In 1972, at the age of 27, Michael Kent was employed by Westinghouse, the Pittsburgh-based king of the nuclear power industry. His responsibility during the week was to use computers to build a better nuclear submarine, but the weekends found him playing centerfield for the company softball team.
The team had won several league championships, and their success made Kent wonder how good he and his fellow players really were. This led him to develop a computer program to analyze all the available information, and he was able to feed the punch-card data into the company’s central computer (which was the height of sophistication for 1972).
While the results of the program outlined the strengths and weaknesses of his softball team, it failed to satisfy the analytical mind of the bespectacled computer whiz. So he decided to begin work on yet another program, one that would eventually change his life and take him from suburban Pittsburgh to the bright lights of Las Vegas.
Developing Programs for College Sports
Kent turned his talents to college football, setting out to develop a program that would take his previous experiments further. He started by compiling data found in old NCAA guides, and then he researched newspapers in the library archives to see which teams were favored and by how much.
As he continued to gather information, he fed all of it into his program. Before long, he started to get a return on his investment. According to the wealth of data he compiled, the point spread was influenced by many factors, but some were more important than others. These included, among others, home field advantage, strength of schedule, yards gained per play, and number of first downs. One rumor even suggested that the ever-growing program factored in the distance a team had to travel during an away game.
Once he felt confident in his program, Kent started placing small wagers with bookies in the Pittsburgh area. Over the next seven years, he continued to make bets and fine-tune his program (putting in about two hours each night). He also developed a similar program for college basketball and started wagering on those games, as well.
One morning in 1979, Michael Kent walked into the Westinghouse facility and resigned from the position he’d held for the last 11 years. There was no fanfare to herald his departure, and only his closest friends and confidants were informed of his intentions.
His intentions, it turned out, were to move to Las Vegas and embark on a career as a professional gambler. With a respectable bankroll saved up from the previous seven years of trial and error, Kent packed his belongings and arrived in Las Vegas in time for the 1979 college football season.
Arrival in Las Vegas
When Kent arrived in Sin City, he immediately started to employ strategies that flew in the face of conventional sportsbetting wisdom of the time. For starters, most bettors relied on basic analysis and intuition. Kent, however, totally disregarded his gut instinct, preferring to rely on a massive collection of data compiled over the last seven years.
Another commonly held belief was to only bet on a few games each week. Again, Kent chose to go against the grain by wagering on any game that provided him with a statistical advantage. Armed with his computer program and a copy of Theory of Gambling and Statistical Logic by Richard A. Epstein, Kent was ready to take on the sportsbooks.
Each day, Kent would read the morning papers and update his information. Then he would access the Westinghouse computer, which he was renting time on, and come up with a betting line for each game. Once that was determined, the objective was to find bookmaking operations with point spreads that gave him the biggest advantage. This task would usually take the remainder of the day.
While his first season started well enough, Kent lost five pivotal games in the middle of the college football season and started to falter. His losses added up to $40,000 by the time all the bowl games had been played, and it also extended into the college basketball season. By this point, Kent had started debating whether he should continue with his new vocation or go back to what had paid the bills for over a decade.
His decision was made for him one night when he won bets on 16 out of 17 basketball games and vaulted into the black. Things also became easier when Bob Martin, who had been the official line-maker for Las Vegas since 1967, was sent to jail and replaced by a group of far less competent individuals.
But success had its price, and for Michael Kent it was a growing sense of paranoia brought on by constantly handling large sums of cash. After each round of betting, he either had to take bags of money to bookies to pay off his losses, or he had to collect his winnings in a similar way. He constantly feared he was being followed, and the terror of being robbed or worse was beginning to take its toll.
With nowhere else to turn, he picked up the phone and made a fateful call.
Enter Dr. Mindlin
Doctor Ivan Mindlin was an orthopedic surgeon with a taste for gambling, and his own attempts to use computers to predict upcoming games had been a complete failure. But the mere fact that he had tried such a method impressed Michael Kent when he first met the man in 1979 through mutual friend Billy Nelson.
