[This article was originally published in the MIT Technology Review]
Semyon Dukach spent part of the 1990s as a member of the famed MIT blackjack teams, playing with the original Strategic Investments team and later founding the spinoff Amphibian Investments. Notoriety followed, since Dukach was the only member of either team referred to by his real name in the books Busting Vegas—where he is the main character—and Bringing Down the House.
Despite a lucrative career in blackjack, Dukach was not fulfilled. “The blackjack teams had a dream,” he says. “But our dream was to outsmart people and make money. There are much more important challenges out there. I wanted to make the world a better place.”
Dukach found that fulfillment as a full-time angel investor because he’s able to provide startup founders with the means to achieve their goals and dreams. In that role, he invested in and is currently chairman of SMTP, a public, large-volume e-mail marketing delivery provider, which has more than 10,000 customers in 200 countries.
“When I invest, I don’t worry about making money,” he says. “My criteria are simple: be passionate, believe in your vision, and learn from your team. I find the people less focused on money are almost always the most driven.”
Dukach offers Terrafugia, the flying-car company cofounded by Carl Dietrich ‘99, SM ‘03, PhD ‘07, and four other MIT alumni, as an example. Terrafugia, where Dukach is a board member and investor, is close to obtaining final approval from the FAA and has orders for more than 100 vehicles.
“A flying car wasn’t my dream,” he says. “It was Carl’s. He has always believed that Terrafugia would achieve the impossible, and it will.”
Dukach admits he is partial to MIT startups.
“MIT companies are products of the MIT ecosystem—fundamentally smart,” he says. “Its systems of logic and questions, plus the Institute’s relationships and organizations, are invaluable.”
Dukach has also cofounded and invested in companies like Fast Engines, Vert, AccuRev, PDFFiller, and StartupHive and served as CEO of the Cambridge Business Development Center.
A Moscow native, Dukach moved to the United States in 1979, living primarily in Houston and Boston. He received his bachelor’s in computer science from Columbia University in 1990. He started playing blackjack as a graduate student at MIT during the spring of 1992. Although he stopped playing in the late ’90s, he still offers tips on his website, Blackjack Science.
Dukach is married to Natasha, a violinist, and is the brother of opera singer Inna Dukach and the brother-in-law of Sean Altman, the former lead singer of Rockapella. He has four daughters—Dagny, Miranda, Zoe, and Uliana—and one son, Elio.