The idea of outsmarting the casino and cashing in huge sums is probably as old as gambling itself. Many players have tried it as well over the years, and most of them got caught sooner than they had hoped.

The movie 21, starring Kevin Spacey and Jim Sturgess, is an American heist drama and tells precisely such a story. But is the film even based on a true story?

The Plot

In the movie, Jim Sturgess plays Ben, a wunderkind-type Math student at the world-famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Ben, who recently got accepted into Harvard Med School but struggles to come up with the tuition, gets recruited by MIT professor Micky Rose to join the MIT Blackjack Team.

Micky plans, along with a group of intelligent students, to beat Las Vegas casinos in Blackjack by counting cards. Using spotters at each table to determine whether a deck of cards is hot – meaning that mostly high cards are left – Micky wants Ben to become the big player who joins hot tables, bets big, and cashes out when the deck cools down.

The plan works, and Ben has nearly earned the full $300,000 tuition for Harvard when he gets drunk, loses control, and starts to gamble instead of counting cards. Ben loses a large chunk of money, and the group falls apart.

The MIT Blackjack Team

What sounds like a story made in Hollywood is actually based on real events.

In 1979, MIT and Harvard students formed what would become known as the MIT Blackjack Team. The group used card counting techniques to beat casinos at the blackjack worldwide, reportedly walking away with over $10 million in winnings.

Bill Kaplan, the founder of the MIT Blackjack Team, ran the operation like a business. By forming a new company, Strategic Investments, Kaplan raised investment to recruit and train bright students to become card counters. Investors could expect healthy returns, considering the group’s initial profit was $160. Per hour!

After over a decade and millions in profits, casinos became more active against what they considered fraud and hired private investigators to spot the card counters. Worried about facing high fines or even arrest, many team members started to leave the group and put the adventure to an end.

Casinos ban card counters indefinitely

Once caught, card counters hardly ever face serious charges or arrest, considering counting cards is not illegal by law. However, casinos joined forces and created a shared database of previously caught card counters along with biometric information. It means that players caught cheating in one place are most likely banned in many other casinos, especially related ones.

In Las Vegas, for example, the Bellagio, The Aria, and The Cosmopolitan are all owned by the same umbrella company, MGM Resorts. The same concept also exists online, where operators tend to run several sister sites alongside their signature brand. However, counting cards is not a technique that works on the Internet since it’s not possible to determine when a table is hot or cold.

Blackjack, by the way, remains the only mathematically beatable game in a brick-and-mortar casino. Although you will find plenty of guides on beating Roulette (e.g., Martingale strategy) or slots (e.g., hit rate), these games are not actually beatable, but players apply nothing more than hocus pocus strategies, which will more likely make you lose money than win.

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