By 1980, Mindlin owed a pair of New York gamblers $100,000, and he was looking for a quick way to get out of the hole. That’s when Michael Kent showed up on his doorstep with a proposal: Kent would deal with the projections and numbers, and Mindlin would make the bets and settle up afterwards. In return for his services, the doctor would receive half of the weekly profits.
This was the birth of the Computer Group, and Kent trusted his new partner completely. While the former Westinghouse employee went back to his data, Mindlin busied himself with setting up a network of bettors across the nation. His old pals in New York were more than happy to get involved, allowing Mindlin to pay off his outstanding debt in no time.
Michael invited his older brother into the Computer Group in 1982, and he would later be followed by another brother and the Kent’s mother. The money came rolling in, and it was then promptly deposited into offshore accounts that Mindlin had helped set up. Of course, no taxes were paid, and Kent was naively unaware that he was even legally required to do so.
Rise and Fall of the Computer Group
Michael Kent thought that the Computer Group consisted of a small circle of people, but it was much larger than he imagined thanks to the efforts of Ivan Mindlin. And since the doctor was completely trusted to collect and distribute the profits, it was child’s play to take a percentage that far exceeded fifty percent.
Millions of dollars were rolling in thanks to an extensive network of bettors that Mindlin had cultivated. After collecting the data from Kent’s program, he would contact his people, pass on the information, and then leave it to them to find the weakest lines available. Once the dust had settled, all that was left to do was collect the money.
Their finest moment came during the 1983 college football season. During that stretch, they placed over $23 million in wagers and collected nearly $3 million in winnings (including a net profit of $974,000 during the bowl games on New Year’s Day). Of course, these are the numbers recorded by Kent; the real numbers that went unreported by his partner were undoubtedly greater.
Over time, the Computer Group became legendary and Dr. Ivan Mindlin started taking credit for creating the freakish computer program. It was easy, really, as very few people even knew of the existence of Michael Kent. It also helped that the true genius of the operation seemed unconcerned with who got the credit.
Mindlin networked constantly, cultivating friends that ranged from respectable businessmen to known criminals. It was one of these less savory contacts that brought him to the attention of FBI agent Thomas B. Noble and eventually led to the downfall of the Computer Group.
Once he started checking things out, Noble became mistakenly convinced that the Computer Group was an illegal bookmaking organization affiliated with the Mafia. He convinced his superiors of the same fact, and they staged a series of raids on the eve of Super Bowl XIX in 1985.
That’s when Kent began to suspect that Mindlin may not have been entirely honest with him, and he hired his own legal representation. It was only then that he started to realize the scope of the operation, as well as the fact that it was illegal not to pay taxes on their earnings.
Kent tried to continue his business relationship with the doctor, but Mindlin wasn’t interested in renegotiating the terms of their arrangement. As time went on, their relationship soured and Kent eventually he filed a civil lawsuit against Mindlin seeking $589,719 for services rendered and profits from the Computer Group. He also agreed to cooperate with the FBI and provide information about the inner workings of his organization. In return, he was granted immunity from prosecution.
After the Computer Group
Once the Computer Group was over, Michael Kent partnered with his brother and a mutual friend to form MJM Ventures, Ltd., which did much the same thing as before. The only difference, of course, was that all profits were reported to the IRS.
His name also made the news in the late 1990s, when he and his wife went before the Supreme Court to challenge a ruling that gambling losses incurred by professionals could not be deducted from income taxes. They came out on the losing end of the case, which left them to pay both legal fees and a sizable amount of back taxes.
Kent eventually decided to retire from the life of a professional gambler, and his current whereabouts are unknown. Kent’s attorney referred to his client as “very reclusive,” which is a far cry from the fame and influence enjoyed by the legendary group he created in the 1980s.
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