at 6:19PM

Jason - your memorization was probably based upon one deck, though. Those MIT folks (I just got the issue in the mail this week) had a system that worked with six decks that got periodically shuffled during the session.

In one part of the article, they recollect sitting by a hotel pool with a duffle bag that contained 950,000 bucks, 450,000 of which they had made that weekend.

MarkAug 15, 2002 at 6:57PM

With any game in the casino, the odds are of course, no matter if you know the system or not, against you. The key is to strike big when you can. I imagine this MIT students killed the casino with splits, with multiple double downs on occasion. Makes me want to be a smart math guy at MIT.

jkottkeAug 15, 2002 at 7:02PM

Jason - your memorization was probably based upon one deck, though. Those MIT folks (I just got the issue in the mail this week) had a system that worked with six decks that got periodically shuffled during the session.

I wasn't counting...I just knew the odds of each hand and what to do with that information. Those odds varied slightly depending on the number of decks, but not too much. Nothing fancy, just rote memorization.

adamAug 15, 2002 at 9:55PM

Matthew, thanks for the American Life link! The entire show was fascinating, especially the the part on the basketball player. Highly recommended.

I'm not sure this sounds like a movie -- more like a "TNT Original Movie", on the level of "Pirates of Silicon Valley." But reading this just inexorably pushed an image of Anthony Michael Hall in a casino into my brain...

jjgAug 15, 2002 at 10:45PM

Here is the obligatory mention of The Eudaemonic Pie, the true story of another bunch of math geeks that tried to use chaos theory to beat roulette.

BravadaAug 15, 2002 at 11:27PM

Knowing the odds of each hand is not helpful because the bet is already on the table before the cards are dealt. What you need to know is the best action to take given the dealer's up card and the sum of the cards dealt to you. This is called "basic strategy".

Basic strategy is often presented as a table with the dealer's up card across the columns and the sum of your cards down the rows. The interesecting grid cell tells you the action to take (stand, hit, ...) .

You don't need to memorize basic strategy, but you won't look like a goofball if you do. Casinos allow you bring a cheat sheet to the table and the dealer will help you with basic strategy if you ask.

For the most part, the successful card counters play simple basic strategy. Their advantage comes from varying the amount of the bet based on the percentage of high cards remaining in the shoe.

You don't need to be a smart MIT math guy to count cards. The individual tasks are all easy. You only need to remember a single number to keep the count. The bet calculation is a simple division. Basic strategy is easy. The difficult thing is doing these things for hours on end without making mistakes. That, and not getting caught by the casino.

The size of the shoe does not change how hard it is to count cards. With one deck or six decks, the count is still a single number. The movie "Rainman" gives the impression that it's a big deal to count a six deck shoe. It's not.

Matt SharkeyAug 16, 2002 at 3:35PM

Reminds me of an Esquire story about 'Team Hammer', vaguely remembered but found online thanks to Google.

geoffAug 16, 2002 at 10:04PM

So, um, if these strategies are so simple, anyone recommend a good book on Blackjack?

Of course, my personal anecdote was that I knew a kid who went down to Tijuana when he wanted some cash. Went late at night, found a table of just terribly drunk players and proceeded to pull out his Palm and let it do the counting for him.

He doesn't do it anymore, apparently Palms are more universally recognized as a machine that could help you cheat, even when drunk.

BravadaAug 17, 2002 at 9:57PM

Not having read any books on blackjack, I don't know what to recommend. I hunted around using Google to see if there are any good websites about blackjack. I found that there are many bad ones.

This page covers everything from basic strategy to counting, although the presentation is rather terse. Another page on the same site has an easier to understand description of counting.

My recomendation is to get involved with a team if you want to count cards. The team will help you practice and avoid detection at the casino.

I recommend that you do learn basic strategy. It minimizes your losses against the casino.

charlieJul 11, 2003 at 11:47AM

Best complete reference on card counting that I found and use is Million Dollar Blackjack by Ken Uston. Its old but still very good book on learning a counting system.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.