Two Lexington residents glow at the chance to retell their old stories, about unbelievable hands and high-roller treatment, and being “hard-barred” from casinos by security guards in backrooms.
A corner booth at a Not Your Average Joe’s restaurant is about as far as you can get from the green felt tables of Caesar’s Palace. The noise of chatty moms and high school students is higher and shriller than those of the pit bosses, cocktail waitresses and high rollers patrolling a casino floor.
But when Deborah Lapides unveils her blackjack deck and chips on this weeknight in downtown Lexington, she and Jon Hirschtick slide right back into old habits.
The cards fit in Hirschtick’s hands comfortably as he deals. The chips rattle in Lapides’ fingers, familiar with their size and weight.
Although there are no complimentary casino suites and no free bottles of well-aged wine, both Lexington residents have the card count dead-on through three rounds of four-hand blackjack.
Lapides and Hirschtick played on the MIT blackjack teams in the 1980s. They were part of a group of students and Boston-area professionals that counted cards in casinos from Atlantic City to Las Vegas, using mathematical odds to beat the house at its own game. Two members of a later team wrote a book about their experiences, which was the basis for the Kevin Spacey movie “21” playing in theaters now.
Hirschtick and Lapides glow at the chance to retell their old stories, about unbelievable hands and high-roller treatment, and being “hard-barred” from casinos by security guards in backrooms.
They are less eager to point out, though they will acknowledge, that they made tens of thousands of dollars doing it.
“We had a lot of fun when we played,” Hirschtick said. “It was a great time in life.”A little extra money
Hirschtick joined the team in 1984, when as a graduate student he saw a handwritten flyer in the MIT student center offering a chance to make between $2,000 and $6,000 in six months playing blackjack. Lapides joined a year later, recruited by a friend who thought the team needed more women.At the time, she was working as a public radio producer.
“I thought it was an excellent way to pick up some extra cash,” Lapides said.
Joining the team was like playing for a sports team and pledging for a fraternity all at once, Lapides said. It required dedication and hours of practice to play, but you generally liked your teammates and it was a lot of fun.
While some experiences in the movie were similar to those of Hirschtick and Lapides, they called much of the movie “gratuitously fake.” Unlike the movie, which portrays the team members as math prodigies, Hirschtick and Lapides said it was more like learning to type or learning a foreign language.
“You don’t have to have any special skills to play,” Lapides said. “You don’t have to be a math genius or anything. It’s quite the opposite.”
The first step to card counting is memorizing the basic strategy chart, which lists the correct strategy for each possible dealer and player hand combination.
“There is a mathematically optimal decision on every possible blackjack hand,” said Hirschtick. “Most of the difference between a professional blackjack player and a regular player is memorizing the chart.”
Next, players had to learn to remember which cards had been previously played, adding their assigned value to a simple mathematical formula in order to establish the “running count.” Aces and face cards are worth -1 point. Twos through sixes are +1, and sevens, eights and nines are worth zero. The running count is the numerator in the final formula for the “real count.”
Finally, players had to estimate how many decks remained in the “shoe.” Blackjack shoes are four, six, or eight combined decks, depending on the casino. The number of 52-card decks remaining is the denominator in the “real count” formula.
Players give the casino a -1 boost to the final number for house advantage, and then arrive at a final number. For example, if the running count is at +9, and there are three decks remaining in the shoe, the real count is three. Subtract the casino’s advantage, and that makes +2. This is the minimum number for players to make large bets at the table and reasonably expect a payback.
Sounds easy, right? Except that players have to keep track of all those variables while the cocktail waitress asks them for a drink order, Joe Schmoe from Idaho next to them yaks about the price of pork bellies, and pit bosses and security cameras watch their every move.
“One of the most important characteristics [of a professional blackjack player] is being able to keep cool under pressure and stay focused,” Lapides said. “It was really a huge amount of work. You’re just on all the time.”
The payoff for all that work can be enormous. Spotters place minimum bets at tables until the real count reaches the right level. With the team pooling their money, the Big Player (BP) can lay maximum bets, sometimes winning as much as $12,000 in a single hand. Part of gambling is losing money too, so often players can squander twice as much in a single shoe.
When that happens, casinos are usually quite gracious. They will set up players who come and spend big money in their establishments with free rooms, top-notch dinners and limo rides. Because most people lose more than they win, casinos want them to come back.
The MIT teams would ride the high-roller treatment until casinos realized they were winning more than they were losing. They would dress and act the part, wearing expensive jewelry and fancy clothing, demanding free meals, fine wines and tickets to Las Vegas’s biggest shows.“[We] never paid for any of it,” Hirschtick said.
All the wonderful stories
When casinos recognized them as card counters, they would be “soft-barred,” politely asked to leave, or “hard-barred,” not-so-politely asked to leave by security guards and casino officials in a back room.
After a hard bar, a player couldn’t set foot on casino property again, lest they be arrested. The reason they weren’t arrested on the spot is because card counting isn’t against the law.“It isn’t illegal to use your brain,” Lapides said.
Casinos frown upon it because it makes them lose money, and as a private business they can issue a no-trespass order to anyone they like.
But if players were barred, then they were good. They beat the house and made money.
Lapides politely declined to offer how much she made in her five years with the team. Hirschtick was slightly more forthcoming; he estimated over his 10 years with the team, they made several millions collectively, split among the members and investors.“It was a multimillion-dollar operation,” he said.
Today, Lapides works as a volunteer for the Lexington Education Foundation, and is a stay-at-home mom. Hirschtick works as a mechanical engineer in the computer world, the field he pursued as an MIT graduate student those many years ago.
Hirschtick still plays blackjack in casinos occasionally; Lapides hasn’t in some years. But both relish the chance to reminisce about their professional blackjack days, telling tales that always start with “so-and-so and I were in the [blank casino].”
“That’s the best part,” said Hirschtick. “It’s all the wonderful stories.”