Mike Aponte was one of the foremost members of the infamous MIT blackjack team. The MIT team legally won millions of dollars playing blackjack in the mega-resorts of Las Vegas and other locations around the world. Using only their superior intellect and some cunning team methods, they triumphed on a stage where almost all other contenders had failed. The MIT blackjack team was the subject of a book, Bringing Down the House, and several television specials, including Breaking Vegas on the Discovery Channel and Anything for Money on the GSN Network. Mike is the son of a career member of the U.S. Army, and spent his youth living in many locations around the world. Mike finished High School in New Jersey, and settled in Boston, where he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), located in Cambridge. Mike is married, and resides in Los Angeles.
RS: When were you approached to join the MIT blackjack team?
Mike: I was recruited to play on the team in 1992. At the time, the team was actually a legal entity called Strategic Investments (SI). There had been students from MIT who played blackjack together as early as 1982, but when SI was formed in 1991, it was very significant because the team was a million dollar company with big plans. Unfortunately, SI failed due to shortcomings in how the team was managed. In the summer of 1994, Mickey, one of the managers from SI, decided to start a new team, one that he would hand pick. Mickey invited my friend Martinez and me to join a group of ten players at the team’s first meeting. We looked back at what went wrong during Strategic Investments and decided to change our strategic approach, selectively recruit new members, and raise our standards for quality play.
RS: Did you pass the checkout tests on your first attempt?
Mike: No one ever passed the checkouts on the first try. Quality control was one of the key areas we improved on from Strategic Investments. SI had checkouts for different skill levels, but they were cookie cutter in nature. The managers didn’t enforce high standards because they were so eager to pump out more players. I didn’t realize it at the time because I had no reference point, but looking back, the checkouts on SI were very lax.
RS: How were the funds disbursed to the players and investors?
Mike: As a player, everything was based on the expected value of your play. For example, as a big player, if I was called in to a hot shoe with a running count of ten with three decks left, two other people at the table, and a cut card of one and a half decks, then all of that information, along with the casino’s rules, was entered into our computer simulation program. The simulator would play out that exact scenario millions of times, and give us the expected value. As the big player, I was responsible for remembering the total number of call-ins. Most of the time I would remember the specifics, but it was the spotters’ responsibility to record the details for each call-in. It was unusual for a spotter to have more than three or four call-ins in a session, whereas the big player was involved in every call-in. Players had their expenses covered and were paid a percentage of the EV that they generated. When we reached our win goal, our profit was distributed so that the overall compensation was shared 50/50 between players and investors.
RS: What about the Internal Revenue Service?
Mike: When we really started doing well in 1994, we were not an official entity, so we left it up to the players to take care of their own tax liabilities. We never had a problem with the IRS. There was one player who was audited because he filled out a large number of CTR’s (cash transaction reports), but he was able to quickly resolve the matter.
RS: How accurate was the book about the MIT Blackjack Team, Bringing Down the House?
Mike: The general premise of the book was correct, but if you look at the chronology of the book in terms of who, what, when, and where events transpired, very little is 100% accurate. There are parts which are completely fabricated. I am one of a couple of people who knows exactly what certain events in the book were derived from. There are some parts in the book where I just scratch my head because obviously Ben Mezrich, the author, took artistic liberties. One of Martinez’s friends asked him, “Where is that underground casino in Chinatown? I can’t find it anywhere.” Well, there was no secret casino in Chinatown, but I do know how Mezrich came up with that idea. Martinez, Kevin Lewis and I had a friend who was king of the Asian nightclub scene. On Chinese New Year he invited us to a private party in Chinatown. When we arrived we saw they had a few blackjack tables set up. It wasn’t much, but they were playing for real money. Of course our natural instinct kicked in and we couldn’t resist the temptation to play. It was a four-deck game, dealt almost to the last card. Everyone was betting at most five dollars, but we asked what the table maximum was. They really hadn’t thought about it. Their main goal was to provide entertainment for the guests, not to make money. When they decided on a maximum bet of twenty-five dollars, we immediately started thinking of ways to get more money on the table. We asked if we could back bet each other and they said yes. With the three of us all back betting each other’s hands, the maximum bet effectively became $75. It didn’t take long for us to wipe them out. Within an hour, we won about $2,000. They were shell-shocked and they didn’t have enough money to pay us the full amount. We ended up settling on $1400.
RS: From the book, Bringing Down the House, it seems like Ben Mezrich was hanging around the team quite often during the playing days.
Mike: No, that wasn’t the case. I didn’t know who Mezrich was. I met him only once, in Las Vegas, the same year the book was published.
RS: According to the television show on the History Channel, Breaking Vegas, the team lost a bag of money. Was that a true story?
