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The true story behind '21': the real-life American heist

If you haven’t watched the movie 21, you’re very much missing out. One of the classic films of the early noughties, it was released in 2008 and became an instant box office hit. The number one silver screen spectacle in both the US and Canada for the first fortnight after its release, it drew audiences from all around and almost all of them were instantly entranced by its thrilling onscreen action.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the film was its basis in reality. Drawing inspiration from the real-life story of the MIT Blackjack Team, it tells the tale of a very different sort of heist: one perpetuated not by hardened criminals, but by the brightest young minds from some of the most lauded academic institutions in existence. 

How blackjack works

For those who are not familiar with it, blackjack is the American variant of a game that’s known around the world as 21. The clue is very much in the name, with the overarching aim being to beat the dealer by getting the closest to a combined card score of 21, with the catch being that the player cannot exceed this figure without going bust.

With millions of people opting to play online blackjack, it is now more widely enjoyed than ever before, with internet providers helping to bring the game to the masses. Indeed, the development of mobile applications, in particular, means it can be played on the move as easily as in a casino, making it more accessible than at any other time throughout its long history.

But what are an individual’s odds of winning? Most online providers will award you an even money payout for any winning hand that isn’t blackjack, with this usually increasing if you’re able to score a perfect 21. Thus, the lower the odds of hitting a certain combination, the more money you’ll walk away with.

The MIT Blackjack Team, however, were not content to let Lady Luck decide the outcome of their games. Instead, they took matters into their own hands.

The real-life story of the MIT Blackjack Team

If you’re envisaging a group of hardened criminal hotshots as the heroes in this tale, you may need to recalibrate the mental image you’ve created. In fact, rather than being members of the criminal underworld, the MIT Blackjack Team were a group of students and ex-students from some of the best universities in America, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Business School, and Harvard University.

Operating successfully from 1979 all the way through to the early 21st century, this group of brilliant intellectuals used their brains for lucrative but nonetheless outlawed purposes. Utilising a number of strategies to tip the odds in their favour, from card counting to more sophisticated techniques, they reputedly made millions as a result. 

So here’s the question you’re all itching to ask: is it possible to replicate their success yourself? It requires some real brain power to master, so most people find its methods simply go over their heads. For the mathematically inclined, however, it can most definitely deliver results. You can take a look here to see it explained in a little more detail.

Tell us, if you had the means to bet it all, would you take the risk and make like the MIT team?