The 21 Movie – Fact Versus Fiction
Before we delve further into the movie and the true identity of the characters shown in it, we’d like to address the common concerns that the plot isn’t factual enough. The infamous reputation of the 21 Film actually suggests that it’s not very accurate. The plot is wrong on many counts – pundits and critics say. It’s not hard to imagine how a movie that is meant to entice the viewer could tempt to producers to go down the path of, well, doing what Hollywood does best – entertain. We, however, have every intention to separate fact from fiction for the sake of coherence with our standpoint of discerning casino experts. We took the time and effort to go back and rewatch the movie in order to take note of inconsistencies with the reality of gambling that we know and have experienced. We will also pinpoint fallacies that could be damaging to a real punter.
|1. “Get as close to 21 as possible without going over”||Not satisfactory. Your objective is to beat the dealer’s hand|
|2. The inference that card counting is only for geniuses||Not exactly. Everyone has the faculties to exploit card counting|
|3. The notion that card counting can win you every hand||Card counting simply allows you to make the best guess|
|4. The notion that pit bosses are clueless meatheads||Much to everyone’s surprise, pit bosses can count cards too!|
|5. The idea pit bosses are allowed to beat you up||That’s simply not true. It’s against the law.|
Learn the 21 Movie Real Story
Those of you looking up the names of Ben Campbell, Micky Rosa, Jill Taylor or anyone else from the MIT card counting movie will be left disappointed. Such people do not exist, at least not under the same name or ethnicity! The film 21 is actually based on Ben Mezrich’s bestseller Bringing Down the House. You might remember the title from our infamous list of gambling books. Bringing Down the House first brought attention to the exploits of the MIT team back in 2003, but later on, many former members of the group went on to say publicly that Mezrich’s take on their story had been greatly exaggerated.
It is somewhat hard to pinpoint on whom exactly Micky Rosa and the rest of Mezrich’s characters were based since the real MIT team was a large organisation with constant player turnover. At times, there were over 60 people playing in different cities. Still, there were a few core members that served as the direct inspiration for the MIT gambling movie 21.
Ben Campbell – an Asian Face
In 21, Jim Sturgess got to play the lead role as Ben Campbell, a maths graduate with dreams of going to Harvard and becoming a doctor. In Mezrich’s book, the lead character was named Kevin Lewis, and by the author’s admittance, he was based on Jeffrey Ma, one of the younger MIT Blackjack Team members that joined in the mid-90s.
Jeff Ma has gained huge popularity thanks to the book and the movie, but he looks nothing like Jim Sturgess – for starters, he is Chinese! However, he took great pleasure in seeing his story on the big screen and was rather pleased with the actor choice. The most observant 21 fans might even find his face slightly familiar because Ma did appear in the movie. He got a cameo as casino dealer Jeffrey, and Ben Campbell even referred to him as ‘my brother from another mother’.
“Honestly, all this movie stuff – all the interviews and promotion – it’s been way crazier than the actual card-counting we did in school.”
In real life, Jeff Ma admits he never had the aspiration of becoming one of the famous card counters. He did want to go to Harvard Med School but was not in dire need of funds to do so and even gave up on that dream because of the opportunities that blackjack offered. After being a successful MIT player for a while, Jeff moved on to other ventures; he is the founder of no less than 4 successful businesses that were sold off to industry giants such as Yahoo and Twitter. Jeff has also dabbled with sports and is closely associated with the ‘Moneyball’ strategy that is painfully familiar to all Liverpool fans.
Nowadays, Jeff Ma is a Senior Director of Business Insights at Twitter, and looks back to his blackjack playing days with pride. He freely talks about his initial doubts when he was invited to the MIT team, but states that card counting was not illegal in any way. The former MIT graduate did have his share of excitement and midnight chases, but he was never beaten up by casino security. The legal ways of stopping card counters were much more reliant on intimidation and permanent bans.
Micky Rosa – a Composite Character
Kevin Spacey took up the role of Math Professor Micky Rosa, much to the delight of the people on whom the character was based. However, none of them was actually a professor at MIT. The blackjack team was started and run entirely by former graduates, and they were the ones who handled all the recruitment.
It is hard to pinpoint a person so important and influential for the original MIT team as Kevin Spacey’s character was in 21. With more than 60 members and over 20 years of history, a more complex management structure was needed. There are no less than 3 people on whose shoulders Micky Rosa stands – J. P. Massar, Bill Kaplan and Johnny Chang. Here is a brief introduction of all three:
- J. P. Massar, famously known as Mr M, was the one who started it all – after attending a university course titled How to Gamble if You Must. A chance meeting with Harvard graduate Bill Kaplan (pictured above), allowed him to turn the part-time to come to fruition.
- Not your regular, Harvard MBA graduate, Bill Kaplan uses the funds he received upon graduation to fund his team of blackjack players to generate a dream return for his effort.
- John Chang would become one of the longest-serving players of the MIT team, and allegedly continues to count cards to this day. Of course, he has to use a disguise, because he has long been blacklisted in most casinos.
“I don’t even know if you want to call the things in there exaggerations, because they’re so exaggerated they’re basically untrue.”
John Chang on Micky Rosa
One of the main inspirations for all the founding members of the MIT blackjack team was Edward Thorp, the creator of card counting who topped our list of great casino cheats – due to the fact that he actually managed to beat the casino without cheating! His famous book Beat the Dealer can even be seen in the movie. Ben Campbell is reading it while on the plane.