Mike: That’s a great story, which happened during the Strategic Investments period. At the beginning of one of our team practices, a player transferred about $120,000 to one of the team’s managers in a brown paper bag, like one you would carry your lunch in. At practices we would often transfer money from a recent trip or receive money for an upcoming trip. I was at that practice, and I remember that bag because it was very crinkled and old looking. The manager set the bag down on one of the tables and forgot to pick it up when practice was over. In the middle of the night, when he realized he had forgotten the money, he rushed back to the room, but the bag was nowhere to be found. He freaked out and then called the other managers, and they contacted campus police. They tracked down the custodian who was responsible for cleaning the room that night. It turned out that the custodian had found the bag, and not knowing what to do with it, had put it in his locker overnight. That was when the administration at MIT first learned about our blackjack team. With the help of a lawyer we were able to reclaim the money a few days later.
RS: How accurate was the Television Show “Breaking Vegas”?
Mike: It was a bit dramatized, which was to be expected. One thing that struck me was that “Breaking Vegas” was based on Strategic Investments and the show made it seem as if everything was great on SI. They glossed over the fact that in the end Strategic Investments failed, and didn’t make much money. The show made it seem as if Strategic Investments dissolved because the team decided to move on to other things, but the reason it broke up was because SI didn’t do very well.
RS: What was the largest numbers of players on the team at one time?
Mike: Probably about twenty-five at our peak. The total number of people who played for the team was higher than that because we did have some turnover.
RS: What was the most money won/lost in any one trip?
Mike: The biggest win the team ever had in a trip was close to half a million dollars. That was the weekend of Superbowl XXIX in 1995. The most the team ever lost was about $130,000. The most I ever won personally on a trip was about $200,000. I think the most I ever lost was about $60,000.
RS: What was the most money you personally carried through the airport? Did you or any other teammate ever get stopped?
Mike: The most money I ever carried was $300,000. That was the weekend we won half a million in Vegas. The only bad thing about winning that much money was having to bring it all home. Since cash was easily recognized by security through the x-ray machine, we always carried our money on our persons. If security ever found that much cash on one of us, they would have called the Drug Enforcement Agency, and we probably would have never seen the money again. It’s funny how airport security viewed chips differently than cash. We kept a large inventory of chips so that we didn’t have to continually cash in and out every trip we played. If we had to carry a lot of chips we stored them in our carry-on bags. Most casino chips are made of a clay-like material, which shows up in the x-ray machine as a blob. Whenever we put a large amount of chips through the x-ray machine, they always pulled the bag aside to inspect it. Even when they saw that the chips were $500 or $1000 denominations, it just didn’t register to them just how much it was worth. Screeners would often say something like, “Wow this is a lot of chips; be careful,” and then send us on our way. One time I did have a problem returning from the Bahamas. I declared the cash I was carrying when I left the U.S. and again when I was leaving the Bahamas. I was a twenty-one year old carrying a lot of cash through the Caribbean so immediately customs thought it was drug money. They detained me until I persuaded them to call the Atlantis Casino to verify that I had won a lot of money playing blackjack. Luckily I played under my real name, which made my winnings verifiable. There was another player from our team who played in the Bahamas about a month after I did. Unfortunately the casino made him as a card counter, and he ended up getting thrown in jail. The casino and the police were in cahoots, playing good cop bad cop with the casino playing the role of bad cop. The police asked our teammate to give back the money he had won. When he refused they said they had no choice but to throw him in jail. The casino not only kept the winnings, but also the $60,000 in team money he had brought with him.
RS: What was the largest wager you ever placed in a betting circle?
Mike: Well, on one hand it was $15,000 at the MGM Grand in Vegas in the high limit room. The most I ever bet at one time was at the Mirage. I bet three hands of $10,000. The table max was $10,000, and the count was so high that I spread from two to three hands.
RS: What was the largest buy-in you ever sat down at the blackjack table with?
Mike: That would have to be in the Bahamas. I cashed in for around $50,000 at one table. One of the cool things about playing in the Bahamas or anywhere in the Caribbean for that matter is that you didn’t have to deal with CTRs. Unlike in the U.S., we could cash in or out for as much as we wanted without even having to show ID.
RS: What entertainment or sporting events that you attended stick out in your mind?
Mike: We saw virtually all the headline shows in Vegas. One time Martinez was flown on a chartered flight to New Orleans to watch SuperBowl XXXI, and he had awesome seats, almost on the fifty-yard line. Boxing back then was really big. We had great seats for most of the championship fights. When Mike Tyson got out of jail it was a big boost for the team. When Tyson signed that huge contract with the MGM Grand, we had more opportunities to bet big money. Tyson’s fights were mega draws and attracted a lot of celebrities and high rollers to the casinos, which made it easy for our big players to blend in. In Vegas we were limited to playing during New Year’s, SuperBowl weekend, Fourth of July, and Labor Day weekend. Mike Tyson and Oscar De La Hoya created more big weekends for our team and since the fights were such spectacles, it made it easy for us to fly under the radar.
