Myths & Facts in the movie "21"
Last edit: October, 2013.
I saw the movie "21" with the Wizard of Odds in Las Vegas on its opening day (3/28/08). I liked the movie, but I did notice some inaccuracies and afterward I told the Wizard I was thinking of writing an article about them. He said, "You ought to write about the things they got right, that would be a shorter list." I guess I wasn't quite as hard on the movie as he was because, after all, it's just a Hollywood movie, just entertainment. Still, lots of stuff wasn't really true, and I know fans will be looking around to find out what was real and what wasn't, so for them, here ya go.
The movie didn't follow the book very closely (Bringing Down the House), but then again even the book wasn't especially true to the original story, either. Here's what John Chang, whom the character Micky Rosa is based on, said about the book:
"You might wonder, are the books true? Put yourself in [book writer] Mezrich's place. He wants to sell books. If he makes up a few lurid details, well, who's going to object? So, let's beat up one of the players. In fact, let's make him swallow a chip. Yeah. Oh, and let's hire a stripper to cash out for us.... And if the technical details are a little fuzzy, who cares? No one is going to know the difference." (MickeyRosa.com)
And here's what Mike Aponte ("Fisher") said about the book:
"The general premise of the book was correct, but if you look at the chronology of the book in terms of who, what, when, and where events transpired, very little is 100% accurate. There are parts which are completely fabricated. I am one of a couple of people who knows exactly what certain events in the book were derived from. There are some parts in the book where I just scratch my head because obviously Ben Mezrich, the author, took artistic liberties. One of Martinez's friends asked him, 'Where is that underground casino in Chinatown? I can't find it anywhere.' Well, there was no secret casino in Chinatown, but I do know how Mezrich came up with that idea." (BlackjackInfo)
So when the book wasn't completely accurate, and the movie is even farther from the book, then we know the movie must be pretty far off, too. Rather than "based on a true story", it's more like "inspired by a true story". A former MIT team member, Andy Bloch, confirms this, saying, "There were plenty of scenes that I found implausible."
But of course, the movie wasn't completely fictional, either. There were actually MIT blackjack teams who went to Vegas, counted cards, and won some money. But the real teams had more members, played in the early-to-mid 90's instead of the present, bet a lot less money, and made a lot less money. And none of them got beat up by angry casino people.
John Chang ("Micky Rosa") says, "What I found most accurate in 21 was the portrayal of feelings. The feeling of being introduced to the team, the hard work training (can you say Rocky?), the exhaustion after playing all night, the rags to riches to rags feelings when we'd go from MIT student to high roller and back again, and the sick feeling of losing, are all spot on." (MickeyRosa.com)
Incidentally, I'm one degree of separation away from "Micky Rosa" and one or two from "Ben Campbell", but I have no ability to obtain any more information than I present in this article. [Flash! Micky Rosa linked to this page you're reading now from his blog, calling it "well-researched". Whoo-hoo!]
Okay, so here's the big list of the real deal.
The principals were Asian.
Here's the Who's Who of the book and the movie:
21 Movie name
Bringing Down the House
(aka MIT Mike)
The real-life versions of "Ben", "Micky", and "Fisher" are Asian, but were made white for the movie. It seems that Hollywood can't fade an Asian as the hero, not to mention the supporting characters. (Yes, two of the players in the movie are Asian the two with the smallest roles.)
However, in the book, Kevin Lewis was identified as half Chinese, and Fisher was identified as half Asian as well.
There's a lot of buzz on the net about the Asian whitewashing, with some folks calling for a boycott. But interestingly, neither John Chang nor Jeffrey Ma themselves really cares about this issue. John Chang says, "Being played by a 2-time Oscar winner isn't exactly an insult." And Jeff Ma says, "For me it wasn't a big deal, because for about three years people had been asking me who I wanted to play me in a movie and I never was saying like 'John Cho' or 'Chow Yun-Fat' or 'Jackie Chan' "
By the way, the players' Asian heritage supposedly wasn't exactly a coincidence. According to the book, Ma was recruited into the team in part because of his Asian looks, which used to be a boon for card-counting, since casino staff expect card counters to be white (perhaps the same way that people expect the lead of a movie to be white).
Incidentally, some people claim that Micky Rosa is a composite of John Chang and Mr. M.(J. P. Massar, who is not Asian). While that may be partially true, I believe that Rosa is mostly John Chang, since Chang used the name Micky Rosa when playing in the World Series of Blackjack.
The characters were only loosely based.
In the movie...
In real life...
Ben Campbell's father is dead, and Ben desperately needs money for med school.
Jeff Ma's father is very much alive, the family is well-to-do, and Jeff was no longer planning a career in medicine by the time he got involved with the MIT team.
Micky Rosa was an MIT professor.
And since Rosa/Chang wasn't an actual professor, he didn't pull strings to block Campbell/Lewis' graduation from MIT (which is what was depicted in the movie). He also didn't steal $315k from Lewis after Lewis lost $200k at the tables by playing poorly. Neither of those things is mentioned in the book, by the way.
Genius-level intelligence is not necessary to count cards.
Over and over the movie hammers home what a genius Ben Campbell is, from his 1590 SAT score to his calculator-like totaling of a customer's bill in the suit store. But counting cards is nowhere near that hard. The reasons that most people don't count cards have little to do with difficulty and more to do with other factors:
- Perceived Difficulty. Even though card-counting isn't that hard, most people don't know that. They think it's out of their reach.
- Laziness. Most people just don't want to bother to learn.
- Boring. Most people go to Vegas to play and have a good time. But counting cards monopolizes your mind, and probably takes the fun out of the experience for most people.
