NEWS: An old article about “Bringing Down the House”

I saved this article from back in 2008 and I only recently found the original article.



March 23, 2008 — YOU can leave the disguises, the tunneling and the elaborate capers to George Clooney and his “Ocean’s” gang. Jeff Ma and his crew robbed Vegas blind by walking right through the front door.

From the late 1990s until about 2002, Ma’s team racked up winnings approaching $5 million by using that bane of SAT takers everywhere: math. The team employed an elaborate system based on card counting and probability to turn the blackjack odds slightly in its favor and beat the casino at its own game. In a place where most people walk out with empty pockets and scrounging for next month’s rent, Ma was strolling out with a suitcase full of cash.

Somewhere, Joe Pesci is itching to cram this dude’s head into a vice.

Ma’s story and that of the so-called MIT blackjack team was chronicled in the 2003 book “Bringing Down the House” by Ben Mezrich. That best seller has now been (very loosely) adapted into “21,” starring Kevin Spacey, Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth.

In the film, which opens Friday, Sturgess plays Ben Campbell, an MIT student who joins an underground gambling team to pay for medical school.

In reality, Ma (who did go to MIT) got into card counting because he was bored.

“My roommates were going away to play blackjack every weekend,” he says. “I asked them where they were going and when we’d ever hang out again. And they said, ‘We can. You can come with us to Vegas if you learn this system.’ It sounded kind of sketchy, but they convinced me to do it. My primary motivation was to hang out with them in Vegas.”

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There’s an decent list of basic rules in the article that I thought might be useful for the beginner.


Former members of the MIT team offer these tips:

  • Buy a reference card at the casino gift shop telling you when to hit and stand in certain situations. Following it religiously will bring the house’s advantage down to about one half of a percent. And yes, it’s legal to bring it to the table.
  • Stick to tables dealing fewer decks. Six or more in one shoe is bad news.
  • Make sure your table pays 3-2 for blackjack, not 6-5.
  • Never take insurance.
  • Always surrender when you have 15 or 16 and the dealer has a 10.
  • Remember that you’re not trying to get 21. You’re simply trying to beat the dealer.
  • Ask the dealer for pointers. Many of them are well-versed in basic strategy and will be happy to offer insight.
  • Decide before playing if you’re there to have fun or make money. If you’re there for fun, don’t worry about losing – because you will.
  • Don’t tip the dealer unless you really feel flush. It cuts too far into your profits.

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