Andy Bloch wasn't the only member of the MIT Blackjack Team that took casinos around the world for millions of dollars in the 90's, but the title of the novel that chronicles that incredible run - "Bringing Down the House," - could easily be assigned just to him.
Since graduating from high school, Bloch has been inventing ways to bring down the house. Here's an easy way to measure his success: He has two degrees in electrical engineering from MIT and a law degree from Harvard, but has never used them.
The casino is his office and the games provide his salary. Whether its blackjack, poker, or an obscure spread few people have ever even heard of, Bloch is constantly thinking of ways to make a profit from the house. Given enough time, chances are he'll figure a way to do it.
"Any casino game can be beat with the right strategy and the right amount of time," Bloch says. "The key is how much money can you expect to win and whether it's worth your time. You need to pick the most favorable situation and go with it."
Bloch believes blackjack gives gamers the best chance against the house, but it wasn't the first game he decided to attack with computer strategy and a team.
In the 90's, Foxwoods Resort and Casino offered a version of a little known game called Six-Card Wild Bill Hickok Poker. Due to its low popularity, Foxwoods altered the rules to make it more enticing.
When the rules changed, Bloch pounced. Using computer models, Bloch developed a strategy giving players a six percent edge against the casino. He put together a bankroll and a team of MIT friends and attacked the game.
It wasn't long before Foxwoods figured out what was happening.
"They caught on fairly quickly," Bloch says. "We were not losing at the expected rate and it's pretty obvious when the same guys are playing the same game all the time. They knew we were beating them, but they didn't know why. So they changed the rules."
Foxwoods no longer offers Hickok and Bloch said he hasn't found another casino spreading the altered version of the game. Although he believes there is still a way to grind out money at Hickok without the favorable rule change, the expected return is too low to warrant the hours of play needed to profit.
Bloch on Blackjack
Andy Bloch is among the few card-counting blackjack players willing to talk about their trade. Although he is among the best in the poker world, blackjack is where he has experienced the most success.
After convincing the world he could beat the casinos with his Hickok poker team, Bloch was invited to join the famed MIT blackjack team and eventually ended up captaining the group. Bloch said his team counts their total winnings in the millions.
"When people pool their money together, it means everyone in the team can bet more," Bloch says. "You really need a team to be most effective. It's not something you can learn in a day, but with lots of practice, it's possible to make good money."
Bloch says there are three parts to successful blackjack team play – basic blackjack strategy, card counting, and camouflage. Although Bloch believes it's highly ignored by most casual blackjack players, basic strategy, the first talent an aspiring professional needs to master, is available in any blackjack book.
Card counting is a different story. Various card-counting theories have been tested and tried at casinos over time, but they are difficult to grasp and impossible for some to master. Bloch believes anyone who can employ the skill can grab a serious advantage over the house. The problem is practice. Even knowing the art is not enough; you have to practice to become disciplined enough to employ the tactic.
"No one can watch my DVD or read a book, then go to the casino and win money," Bloch says. "These methods work and its possible to win millions playing blackjack, but it takes a lot of patience and practice to get to a point where you're a consistent winner under all the pressure."
The last part of the equation is perhaps the most difficult. Although it's not officially illegal, card counting will get a player banned from a casino and it's the job of the pit boss to look for people who are winning more than the casual player. Thus, camouflaging your ability is essential, making Bloch say the only way to make the big money is by employing a team of players who can shield the action from prying eyes.
"Some people in the team are there to count and others are there to make the bets when the time is right," Bloch says. "We use to have one big better that would bet only when signaled by the card counters. That way, the casino couldn't tell if the person betting was counting or not."
Bloch has been banned from numerous casinos in numerous countries. Nevada has a blacklist of cheats and degenerates who are not allowed in casinos, but because card counting is not illegal, Bloch said he's never been on one of those lists. If he's banned from a casino he simply moves to another and waits until a casino he's been banned from forgets who he is.
"I've been banned from most casinos that I've played in for any significant amount of time," Bloch says. "Fortunately, legally they can't ban you for a lifetime. The statute of limitations on those things runs out and casinos change ownership. There's ways to get back into a casino."
One particularly hairy moment for Bloch occurred in Monte Carlo. Traveling with his blackjack team, Bloch and friends took a casino for a significant amount of money before his luck ran out and the casino caught him.
Bloch's group was whisked out of the casino and forced to endure several hours of questioning. When his car was searched, Bloch was sure officials were going to plant evidence and have them arrested.
In the end, the team was released and Bloch is able to laugh about the incident now, but at the time, he admits to being more than a little afraid of his chances.
"It was scary when they were going through the trunk because we didn't know what they were willing to do," Bloch says. "But once we realized we were ok, we knew we'd have a good story to tell."
Bloch on Poker
Looking for another game to challenge his calculating mind, Bloch walked into the Foxwoods poker room in 1992.
He started small, buying-in to weekly $35 Limit Hold'Em tournaments. By the year's end, Bloch was competing in World Poker Finals events and won a $100 buy-in No Limit Texas hold'em contest. It was the very first time he'd played No-Limit and he found he had a talent for that version of poker.
Although poker was of secondary interest compared to blackjack and other gaming ventures, he became enamored with the game and eventually made the pilgrimage to play at the World Series of Poker in Vegas. He skipped his last week of law school classes to play in the 1997 Main Event, prompting several friends to joke that the classic poker film "Rounders" was loosely based on him.
When the World Poker Tour began five years ago, Andy Bloch was at a stage of his poker career where he didn't really care for the game anymore. Bored with the tournament lifestyle, Bloch was nearly ready to retire from the game and find a new hobby. The prospect of competing on a compelling poker television program changed his mind.
It was a good choice. In the first WPT season, Bloch made the final table at the Foxwoods Resort Casino World Poker Finals and the Commerce Casino L.A. Poker Classic. He finished third in both events, moving him from a well-known player in professional poker circles to household name in poker's growing fandom.
His success and computer skills prompted the Full Tilt poker team to offer him a sponsorship. Although he no longer plays in WPT events because of contractual disagreements, he can be seen at high profile tournaments around the globe sporting his Full Tilt hockey jersey and raking in big pots.
He no longer wants to retire from poker and he plans to play in most of the 2006 World Series events, hoping to shed the stigma of being one of the better players who's never won a WSOP bracelet.
Bloch on Blackjack versus Poker
If forced to pick a favorite between blackjack and poker, Bloch says it would be impossible to chose because his strategies for each are so different.
"I think I enjoy them equally as well," Bloch says. "Both involve gambling and cards, but one (blackjack) is a cat and mouse game where you're trying to get a nibble of cheese and the casino is the cat and they're trying to kill you and eat all of the cheese themselves. Poker is more of an athletic contest between individual players."
Expounding on the differences between his two best games, Bloch said he likes to play poker sometimes because he doesn't have to worry about what he looks like, who's trying to catch him, and what casino he's allowed to play at. Likewise, being sneaky is thrilling as well and he still gets a "kick out of playing blackjack for big money."
"It's harder for me to play especially since my part with the MIT blackjack team is so well known," Bloch said. "I play blackjack sometimes and people recognize me as a poker player. I can use that to my advantage and distract them, especially if I'm part of a team. If I'm recognized, I can distract the floor person from the person betting the big money. I've used that trick before."
In June, Bloch is joining forces with Expert Insight creator and professional poker player Phil Gordon to run the Las Vegas Academy, a one day workshop for players interested in learning about high level Texas Hold'Em or blackjack play. Bloch will share the same information provided in his DVD, "Beating Blackjack" plus additional information only available to attendees. Gordon's poker segment follows Bloch's morning classes. The academy costs $199 for both sets of instruction. For more information visit www.expertinsight.com.