Just like Thorp, the MIT blackjack team managers aimed at capitalising on their skills rather than breaking the law. This strategy has allowed them to be successful at many ventures outside gambling. After the team was disbanded, Bill Kaplan moved on to other business projects and has become a well-established entrepreneur, while Massar and Chang are known as blackjack masters and have trained some of the most famous tournament players.
Jill Taylor – Were There Female Blackjack Experts?
The rise in prominence of professional female players in poker and blackjack has been a hot topic for quite a while now. The movie is correct in showing that there were female pros in the MIT blackjack team. In fact, female gamblers have held sway in casinos worldwide for a long time, as the Queen of Sorts reminded us just recently during the infamous edge sorting scandal that surrounded poker icon, Phil Ivey.
MIT graduate Jill Taylor was portrayed by the beautiful Kate Bosworth, and she did have a real-life counterpart: Jane Wills. However, Jane was not part of the MIT community – she was a Harvard recruit. Contrary to what the movie implies, the MIT team had members from other universities. Being considered a math whiz was a more important endorsement than where you had studied.
Jane Wills was fairly close with Jeff Ma, Bill’s real-life counterpart. However, there was never even a hint of romance between them. Jeff was the one who recruited Jane to the MIT team – together with her boyfriend. Both were very close friends to him. Jane would, later on, marry her boyfriend, divorce him and remarry. Following her gambling days, she went on to become a very successful lawyer, and now boasts more than 15 years of experience. Considering her respectable position in society, her blackjack past would have remained a mystery had the movie not prompted her to unveil her story.
“We didn’t do anything dishonest or fraudulent. We were good kids. It’s totally legal to use your brain.”
What About Cole Williams?
We covered some of the most prominent MIT team members, but what about the other side of the barricade? Did the card counters ever face an adversary such as Cole Williams, hell-bent on stopping them?
Well, yes… and no. Cole Williams is one of the characters without a direct basis in real life. During the time the MIT team operated, card counting was already more or less familiar to most casino security staff. After all, Edward Thorp had written a book about it, while Ken Uston had publicised the idea of team play. Casino officials were actively working on preventing the practice, and keeping a lookout for any suspicious players.
The biggest nemesis of the MIT card counters was Griffin Investigations – a security agency used by casinos worldwide. They were famed for their database keeping track of cheaters and scammers. Around the time the MIT team disbanded for the last time, the agency had already figured out many of their techniques and were using MIT graduation books when keeping a lookout for suspicious players.
Andy Anderson is usually credited about cracking the MIT case. He was the chief field agent of Griffin Investigations for more than 20 years, and during the time became well-known in US casinos for his studies on scammers and his constant patrols. The head of the firm was Robert Griffin, later replaced by his wife Bev. The famed agency did not outlive the MIT team by long, as it had to file for bankruptcy after it lost several law-suits against alleged card counters.
“I’m just fine with the one-on-one card counter–that’s a skill. But it’s those who work in groups I don’t like.”
Other Famous MIT Blackjack Team Members
As we already mentioned, the MIT Blackjack Team was a huge beast, and its managers often registered legitimate firms to better divide the earnings. There have been at least several incarnations, with players coming and going constantly. After the main team split during the 90s, ex-players formed several splinter groups famously known as the Amphibians and the Reptiles. They continued to terrorise casinos worldwide until the tightening of security measures slowly forced them to lose interest towards the beginning of the new century. Here are some of the more famous members that we are yet to mention:
- Al Francesco: Never part of the MIT teams, but he was the guy who invented the concept of team play that all blackjack card counting teams have utilised ever since. Ken Uston, who published the first book on the topic, was one of his team’s members.
- Sarah McCord: She was another female pro who joined the team in 1983. Sarah was so good at card counting that she was made partner and received the important task to instruct and train new players. She stuck together with Kaplan, Massar and Chang till the 90s. Had she received an incarnation in the movie, it would have been a character very close and loyal to Micky Rosa.
- Mike Aponte: He was part of the later generations of MIT players, joining shortly before Jeff Ma in 1992 and keeping up with it till the 2000s. In 21 he is the basis of Fisher, but he was never unprofessional when counting cards. In fact, Aponte was the one who recruited Ma.
- David (Dave) Irvine: He was a close friend and associate of Mike Aponte and has become one of the most public MIT team members. Together with Aponte, he co-founded the infamous Blackjack Institute and still keeps in touch with many of his card-counting colleagues.
- Laurie Tsao: She can probably be considered the basis of Kiana from 21. Laurie was an MIT player towards the beginning of the 90s and got married to the team manager and famous veteran Johnny Chang. As recently as 2012 she got involved in a dispute with the Caesars Entertainment casino, so her card-counting days are obviously not behind her.
- Semyon Dukach: He is arguably one of the most famous MIT members and the only one to feature in Mezrich’s books with his real name. He was the head of the Amphibians branch that appeared after the original MIT team fell apart and continued to operate till the end of the 90s. Since then, he has become one of the top angel investors in New England, funding over 100 start-ups and aiding many of the immigrants that want to start a business in the USA.
We assume that if you watched the movie 21, then you got somehow inspired and thought of giving a shot to the beloved card game. Still, many people prefer other kinds of betting, like for example roulette casino sites that can grant you bonuses, promotions and a lot of fun. Or maybe you are more into online slot sites? Whatever it is, we have it on our website, be sure.
MIT Blackjack Team Frequently Asked Questions
A romantic story with betrayal and huge winnings is most than worthy of a Hollywood movie. Well, not that everything in the movie is actually following the true story but it’s close enough of a match if you ask us! There are interesting facts about the movie and the deeds (or misdeeds) of the MIT Blackjack Team, so we decided to research and answer the commonly asked questions on the topic.