Over a seven-year period beginning in 1993, a group of math prodigies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology won more than $3 million playing blackjack in Las Vegas and elsewhere by counting cards and using a cloak-and-dagger subterfuge system of signals and disguises. Their story, first chronicled by author Ben Mezrich in his best-seller "Bringing Down the House," is the basis of "21," with Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth. Kevin Spacey also stars as the modern-day Fagin of a math professor who teaches his charges to beat the casinos.
Sturgess ("Across the Universe," "The Other Boleyn Girl") plays Jim Campbell, an MIT senior who's been accepted to Harvard Medical School but lacks the $300,000 to pay for it. He initially resists when he's recruited to join the clandestine card counters, but he relents when he realizes it's an answer to his financial problems. Soon, though, he's seduced by the lure of Sin City and sudden wealth. As director Robert Luketic puts it, "It's about one boy's journey through the rabbit hole that is Las Vegas. And it gives you a glimpse of what it's like to be a VIP, what it's like to be on the other side of the fence."
Luketic didn't have to fake Las Vegas verisimilitude as he shot on location there -- a logistical complexity in itself when you're dealing with working casinos -- and in Boston, but streamlining and simplifying the story for the screen and making the game of blackjack cinematically compelling were among the challenges he faced in bringing "21" to the screen.
So how did he do it? How did the real-life card counters beat the system? And how much in the film is truth and how much is dramatic license? Luketic and Jeff Ma, the MIT grad on whom the Ben Campbell character is based, give us the rundown in this article.
The MIT Blackjack Team on the Big Screen
"I was fascinated by the story, the idea of taking Vegas for millions," says director Robert Luketic, who'd read an excerpt of Ben Mezrich's "Bringing Down the House" in Wired magazine. He was crushed when he found out the rights had been already snapped up by Kevin Spacey and his producing partner, Dana Brunetti. "I threw the magazine across the room and pouted for about two weeks," the Australian director admits.
He forgot about the idea until his agent sent him Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb's script for "21." "It's funny how things come full circle," Luketic says, noting that the script came to him at a time when he was eager to break out of the romantic comedy pigeonhole he'd landed in after directing "Legally Blonde," "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton," and "Monster-in-Law." (The writers had added a romantic element to the story, but it isn't a focal point of the movie.)
Jeff Ma, Mezrich's main source for "Bringing Down the House," was also an invaluable source of information for Luketic. "At the first dinner we had, he told all kinds of incredible stories and scenarios and situations," Luketic says. "It humanized the story and took it to a whole new level."
Mezrich's book provided inspiration, but Luketic thought it needed some alterations. "We focused it on one particular character's journey and changed some of the names and places for legal reasons," he says. "But we were authentic in terms of the way the team worked and the system they used."
Luketic and the writers took other minor liberties with the story, including:
- Ma had applied to Harvard Medical School, but the tuition payments weren't the reason for his participation in the blackjack scheme.
- The movie's card counters visit only Las Vegas, but Ma and his cohorts hit casinos in Atlantic City, N.J.; Shreveport, La.; Chicago; the Caribbean and Connecticut.
- The time frame is condensed, and many of the characters are composites. But Ma found much of it "eerily accurate."
- Ben is caught and roughed up twice in the movie, but Ma was never apprehended in real life. He knows that some team members were "taken to back rooms and treated very poorly," but he never heard about physical abuse.
- The MIT team never used flashcards to help them memorize code words for numbers, either. "[But] otherwise, the codes and numbers were accurate," Ma says.
How Card Counting Works
So, how did they do it? The MIT team's intricate system certainly paid off -- but it wasn't totally foolproof.
"To optimize the time we spent in the casino, we had a division of labor," Jeff Ma says. "The back counter stood by a table and counted. The spotter played low-wager bets and signaled to the big player when the table was hot. And the gorilla player didn't count -- he was signaled what to bet."
The signal system was based on values they assigned to the cards. Each number in the count had a corresponding code word. "For example, the word for plus 15 was paycheck. The spotter might say to the dealer, 'You're making me lose my whole paycheck!' Then I'd know the count was plus 15," Ma says. "We also had hand signals. Touching your nose meant you understood what was being conveyed to you. Touching your eye meant 'follow me.' Touching your ear meant you didn't hear and needed the information repeated. Rubbing your hands through your hair meant you thought we were getting attention and needed to get out of there. Touching the back of your neck meant it was time to quit."
Of course, they sometimes made mistakes -- inadvertently using code words and signals, for example. Ma once absentmindedly touched the back of his neck and looked around to discover that his partners had left, as instructed.
The team members frequently changed their hair, makeup and wardrobe but were nevertheless eventually banned from the blackjack tables at many casinos, including the Hard Rock, one of those featured in the movie. "That was the first casinos where I was kicked out and told I couldn't play blackjack anymore," Ma says. "That [scene] really brought back a lot of memories."
Ma decided not to go to medical school -- he became an options trader in Chicago, moved back to Boston and invested some of his six-figure earnings in a house, a bar and Internet companies. He teaches card counting on the Web but doesn't do it himself anymore. Going to Las Vegas now is "a totally different experience," he says. "Before, it was a business trip. Now it's a vacation."
Filming "21" in a Casino
"21" was shot in winter 2007 in Las Vegas and Boston. Interiors were, for the most part, filmed on stages in Boston, but a few Vegas hotels did grant permission to film inside their casinos. "They either welcomed us with open arms or didn't want anything to do with it," director Robert Luketic says. "[Some hotels] didn't want to glamorize cheating. They put too many restrictions on us. But Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock let us shut down entire sections, in peak time, perhaps because of the younger clientele they attract."
Shooting in a working casino and separating 200 extras from civilians was difficult, to say the least. "We had a lot of security, but just trying to control such a public place was hard. It hindered us at times," Luketic says.
The movie's climactic chase scene was filmed at Planet Hollywood, at least in part. "Once they burst behind the scenes at the casino, that's a convention center in Boston," Luketic says. He put the scene to the side for a month and came back to it, which caused continuity problems. "Minutiae like the hair, which hand the bag was in -- all those things have to be recreated … It might not seem like it but there's a lot of discussion that happens before the camera rolls, and a lot of nervousness."
Another memorable scene, in which two characters are stationary as the sped-up action takes place around them, "was a very complicated sequence that was shot over many, many weeks in all sorts of locations, at different speeds," Luketic says.
All the Las Vegas scenes had to be shot out of sequence at the start of production. But the cast had gone through "blackjack boot camp" for a few days before the shoot, learning the ropes from gambling expert Kyle Morris. "We sent them to chip-handling classes, to card-counting classes," Luketic says. "Some of them had never touched chips in their lives. We had to teach them how to do that, play the game plus learn all the hand signals and create a performance within that."
Some were quick studies. "Kate Bosworth and Aaron Yoo [who plays Choi] picked it up incredibly fast," says Luketic. "Kate was spinning chips around her fingers like a professional."
Boston posed its own set of production problems, especially during the coldest winter on record. And MIT refused to allow filming on campus -- so Luketic shot from a helicopter and on the street in front of the campus. Boston University and Harvard Medical School were more welcoming, he says.
Although Jeff Ma wasn't an official adviser, he was on set in Las Vegas and visited several times in Boston, making himself available to the actors. He joined their ranks briefly, playing a blackjack dealer in one scene: "I can't even begin to tell you how surreal it was."
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More Great Links
- Robert Luketic interviewed Feb. 28, 2008
- Jeff Ma interviewed Feb. 29, 2008