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by Nicholas Colon

Nicholas Colon is the Managing Director of Alea Consulting Group, a casino gaming consulting firm with a player centric philosophy. It is staffed with world-class players, gaming authors, mathematicians, top legal minds and a variety of industry professionals.

The MIT blackjack teams were vaulted into the public eye with the publication of Ben Mezrich's book Bring Down the House in the early 2000's, and the subsequent 2008 major motion picture 21. According to John Chang, who was the original team's manger and investor, "The book got it half right and the movie threw out that half."

It is natural for authors to take some artistic liberties in real events based on text, but from a professional player's point of view, some of the aspects in the movie were laughable. The movie focused on the BIG PLAYER team-play aspect that was used by most of Chang's original team. It was the most widely used technique, and it took the most coordination to pull it off. Nevertheless, there were others methods that were used, and some more were more effective but also a lot more complex to execute.

When the MIT teams first started applying these techniques they were designed for the traditional brick-and-mortar casinos. For example, online casinos were not around in the early 1990's and they are an altogether different animal. (That's because online casinos rely on Random Number Generators, or RNGs, for their probability outcomes.)

For those that don't know, an RNG is a complex computer program that is embedded in the online casino game's code that ensures that the outcomes of the casino games are as close to random as possible. They are used exclusively for games that have no live dealers. RNG's are the key to getting a fair casino game online - whether it's slots, blackjack, or any other game of chance. Essentially, the RNG technology is the key that makes online gambling possible. You can use an RNG to simulate throwing dice, flipping a coin, and it can also act as a shuffle for games involving playing cards. (Not much different from a continuous shuffling machine in a casino.)

Now let's take a look at each of the four methods actually used by the MIT teams in live casino play. The most visible technique for the MIT teams is the "big-player"approach that was developed by the inaugural Blackjack Hall of Fame Member Al Francesco. With this ploy, several players (usually more than 10 and known as "spotters") are stationed at separate tables, making low minimum bets. When a shoe becomes favorable for the player, the spotter signals the big player who then walks up to the table and begins firing away with large bets. The major benefit in the big-player approach is that the group is playing on a centralized bankroll. With this playing technique, the team can collectively win more money per hour with less risk than if each player played solo. (For example, instead of one player playing at the rate of 70 hands per hour, you are playing at a rate of 700 hands per hour, and with that, you multiply the hourly win rate by 10.)

The second method used by the MIT Blackjack teams was the key card sequencing method. This method is more of an art form than a science. The objective is to target four cards that are adjacent to one another as they are picked up and placed in the discard tray. By noting the location of the four cards in the stack of cards (i.e., the packet) in the discard tray, it's possible to following the packet through the shuffle and cutting about a deck before the packet so that a player can gain a top-of-the- shoe advantage of approximately 46%. The player looks for the first key card, then three random cards, then the second key card followed by three more random cards, then the third key card followed by three random cards, and finally the fourth key card. This application works best when the shuffle is a two-pass shuffle with the target card being the Ace. Keep in mind that lots of things can go wrong with this technique. For example, breaks can occur between the sequences and then players have to make adjustments on the fly. Players also often have to make unorthodox plays, standing or hitting where it's not expected. This can result in unwanted attention of some overzealous pit personal.

The third method employed by the MIT Blackjack teams was shuffle tracking. This is an opportunistic technique and cannot be used in all instances. The central idea is to look for groups of high cards or low cards that come out in close proximity of each other. The player then visually follows the group of cards through the hand shuffle. Depending on the type of shuffle and the number of riffs (two grabs of cards shuffled together), the packets of cards will get slightly diluted, and some assumptions are required to make it work but there is still a sound mathematical advantage in the long term.

After the shuffle is completed the player uses the cut card during the cut to put the diluted packet of cards where they want them. If the packets of cards contain mostly 10s and Aces, the player cuts the cards in a way that brings those cards to the front of the shoe. The player then makes max bets off the top of the shoe for about a deck or so. This not only gives the player a large advantage, it also confuses the eye-in-the-sky because the player is betting big off the top of the shoe (an unorthodox play for card counters).

The final method implemented by the MIT teams was "cut-play." Cut play focuses on determining what the card is at the end of the shoe. It gets complicated if the back card is covered by a plastic card. When the player catches a glimpse of the value of the back card, he or she uses the cut card to cut 52 cards from the back and then count down the cards played until the targeted card is about to come out. They then use the knowledge of the card to maximize the financial benefit to them. If the card is an Ace or ten value card, this presents a substantial benefit to the player if the player can line up the card as one their first cards.

The above were some of the methods used by the MIT Blackjack Teams. Sometimes they worked great; other times, not so great. These approaches led the original members to develop new and better ways of attacking casino games. For example, Andy Bloch was one of the original members of the MIT team. He also has become a world-class poker player and gaming theoretician who expresses his ideas on He initially learned his analytical approach to poker and game theory; but his patience and discipline from his time spent with the MIT blackjack teams.

No matter which way the cards fall when you play, hundreds of hours have to be spent perfecting any of the above technique. Even with all that effort, the results can never be accurately anticipated. It's rare that a person can execute these plays successfully (meaning with 100% accuracy). Nevertheless, if you choose to tackle such a steep task be aware that there are countless hours of preparation and scouting in your horizon if you want to be successful.

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