MIT card counter believes in 'the power of data'

30 September 2015

The opening address of the gaming industry's largest trade show and conference was an unusual place for a noted card counter to give a lesson on how to beat the casino.

But Jeffrey Ma's remarks at the Global Gaming Expo on Tuesday had more to do with making business decisions than bringing down the house.

"Understanding how to use data and analytics gives you a little edge," Ma said during his G2E keynote address at the Sands Expo and Convention Center. "I believe in the power of math and the power of data."

Ma told the G2E audience he was a professional blackjack player from 1994 until 2001. He became famous for leading a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students who took casinos for millions of dollars by counting cards at blackjack during the 1990s. The adventures inspired the book "Bringing Down the House" by Ben Mezrich and the movie "21," which was based on the book.

"I saved Ben's career," Ma joked, recounting how he brought the author along on one of the MIT group's gambling excursions to Las Vegas. Ma earned a cameo role in the movie as a blackjack dealer.

Ma, who said he has never used his mechanical engineering degree from MIT, has since become an expert in business analytics and data, which he connected to his experiences at the blackjack table during his G2E address.

Ma has founded four companies that have been purchased by major corporations, including tenXer, an analytics tool designed to optimize employee performance that was recently acquired by Twitter.

The trip for G2E was quick. He flew into Las Vegas on Tuesday morning and left shortly after his speech. He commented that he's not "arrested when he lands at McCarran International Airport," but he isn't allowed to frequent blackjack tables at casinos.

His skill at blackjack brought him some celebrity interaction. He played undetected by Bellagio authorities during the casino's opening in 1998, playing at a table next to actor Kevin Costner. Ma won but as Costner lost he overheard the actors' entourage comment that this was "going as well" as Costner's box office flop, "Waterworld."

During the filming of "21," actress Kate Bosworth, one of the film's stars, encouraged Ma to accompany her to The Palms Casino Resort to play blackjack. Palms officials stopped Ma from playing and told him he "couldn't be within 20 feet of the table" while Bosworth gambled.

Ma said counting cards at blackjack utilizes analytics. It's not about actually counting cards, but knowing if more high cards are left in the deck, which is better for the player. It much better to "go with data rather than your gut."

The same holds true in business, Ma told the gaming crowd. He said business people often make decisions to avert a loss, rather than take a risk. Knowing the data and analytics helps improve the odds.

"The idea of losing scares us," Ma said. "But if you study the data and history, it gives you a little bit of an edge."

Ma was one of two "new age" speakers being highlighted at G2E. Rahul Sood, CEO of Unikrn, a Seattle-based gaming company focused on eSports, will speak at G2E on Thursday.

On Wednesday, Scientific Games CEO Gavin Isaacs, Caesars Entertainment CEO Mark Frissora and Rush Street Gaming CEO Greg Carlin will participate in a keynote roundtable.

Related Links
Global Gaming Expo (G2E) 2015
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Palms Casino Resort Details

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