Although Johnny Chang did not invent the so-called “MIT Blackjack Team,” he is often referred to as its “founder and manager.” In fact, Chang was recruited to the team in the early 1980s, after it had been going for a few years. However, his mark on Blackjack and its history is indelible, inspiring both a best-selling book (“Bringing Down the House” – 2003) and a Hollywood blockbuster (“21” starring Kevin Spacey – 2008).
The Black Sheep
The family that Chang grew up in could be seen as a group of overachievers. His parents both earned advanced degrees in chemical engineering—his mother a Masters and his father a PhD. Chang’s brother got a doctorate, too, and his sister went to Stanford and Harvard en route to opening her own clinic as an orthodontist. So when Chang went off to study electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), it was certainly not with the intention of playing Blackjack professionally. To this day, Chang’s mother still believes he should own a Radio Shack franchise.
As it happened, in 1981 Chang saw a sign on campus that read “Make $300 over spring break.” He went to a meeting at the student center to learn more and discovered it was about Blackjack and card counting. “It sounded kind of cool,” Chang later recalled during an interview for Blackjack Forum. “A lot of people had expressed interest, but when spring break rolled around there were only five of us left. As a result, I was able to squeeze into the car and I got to go to Atlantic City as part of the MIT blackjack team.”
Chang was not immediately successful. Although the team tried him out as a card counter, he made basic strategy errors when playing. They then switched him to their “Big Player,” using Al Francesco’s team tactics, so that all Chang had to do was follow the other card counters’ signals. Soon he was betting hundreds of dollars a hand and getting comped by casino staff.
Learning from his mistakes and improving with practice, Chang gradually became one of the team’s biggest assets. But his talent for cards turned out to be secondary to his talent as an organizer. Within a couple of years, he was spending less time at the tables and more involved with recruiting, training, scouting, R&D, dealing with team members’ interpersonal relationships and working out compensation structures.
Blackjack as a Business
By 1984, the MIT Blackjack Team had 35 players and a capitalization of $350,000. The “retirement” of one of the original team managers, Harvard MBA graduate Bill Kaplan, left Chang in charge along with J.P. Massar and newcomer Bill Rubin. Throughout the rest of the 1980s, they realized a net profit every year, ranging from 4% to 300% after paying all team members and covering all costs, including travel.
In 1992, Kaplan rejoined Chang and Massar to form a limited partnership called Strategic Investments to bankroll the team for the opening of table games at the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. They raised a million dollars and trained up to 80 players, not only on the East Coast but also out west. By 1993, Chang had some 30 players working simultaneously at various casinos around the world, from Las Vegas and Atlantic City to Native American casinos, Canadian venues and Caribbean island locations.
An estimated $10 million was won by the “banks” of MIT team members before the casinos began identifying the leading players and banning them from the tables—Chang among them. Strategic Investments liquidated on December 31, 1993. Although splinter groups would survive until 2000, the heyday of the MIT Blackjack Team had come to a close. But it was a happy ending for Johnny Chang. He married one of the team members, Laurie Tsao, and in 2007 he was inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame.