It's the ultimate dream of anyone who's ever set foot in a casino — win fast, win big, win the "Rain Man" suite, win the girl of your dreams, win enough to bring down the house.
For the real-life players behind "21," a new film that centers on a group of M.I.T. card-counting grifters, it was a dream that became reality.
"A group of M.I.T. math geniuses come to Las Vegas and get the keys to this rock-and-roll lifestyle," director Robert Luletic explained. "There was a fantasy element to it that I couldn't help but be attracted to."
Fantasy, sure — if your fantasy is to find the hardest way possible to make an easy living.
"You have to concentrate on all the numbers that are flying out [from the deck] at a hundred miles per hour, and at the same time play the game, and at the same time try to look as if you're not counting," star Jim Sturgess marveled, as he described the technique used by his character in the movie. "And there's so many distractions — waitresses asking for drinks. How they did it, I have no idea!"
They did it by following a complicated mathematical formula that assigned point values to different cards in a standard blackjack deck, and then buddying up to beat the system in tandem — a plan that netted them millions.
And, to think, mused Jeff Ma, who served as the real-life inspiration for both the movie and the book on which it is based, it all started with a little algebra.
"When you're blessed to be smart and good at math, there's a lot of things you can do. So I found a calling with blackjack where I could go and beat the casino for a lot of money, which was a blast," Ma told MTV News. "I never thought of myself as using my gifted mind. I just thought it would be cool to go to Vegas and win a lot of money, then go back to Boston and spend it."
If only he could impart some of that knowledge to the actors, the cast laughed.
"I'm a bright man, but when it comes to math, it all ends there," Kevin Spacey admitted.
"To be quite honest, I'm not very gifted in math," Kate Bosworth sighed.
The M.I.T. strategy, like most card-counting techniques, seeks to identify when the house holds the weakest possible edge and then exploits those moments with big bets. The students got so good at exploiting those windows of opportunity that none are allowed to ever play blackjack in any Vegas casino again.
"When we came on early research trips with all the guys on the team, we'd sit at a table like this, and they'd stand behind me, because even though they weren't allowed to play, the casino was fine that they were with us," Spacey explained. "And every time they wanted me to up my bet, they would just push against my chair, and every single time I won. Every time. I mean it was astounding."
Of course, in real life it's not an every-time proposition. But given Hollywood's history of exaggerating such claims, was the movie at all like the real thing?
"When I saw the movie, I screened it with Ben Mezrich who wrote the book, and he said, 'I think the movie's better than the book,' " Ma recalled. "And I actually wanted to say, 'I think the movie's better than my life.' "
"21" opens Friday (March 28).
Read Kurt Loder's review of "21."
Check out everything we've got on "21."
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