Of Card-Counting, Startups, and the Real Story of the MIT Blackjack Team
(Updated, March 27, 6:45 pm—see editor’s note, p. 2)
The house was on Inman Street, near Cambridge’s Central Square. Peter Woit recalls the morning he came downstairs and found his roommate obviously upset.
“John, what’s wrong?” he asked.
“Have you seen a dirty pink laundry bag?” came the response.
“There was $80,000 in it.”
This was back in 1987 or ’88—still pretty early days for the MIT blackjack team. In fact, in those days John didn’t even think of it as the MIT team because it included players from around Boston and even other schools, like Princeton. John was John Chang. He had graduated from MIT a couple years earlier with a major in electrical engineering and gone on to become one of the lead organizers of a group of young card-counters who were largely having their way in Atlantic City casinos and making occasional forays to Las Vegas. For his day job, Chang worked in Kendall Square, right above Legal Sea Foods, as senior software engineer at a computer aided design company called Premise.
In case you missed all the trailers and ads, the opening of 21—the movie adaptation of Bringing Down the House, the smash 2002 book about the MIT blackjack team—is set for tomorrow. But we wanted to tell you some parts of story that you haven’t heard if you read the book, that you won’t see if you go to the movie—and that reveal how intertwined Boston’s innovation history and MIT’s blackjack legacy are. For instance, one of the founders of Premise was Chang’s fellow card-counter Jon Hirschtick, who after selling the firm to Computervision in 1991 would go on to found the software design firm SolidWorks, one of New England’s big success stories of the 1990s (it was sold to Dassault Systemes for some $316 million in stock in 1997).
But this is Chang’s story. He’s the guy on whom the book’s Micky Rosa character, played by Kevin Spacey in the movie, was at least partially based (you can find his blog here, and the April issue of Men’s Vogue also has a piece that quotes him at length). In 1988, he had already been playing blackjack for some six years, and he would stay with the team as manager or coach for another 15 years or so. More than any other person, Chang embodies the MIT team. It turns out he’s living in Vegas these days, still playing cards occasionally. How do I know this? Well, the Peter Woit mentioned above is the famous Columbia University mathematician who wrote the book, Not Even Wrong. He is also the brother of Xconomy publisher Steve Woit. (See what I mean about intertwined?) Earlier this week, I spoke with Peter, who put me in touch with his former roomie.
Chang, 50, is a Chinese-American who grew up in various suburbs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and upstate New York. He arrived at MIT in 1975 (yes, it would take him 10 years to graduate, but that fits with his persona, as you’ll see). He found school somewhat unappealing, it seems safe to say. Then he found blackjack.
“I was an MIT student not knowing what I wanted to do with my life,” Chang relates. He had been at the school so long, he says, “My parents thought I was in grad school, but I wasn’t.” Then one day in 1982 he was walking down MIT’s famous Infinite Corridor when he saw a hand-written poster offering students the chance to make $300 during the upcoming spring break through card-counting. The poster, he says, was taken down by MIT authorities within hours. “Somehow the MIT administration looks askance at such activity,” Chang says. But it turned out about 30 people had seen it and showed up at the meeting in the ping pong room of the Student Center to learn more from a former MIT student who co-managed the group. Chang wasn’t a super mathematics whiz, and he wasn’t by initial appearances particularly adept at card-counting either. He wasn’t even that keen on the whole endeavor—“lackadaisical” is his description of his attitude. But in the end, … Next Page »
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