Coming from a good family and born to parents who were both chemical engineers, it stood to reason that John Chang would be an intelligent child and a capable mathematician.
However, while his sister gained qualifications from both Stanford and Harvard, going on to become an Orthodontist, John’s interests would lead him in a different direction.
He did do well in school, progressing to study at MIT – frequently voted the world’s best university – and working his way towards a degree in electrical engineering. However, it took him 10 years to graduate.
This had nothing to do with his ability as a student, but had everything to do with the fact that he discovered blackjack while he was there, and more specifically, card counting.
The $300 Leaflet
Readers who know their blackjack history will probably have picked up on the fact that John attended MIT, famous in casino circles as the birthplace of the MIT Blackjack Team.
He wasn’t there from the start, but he would go on to be one of the most important and long-standing members of the team.
And he almost didn’t join at all.
He attended their card counting course out of curiosity but had no interest in actually joining the team because it required personal investment, and Chang was broke. Not long after though, he found a poster offering applicants the chance to earn $300 over spring break, and when he enquired, he found it was the MIT team recruiting for new members.
Now he was going to be paid instead of having to pay himself, so he was in.
He wasn’t initially one of the stronger members of the team, he even made a few costly errors, but with practice his skills improved no end, and he became comfortable betting larger and larger amounts. A trip to Atlantic City provide especially profitable and made him stand out among the other recruits.
This impressive performance continued, and when Bill Kaplan (the team’s founder) decided to step back from the team due to his notoriety, it was Chang who was asked to fill his place.
Managing the MIT Blackjack Team
As a player Johnny Chang was exceptional, but being a manager was a different kettle of fish.
Player management, personal arguments, training and recruitment of new players were all new skills to master, and it took some trial and error to get things right. He eventually tested all players rigorously before allowing them to bet with the team, and also required all players to invest some of their own money so that everyone had some skin in the game.
He faced a few issues, such as disgruntled team members who had been asked to leave threatening to give information to casino authorities, and greedy players deciding they could make more money by breaking off on their own. He also noticed that some very talented players were not good under pressure, and would show visible signs of nerves once they got in the casinos.
A chance occurrence when he was cashing in $18,000 worth of chips gave him an idea. The cashier accidentally gave John $34,000, having obviously made a mistake, and he realised that his players needed to be ready these sorts of surprises where quick thinking was necessary. He began using random situations like this in his testing and training processes, to fine tune his team’s minds and make them ready for anything.
Despite his difficulties, Chang managed to grow a $400,000 bankroll and turn it into $5 million in just his first year in charge, but as the team grew larger, it became a much more difficult beast to manage.
Splitting the Team
Eventually, the team was numbering around 80 players and Chang’s profile had gotten so big among casinos that it was difficult for him to bet at all.
A private investigators firm known as Griffin Investigations which worked within the casino industry had all sorts of information on him, and his attempts at disguising himself had not always gone down so well – he was once embarrassingly caught dressed as a girl which made the news.
He decided to split the team into smaller groups as well as playing abroad where he and his fellow players were not well known.
This posed another issue though: how to get all of that cash across international borders.
Often it was just carried in luggage (this was before 9/11 so airport checks were not as stringent), but on occasion players did trip up.
One girl left a metal object in her bag which set off the sensors at the security gate. When the security guards opened the bag and found tens of thousands of dollars in there she was arrested and the DEA were called. No one was charged but the money was confiscated.
Eventually, after around 20 years at the helm, the MIT blackjack team splintered off and John Chang went into retirement as a blackjack team manager.
Although no longer managing others, Chang still plays blackjack to this day, as does his wife who was also a member of the MIT team for a time.
He has worked as a software engineer and lives in Las Vegas – of course – which is handy for any casino player, although incredibly, some of his casino bans from back in the 90s still apply today.
He is a regular at Max Rubin’s Blackjack Ball, and as an example of his mental ability and his skill with cards, at the 2005 ball John was able to count down two decks of cards in a rapid 33 seconds. Counting down is when you look through a pack of cards which is a few cards short and identify the cards that have been removed. Give it a go with one pack and you will see how impressive this must have been.
In 2007, Johnny Chang was inducted into the blackjack hall of fame along with some of his friends and contemporaries, being officially recognised as one of the greatest and most influential blackjack players of all time.
A year later, the movie ‘21’ starring Kevin Spacey was made, based on Chang and his exploits with the MIT team. Although much of the film was not true to life, John has said that it captured the spirit of who they were and what they were doing. His character, Mickey Rosa, was played by Spacey.
According to his Linkedin profile, John Chang is officially retired as of 2017, but it’s safe to say he still heads off to the casino now and then.