RS: After the Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield fight at the MGM Grand, when Tyson bit off Holyfield’s ear, the book stated that someone shot a gun in the casino. How was the scene after that situation?
Mike: A riot broke out when people thought they heard a gunshot, but I don’t think a gun was fired. I think what actually happened was a metal stand fell over and made a loud gunshot like noise. People did, for whatever reason, stampede the casino floor. Blackjack tables were flipped over and people started grabbing up chips. That riot actually caused our team major headaches because the MGM Grand changed all of their $1,000 and $5,000 chips after that incident.
RS: That leads to my next question, as mentioned in the book, did you really get the strippers to cash in the chips for the team?
Mike: I find that part of the book really amusing. Whenever someone asks me that question, I say, “We went to MIT, do you really think we would give strippers $1000 and $5000 chips?” Who in their right mind would do that? For the $1,000 chips we had every team member make multiple trips to the cashier’s cage to cash out two or three at a time. The $5,000 chips were more difficult to get rid of because the casino tracked them much more carefully than the $1000 chips, so we couldn’t just have a spotter cash them out. We did manage to cash out all of our chips, but it was quite a task given that we had over $300,000 in MGM chips. As far as the strippers, in contrast to what the book said, there was only one time that we, as a team, went to a strip joint. That was after our incredible SuperBowl weekend in 1995 when we won almost $500,000. Typically we were all business in Vegas, but after that record win we had to go out on the town and celebrate.
RS: Who were some of the more famous people you met or played blackjack with?
Mike: I met Walter Payton in the VIP check-in line at the MGM Grand, a year or two before he passed away. What struck me most about him was that he was such an incredibly nice guy. Martinez and I hung out with Vinny Pazienza a few times, who was a pretty good boxer back then. On one trip when I was lifting weights in the gym, Alonzo Mourning, the basketball player, walked in. I got a real kick out of it because he worked in with me for a few sets on the bench press, and I could actually lift more weight than he could. I met Dennis Rodman in the elevator when he was with the San Antonio Spurs, before he became really flamboyant.
RS: How many times were you actually backed-off from a blackjack table?
Mike: Just guessing, but at least 50 times. There were also many times when I realized that I was made by the casino and I left before there was any trouble.
RS: How many times were you actually read the Trespass law?
Mike: Not that many, probably around 10 times. I’ve been asked not to play blackjack many more times than I’ve been trespassed. When you get 86’d it’s really an unnecessary waste of time and energy for both the casino and the player. Although they weren’t always civil about it, most the time casinos would just tell me that I was no longer welcome.
RS: What other locations, outside the United States, did the team play?
Mike: Besides the Bahamas, we played in St. Martin, Aruba, Puerto Rico, and Europe. You have to be careful when you play overseas. Our teammate did spend a night in jail in the Bahamas and when Mickey played in Prague a casino cheated him by dealing him a short shoe.
RS: Besides counting, what were some of the other techniques the team employed at the tables?
Mike: We made the vast majority of our money from card counting, but we did have some success with card steering and shuffle tracking. Advanced strategy techniques sound sexy and appealing, but they are very difficult to execute, and these days the opportunities to employ these strategies are few and far between in the US. That was one of the downfalls of Strategic Investments. We began to stray away from card counting and we got enamored with advanced strategies. The problem with advanced strategies is that there are a number of variables that you have no control over, such as how a dealer shuffles. When you make a mistake with card steering and shuffle tracking it is far more costly than being off by one on the running count.
RS: Did the team ever have a losing year?
Mike: No, after Strategic Investments, we never had a losing year. There was one bank we got off to a real rocky start. We were down over $300,000 after 3 months, but over the next two months we won it all back, plus another $200,000. At the start of a bank we would decide on a win goal. When we reached the win goal, we would “break” the bank. This provided a goal for the team and a mechanism for players to increase their investment or take money out of the bank.
RS: How long did you actually play on a team?
Mike: You could say I unofficially retired from blackjack in the spring of 2000. That’s when I pulled all my money from the team’s bank. Our heyday was from 1994 through 2000. By the end of that period it was much tougher for us to play.
RS: Why did you stop playing altogether in 2000?
Mike: For me personally I could not bet meaningful stakes anywhere, and it was incredibly frustrating not being able to play. By that time our team was so well known, and even feared by casinos, that they had caught on to how we operated and began scrutinizing anyone who came into the middle of a shoe with large bets. Our original core group of big players, which the team relied upon, was no longer able to put out the money. We weren’t able to replace our core group of big players, because the newer recruits weren’t as dedicated and gung-ho.
RS: Do you think they still have blackjack teams there at MIT?
Mike: No, there aren’t any blackjack teams at MIT that I’m aware of.
