Card counter comes to CSU

Feb 072011
Authors: Samantha Baker

Mike Aponte didn’t hide money in his dorm room ceiling or get dragged down into the basement of a casino to be assaulted as the movie “21” suggests. He did, however, on his way home from Las Vegas strap $300,000 to his body in order to pass security without raising suspicion.

“From the movie’s perspective, you thought that he’d be really sly, but it was completely different,” said freshman Zack Thompson.

Aponte, a former student from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology turned card counter, spoke Monday night about his experiences from his days hustling casinos all over the world. His lecture was part of the Association for Student Activity and Programming’s lecture series of contemporary issues.

Aponte’s fame grew after the Hollywood release of “21,” featuring stars such as Kevin Spacey and based off of the book “Bringing Down the House” by Ben Mezrich. Aponte was one of the members of the card-counting college students from MIT who, over six years, brought in $10 million.

Aponte’s involvement in the team, which originally started with about ten players and over time ballooned to almost 30, it began in his senior year of college and changed his life. “I worked hard to get there (MIT), but I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” Weekend trips to Las Vegas provided a lucrative and productive outlook for his future.

Aponte and his team used the “big player strategy” to their game-play which involved “spotters” and “big player” as well as a complex system of code words and signals to move into tables when the odds of winning were in their favor.

But after many years and advances in casino security, Aponte was flagged as a member of a card-counting team –– a completely legal entrepreneurship, but disliked by casinos, according to Aponte.

Heather Jones, ASAP’s contemporary issues coordinator whose committee attempts to bring speakers in related to political and global issues, said Aponte was the right choice to show a “different side of lecture for contemporary issues.”

“We advertised at the winter carnival, mentioning ‘MIT Mike,’ and a lot of people knew who that was,” said L.J. Ankarlow, ASAP’s general programming coordinator.

Aponte now works as a professional blackjack coach and consultant, as well as public speaker and founder of a non-profit program for high school students.

Close to one hundred people came to the event, held in the Lory Student Center East Ballroom, to be regaled with stories of high-stakes and card-counting poker. They left, though, with a message that went beyond the strategies of winning at cards.

“You just have to be open-minded and take chances,” Aponte said. He hoped that students take away from his appearance the audacity to have goals and clear-cut decision making.

Freshman Jeff Kalmut attended the lecture because he was familiar with Aponte’s story but was impressed by the advice he received.

“It says that you can really do anything,” Kalmut said.

“Just as you can’t count on the cards, you can’t count on fate to make your life a success,” Aponte said.

Staff writer Samantha Baker can be reached at

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