You might think students at MIT don't know how to party, but as anyone who has read Bringing Down the House can tell you, the guys from the MIT Blackjack Team definitely know how to have a good time. Former team member Andy Bloch, who has had run-ins with angry pitbosses, a Las Vegas detective agency and the Monte Carlo police force, shares his best gambling stories and tells us how to beat the house.
I know you've mentioned in previous interviews that you began playing card games at an early age and winning. Why do you think you did so well wat cards and what initially attracted you to the game?
I always liked math and puzzles. My parents and my siblings liked to play a lot of different card games, so I was always very competitive playing games growing up and good at math, so the combination really intrigued me. Growing up, I don't even think I knew what blackjack was. I had dreams of being able to make money playing cards.
You have two electrical engineering degrees from MIT and a JD from Harvard Law School. How did you get involved in playing poker professionally?
I actually got my law degree while I was a professional poker and blackjack player. I still played in the World Series of Poker whenever it didn't conflict with my final exams. I was an engineer for a couple of years after MIT and I got bored with engineering and started playing poker at Foxwoods. I figured out how to beat a game that the vice president of the casino had invented called "Hickok Six-Card poker." It's a game that's like "Carribean Stud" or "Let It Ride" or three-card poker in that you just play against the casino - kind of like blackjack, but poker.
Through a home poker game in the Boston area, I met some people from the MIT Blackjack Team and they were interested in starting up a poker team. I told them about this other game that I had figured out and we ended up forming a team around that. That's how I got started in the professional gambling world.
And then, I moved on to MIT Blackjack Team and I was making enough money playing blackjack on the weekends that at one point, my project that I was working on got cancelled and I thought that was a good time to quit engineering. I was bored, I wasn't really doing anything too earth-shattering and I thought it was time to move on. At the time, I told myself, or at least I told my parents, that it was only temporary until I figured out what I wanted to do next.
You mentioned the MIT Blackjack Team. I know there has been a lot written about them, but for those not familiar with the group, can you give a little bit of background on the team.
The MIT Blackjack Team was a group of mostly MIT graduates, some undergraduates, some other people, some faculty, that traveled around the country and around the world playing blackjack, counting cards, with a mathematical system we perfected, winning millions from the casinos.
I know you came out with a DVD called Beating Blackjack that teaches people how to count cards. How tough is it for the average person to pick up card counting? Do you have to be an MIT graduate to understand it?
You don't have to. I could teach almost anyone how to count cards. The skill is doing it well enough to get away with it. It basically requires a certain amount of practice. For some people it requires more practice than others. Some MIT students never get it and some people who are high school dropouts get it right away.
It's very simple. We had a simplified system because we wanted to be able to concentrate on other aspects of the game. Each card has a value of plus one, minus one or zero. You start off with a zero count and as the positive cards come out, you add one to the count. When the negative cards come out, you subtract one. The positive cards were two through six and the negative cards were ten through aces. The reason they are negative is because they are actually good for players, so when they come out of the shoe, the shoe is worse off. When you have a really high count, the advantage can swing to the player and the key to successful card counting is varying your bet and betting more when you have an advantage then when you have a disadvantage.
How did you come up with this system? Was it just trial and error?
The MIT team didn't invent card counting. That's something that was invented by a guy named Ed Thorpe, who used some of the earliest computers and electronic calculating devices to calculate hold strategies and some card counting basics. The MIT team did, through heavy computer simulations, refined our strategy and developed some of our own techniques that are a little bit more advanced than simple card counting.
Are you allowed to play in Vegas casinos, or do most of them blacklist you from playing blackjack these days?
Nevada has an official "black book," or list of excluded persons. You have to be like a convicted felon or mafia boss to get on that list or a convicted casino cheater. What we are doing is completely legal, so none of us are on that list. But the casinos themselves have a right in Nevada to refuse to deal to anyone that they want to and even exclude you from the premises.