RS: Do you have any good stories you would like to share that are not in the book?
Mike: There are a ton of great stories, which aren’t in the book. In terms of what we pulled off, reality is more interesting than fiction.
RS: Give us one, and you can save the rest for “your” book some day.
Mike: One story that comes to mind is the first and only time I was ever back-roomed. It happened in, of all places, Louisiana. We were on our fourth trip to Lake Charles, Louisiana. We had done very well on our first three trips, but this time around as soon as we began to play it was obvious they had caught on to us. That was Friday night. Since we still had the rest of the weekend to kill we decided to find a casino we had heard about. Well, this casino ended up being in the middle of nowhere near Charenton, Louisiana. It wasn’t even on the map, and it took us four hours to get there. When we finally arrived at the casino, we all laughed because the place didn’t even have a name, it just had “CASINO” in neon lights in front. We were surprised when we walked in because it was more than we expected. It wasn’t Vegas, but it was pretty crowded and the betting limit was $1,000. For that session we used the Gorilla Big Player (GBP) approach. The GBP doesn’t count at all, he takes signals from another player at the table for how much to bet and basic strategy deviations. I called the GBP into three consecutive shoes. During the third shoe, security suddenly appeared and swarmed around us. They were not happy. I didn’t resist because they were really worked up. It was also 4:00am and I was exhausted. I quickly learned why they were so upset. They suspected me of using a computer. I had $60,000 on me, I was on an Indian reservation in the middle of nowhere and I was accused of using a computer, a serious felony. That’s when I decided for the first and only time to explain to a casino that I was a card counter. I detailed exactly what we had been doing; pointing out that it was perfectly legal. Apparently what started the whole thing was that someone from surveillance recognized me from the Griffin Book. Why they suspected computer use, I have no idea. After about 30 minutes, the head of security entered the room and things took a 180. They realized that I had not been using a computer, and they became very friendly and chatty. They said it was an honor to meet members of the MIT Blackjack Team.
RS: So, in an instant, you go from being accused of a felony to being a celebrity.
Mike: Yeah, it was wild. One of them even asked for my autograph. I remember thinking: ” I guess they don’t get much excitement out here.” While we were detained, I learned a few interesting things about Louisiana. One of the security guards educated me on cock fighting. When I asked him if it was legal, he said “Oh yes, cock fighting is legal in Louisiana, but when we have dogs fight, we have to be real careful, because that’s illegal.” That entire experience was surreal.
RS: Was the World Series of Blackjack really the first tournament you ever played?
Mike: That was my first real tournament. On a trip to Puerto Rico when I won $200,000, my casino host asked me if I wanted to play in a blackjack tournament. It was only a 10-person tournament. I didn’t know anything about tournament strategy, but Mickey coached me for a few minutes on what he knew before I played.
RS: At the final table of the World Series of Blackjack, on the final hand, you attempted to use the surrender trap against Hollywood Dave, so someone must have explained a little bit more than basic tournament strategy to you by then?
Mike: I picked up a lot about blackjack tournament play during the World Series from being around such a great group of players. On my flight up to the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut I did some cramming with Wong’s book, Casino Tournament Strategy, but the key for me was making it through my first round table. I remember on Saturday morning drawing a seat in the very first table, which I wasn’t happy about. But after I made it through the first round, I had the rest of the day to watch everyone else play and talk blackjack with the other players. That first World Series of Blackjack had a special feel to it. It was the first time a production like that had been done, and it was great to meet people like Ken Smith, Anthony Curtis, Stanford Wong and James Grosjean in person. After all, blackjack players don’t have conventions. The closest thing we’ve had is Max Rubin’s Blackjack Ball. That World Series was a great experience. Not only was the field very high caliber, but also I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked everyone.
RS: I heard the final table didn’t start anywhere close to its estimated start time. Tell us about that.
Mike: The entire tournament was played and shot in one weekend, so the final table, which was scheduled to start at around 8:00pm on Sunday, didn’t start until after midnight. When it ended at around 3:00am, all of us were mentally and physically drained. Especially given that it was the first major blackjack tournament production, I thought GSN did a great job. It was a tiring weekend for everyone, but a lot of fun and well worth it. (Mike won the first ever World Series of Blackjack.)
RS: What do you think the future holds for card counters and advantage players?
Mike: I’m a little concerned about the future for card counters, given all the new counter measures by the casinos, such as continuous shuffle machines and tracking software. But I think card counters will always be around because in terms of the big picture you’re talking about less than 1% of players who can actually win money over the long run. What advantage players make is a drop in the bucket compared to what casinos make. I doubt you could bet table max these days like our team did and get away with it, but there are still plenty of opportunities for card counters.
RS: What do you have currently in the works?
Mike: I offer both in person and online blackjack coaching and instruction through my website. I also enjoy speaking professionally for corporations and universities.