Like all successful businessmen, Yuchun Lee is passionate about his experience of making money. The 42-year-old Taiwanese-American gushes about “big players”, “advanced techniques” and “ace tracking”.
None of these exotic terms relate to Unica, the software house based in Waltham, Massachusetts, that he founded in 1992.
Mr Lee is reminiscing about gambling tactics and his time with the Amphibians, a gang of top-grade students and graduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Amphibians took on casinos and other gambling dens using a disciplined mathematical model of card-counting to lower the odds in their favour.
Today, their exploits form the backdrop for 21, the Hollywood movie starring Kevin Spacey and based on the book Bringing Down The House by Ben Mezrich.
The card-counting technique works only in blackjack, where the player bets against the casino, hoping to be dealt cards that add up to 21.
Mathematically-savvy MIT students, working to strict-allocated rules and acting in rehearsed roles, racked up impressive earnings during Mr Lee’s era. Hand signals indicated to the team’s designated high-roller when to bet heavily on a table.
These tactics were not illegal, but casinos made every effort to blacklist the team members. The thrill of outwitting casino security appealed to Mr Lee.
“It was like being a spy,” he recalls.
The future technology industry executive got an early taste of hard cash when travelling with up to $ 250,000 of winnings strapped to his body. Mr Lee’s card-counting streak ran from 1995 to 2000, before post-9/11 metal detectors could pick up the metal strip in a $ 100 bill.
“There were maybe three times a year we got caught with cash at an airport, but we were very organised, we had a lawyer ready to take our call,” he says.
He was caught once, and relied on the pre-arranged lawyer to convince the authorities he was not transporting drug-dealing profits.
The sums of money involved were astonishing, even by the standards of the computer industry, where Mr Lee’s company employs 500 staff with annual revenues of $ 100m.
At the opening weekend of a casino in Connecticut, Mr Lee and his team made a killing. Driving back to MIT in Boston, they gathered in a meeting room to pile up gambling chips worth $ 500,000, all made in just 48 hours.
Mr Lee fizzes with tales of his blackjack adventures. In fact, he is perfectly equipped to play his allocated role among spotters and card-counters wearing disguises to deflect observant casino security staff. Mr Lee played the Crazy Asian Gambler, whose job title within the Amphibians was the Big Player.
The Crazy Asian Gambler was an act that Mr Lee embraced with gusto, convincing the casino staff that here was a man who would abandon all logic in his pursuit of a winning hand.
Team members who were identified were photographed and barred from the casino, which would then share their faces via its security firm with other operators. Mr Lee’s five-year streak ended when he was barred from the giant Bellagio casino in Las Vegas.
By this time, he was already running Unica and came home to open his e-mail, where a purchase order for marketing software was awaiting him. The customer was the Bellagio casino.
How does it compare with running a marketing software company? “There are some parallels. The David v Goliath feeling is the same, plus the gusto, the team spirit we felt when we beat the casinos.”
Four of Unica’s staff are ex-counters who have been blacklisted by the casinos. What kind of mind does it take to follow all of this fast card action?
Mr Lee produces a laminated card from his wallet. There are tiny numbers covering the credit-card sized item. These represent 10,000 hours of simulated blackjack rules. He maintains that by memorising this card it is possible to lower the odds in a player’s favour.
“Anyone can do it.”
Mr Lee still carries the card about with him, a tangible reminder of a time when, as a Big Player cherished by casinos, he was showered with extraordinary incentives to keep on gambling. “You would never have experiences such as these anywhere else. I was given a helicopter ride through the Grand Canyon at sunset.”
In the film 21, Laurence Fishburne plays a casino security chief fighting for his job, as face-recognition software threatens to render his generation of tough investigators extinct.
Now Mr Lee revels in the potential of sophisticated software. The program he sells helps his clients spot a potential future customer. But just as his card-counting alter ego, the Crazy Asian Gambler, relied on cold mathematical odds, this product works on precision.
He encourages his clients to use data generated by the program with care. “We don’t want to spook people by appearing to know too much about them.”
And like Laurence Fishburne’s security man, Cole, Mr Lee has seen the world change.
Airport security is a serious impediment to shifting the sums needed to raise the stakes on a table and the winnings that can result from diligent team work. And the quicker the money is carried away from one city, the sooner it can be used to bet against a casino in another location.
If hundreds of thousands of dollars cannot be moved through airport scanners, then surely a rota of drivers could be organised to carry the cash to selected points? Mr Lee nods in agreement at this suggestion. He still seems like a man who is very familiar with the milieu of the Big Players.