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.