21: THE REAL STORY BEHIND THE FILM ABOUT BLACKJACK
21, the “true-story” of a group of MIT students who took to Vegas and won millions of dollars thanks to their almost super-human intelligence, is one of those films that will divide a room. On one hand, you have people who love the film in all its rags to riches glory – Rolling Stone gave the film a decent 75 per cent when they reviewed it. On the other hand, you have publications like the Wall Street Journal who gave it 50 per cent, unequivocally stating that “very little adds up in 21”.
But isn’t 21 supposed to be a true story? Kind of – 21 is a story based on a book called Bringing Down the House, which was very, very loosely based on a true story. It may come as little surprise that Hollywood fudged some of the details to make a movie, although in this case “some” accounts for the majority of the movie. For a start, the team wasn’t led by Micky Rosa, the unorthodox math professor portrayed by Kevin Spacey.
Instead, Rosa is a composite of three separate individuals, none of whom were actually MIT professors. While the biggest influence in Rosa’s character, John Chang, was an MIT student until he graduated in 1985, he wasn’t even a mathematician – he was an electrical engineer.
With the head of the team being fictional, it makes you wonder about the rest of the team. Jeff Ma, the MIT student the protagonist Ben Campbell is based on, isn’t quite right either. When the film was released, the issue of ethnicity was a bit of an issue – it has since been pointed out repeatedly over the years that most of the team was Asian in real life, whereas they’re not Asian in reel version.
This isn’t a major issue though, as the real team have said outright that they weren’t offended or bothered by their counterparts, and to be honest, this is the least of the film’s character problems - Ben’s background is entirely wrong.
In 21, Ben falls into the world of counting cards as a way to pay for med school. Jeff Ma actually came from a fairly well-off family, and his father – notably absent in the movie for reasons of drama – was a guest at the Las Vegas premiere in 2008. That must have been awkward for Mr Ma to watch.
Even Ben’s love story is entirely fictional – Jeff and Jane (played by Kate Bosworth) were never romantically involved – it was all just added for the drama. Jeff recruited Jane back when she was a student at Harvard, not MIT. It wasn’t an MIT exclusive team in the slightest, punching another hole in the “true story” of Vegas’ most notorious card counters.
To quote John Chang on Bringing Down the House, “I don't even know if you want to call the things in there exaggerations, because they're so exaggerated they're basically untrue.”
So if all of the important characters are entirely wrong, surely the Blackjack is accurate? In fairness to the movie, there are parts of this that were correct. The team did use code words to signal what was going on. For example, if the count was 8, the spotter might mention that he was thinking about stopping by the pool later – the most important ball in a game of pool being the 8-ball, of course.
This being said, a lot of the casino-based plot is fiction. They wouldn’t walk in and out of the casino together as they wanted to give the idea that they had never met, and casino security never attacked and beat up any member of the team. Vegas, believe it or not, is not run by gangsters. On top of this, while it possible to get very, very good at Blackjack, card counting isn’t as sure-fire as 21 likes to make out you could have a better chance by bringing your A game with the help from this academy.
While the team won around $500,000 on their best trip, they lost around $130,000 on their worst day. There is still an element of risk in card counting – it doesn’t guarantee that you will win. On top of this, you don’t have to be a genius to count cards – you just have to have the patience to practice, a basic level of arithmetic and an average level of intelligence and you’re good to go.