Many of these casinos did that to most of us - some of the casinos are nice about it and they recognize that you are good at the game through a legal skill that you developed and they just ask you not to play blackjack and other casinos, or sometimes even the same ones go under different management, will treat you like a criminal. They'll try to backroom you, they'll chase you out of the casino, they'll threaten you, they'll harass you, they'll have you arrested if you return to the casino - that kind of thing.
At least one judge in Las Vegas has told me that she doesn't think that the statute of limitations on that runs for more than a year or two and it doesn't continue if the ownership changes. I haven't been kicked out of a casino in Vegas in a couple of years, so legally I can still go into a casino and try to play. Once they recognize me, that can change.
Do you try to play very often?
I try to play occasionally. I do it more for fun - for the excitement or to show off for friends. Sometimes they want to see what it's like to play blackjack with Andy Bloch, what's it like to get kicked out of a casino or to have the pit bosses glare down on you. So I'll go and I'll play a few times a year. Not usually the same stakes that we used to play on the MIT team, where we would be $5,000 to $10,000 a hand fairly often, but a significant enough stake that it would matter to that casino. Usually, I can get off a half hour or hour session in a place if I'm careful. The important thing is you don't want to get noticed too much. You don't want to stand out.
Do you have any good stories about getting kicked out of casinos?
Yeah, I have a lot of them. (Laughs.) Actually, we were arrested in Monte Carlo in one of the casinos there. There were three of us playing and they pulled us into a backroom behind some mirrors and interrogated us. At one point, we were asking to see our consulate or the ambassador. An inspector from the police force walks in and they jokingly say, "Hey, there's your ambassador right now." They made the three of us get close together as they focused a security camera on us and pointing at the picture on their screen, they were laughing and saying in English "family portrait," surrounded by a lot of French words we really didn't understand. Meanwhile, they were making some phone calls. One of them, we heard "Griffin Investigations. Las Vegas, Nevada." I think they were actually faxing our pictures or transmitting them over the Internet - at the time that was fairly new technology - to Griffin Investigations in Las Vegas.
Griffin Investigations was the main detective agency that specialized in catching card counters. The people that read Bringing Down the House, there it talks about the "Plymouth Agency," the real name is Griffin Investigations. The author changed that, I don't know why because there's no way they'd ever get sued by Griffin because Griffin would have to open themselves up to all sorts of discovery and that's the last thing they would want to do.
Is this where the Harvard law degree comes in handy?
It definitely comes in handy. I've been arrested a few times playing blackjack - never prosecuted, though. If I get prosecuted, it always gets dropped. Usually, they just let you go once they realize you're not doing anything illegal. If you're not betting high, you're under almost no threat of getting arrested. Eventually, they'll just ask you not to play. Maybe they'll go further and ask you not to come back on their property. You're not going to get arrested. We were betting enough that we were a real threat to these casinos and sometimes they just overreacted.
My law degree comes in handy mostly in places outside of Las Vegas. I've been arrested, like I said, in Monte Carlo where they have a different legal system where they don't have a right to an attorney and I think I felt safer, like my rights were less violated there then when I got arrested in one or two places in the United States.
I got arrested in Canada and Canada was reasonable. They claimed that they had a reason to believe we were using a computer. We think they got that because they were in contact with the border patrol, which "randomly" stopped us and searched us and I happened to have a palm pilot in my pocket at the time. That was when the PDAs were brand new, no one had them. Fortunately, I stopped in my room before we went back to play and took the palm pilot out of my pocket because otherwise I could have spent some more time in Canada that trip.
The situation has calmed down a lot. Casinos in Las Vegas anyway are a lot more reluctant nowadays because of a couple recent lawsuits against them and against Griffin Investigations where they arrested some advantage players, some of them were blackjack card counters and others who had gained an edge on other games. They arrested them and treated them harshly and lost a decent sized lawsuit. In the wake of those lawsuits, they are much more reluctant, I hope, to arrest people unless they have real evidence that they were doing something illegal.
The result of the lawsuit against Griffin is that Griffin Investigations declared bankruptcy in Nevada. But Griffin Investigations is a whole bunch of corporate entities that operate in different jurisdictions, so I don't think it put them completely out of business, unfortunately.