- Not profitable. Even with blackjack the age-old saying is true: "It takes money to make money." You need about $25,000 in capital to make just $20 an hour counting cards. And if you're the kind of person with $25k lying around, you're probably already making more than $20/hr.
Counters don't always win.
Counters do not win every session, or even every trip, or even every month. The counter's edge over the casino is tiny. It's almost a coin toss. A counter will win in the long term (assuming s/he doesn't go broke first), but in the short term anything can happen. The movie's portrayal of consistent wins was simply unrealistic. John Chang confirms that:As Andy points out, it just wasn't that easy. We didn't win every time. In fact, we endured months of losing from time to time.One thing that struck me was that "Breaking Vegas" [the TV show] was based on Strategic Investments [the MIT team from '91-'93] and the show made it seem as if everything was great on SI. They glossed over the fact that in the end Strategic Investments failed, and didn't make much money. The show made it seem as if Strategic Investments dissolved because the team decided to move on to other things, but the reason it broke up was because SI didn't do very well.
Aponte says that SI failed because of mismanagement, low standards of quality for the players, and experimentation with methods like shuffle tracking and card steering which are theoretically more profitable than card counting but extremely difficult to execute.
The win was exaggerated.
In the movie Ben won $315,000, presumably in less than a year, but the true average win for each of the MIT players was around $25,000/yr. (Blackjack Forum) The movie also says the money was split 50% to "Micky Rosa" with the rest divided among the five players, so that would mean they won $3.15M total that year. But in fact, the team won only $10M over a twenty-year period, or $500k/yr. Some years were better, of course. Mike Aponte says they did manage to win $500k once in a single weekend. (video interview)
Let's assume the movie team did actually win $3.15M, or $185k per the 17 trips stated in the movie. Assuming 24 hours of playing time for each of two big players (the movie showed one, but there were actually at least two), which is generous, that's about $3900/hr. for each big player. Schlessinger shows that back-counters win about 1 unit for every 100 hands played. (Blackjack Attack, p. 137) If the big players play 25 hands per hour, then a $3900 hourly win means the betting unit must have been $3900 x 4 = $15,600. And this assumes that the spoters aren't playing at a disadvantage, even though they are. But the table limit on the floor is $10,000 at best. It's sometimes possible to negotiate a higher limit in high limit rooms, but the movie showed the players on the floor, not in special rooms. What all this means is, it's unlikely the team could have won $3.15M over 17 trips because it would have been hard for them to get enough money on the table. And in fact, the team's typical bet was $1000, and $2000 at most, so at those smaller stakes $3.15M in 17 trips becomes pretty much impossible.
Counters don't get beat up.
Beatings sometimes happened from the 60's through 80's when the mob ran Vegas, but it doesn't happen in Vegas any more. It certainly didn't happen to the MIT team. These days the casinos are owned by corporations who are beholden to stockholders. As John Chang ("Micky Rosa") said: "You might wonder, are the books true? Put yourself in [book writer] Mezrich's place. He wants to sell books. If he makes up a few lurid details, well, who's going to object? So, let's beat up one of the players. In fact, let's make him swallow a chip. Yeah." (MickeyRosa.com)
A few years ago two different casinos handcuffed advantage player James Grosjean and threatened him, but neither actually hit him. Even without getting hit, he still won a judgement of nearly half a million dollars from one of the casinos, Imperial Palace, and a $100,000 judgement from the other (Caesars).
- 1990's. John Chang ("Micky Rosa") describes some minor abuse in an interview, but certainly nothing like what was depicted in the movie. Presumably this happened during the MIT team's reign in the 90's.
- April 2000. James Grosjean was falsely arrested at Caesars Palace, but was not physically abused. Still, he and his partner later won a $100,000 judgement for the false arrest against Caesars and Griffin Investigations, the private detective firm which had falsely identified the players as cheaters. Griffin was later forced to file for bankruptcy, even though it had been in business for nearly 40 years.
- February 2001. James Grosjean was falsely detained (not beaten) by the Imperial Palace and Gaming Control agents shortly after the Caesars incident. He sued and won a judgement of over $400,000. (Blackjack Forum)
Actual beatings (older times, or outside Las Vegas)
- 1978. Ken Uston had his face broken by a casino security guard at the Mapes casino in Reno. (Blackjack Forum)
- 1986. Ken Uston's teammate was abused by guards at the Flamingo Hilton.
- 1988. Two players were hospitalized after being beaten by guards at Binion's Horseshoe. The players later sued. This might have taken place before 1988; the 1988 date was when the trial was reported on, which was all I could dig up about it.
- 1990's. In 2003, a player recounted being beaten up by guards at the Eldorado in Reno "a few years ago".
Surveillance is not so clueless.
The movie showed a casino manager being incredulous that one of the private surveillance people he hired could count cards. Which is silly, because that's one of the skills you have to have to get hired for that job in the first place. Heck, lots of casino floor people and managers can count, also. If the ability to count were truly so rare among casino workers then card counters would be robbing the casinos blind. In fact, the main difficulty in counting cards isn't the actual counting, it's not getting caught.
Incidentally, the security company depicted in the movie was called Plymouth, and in real life it was Griffin Investigations, but Griffin went bankrupt in 2005 after a successful lawsuit by a player. (See previous section.)
Ben didn't hide the money is the dorm ceiling.
We're supposed to believe that Ben is simultaneously a fantastic genius who scored 1590 on his SAT's, yet he's so stupid that he keeps a third of a million dollars in the ceiling of his dorm room?! Well, of course that never happened.
For starters, Ben/Jeff's take was just not that much, as described elsewhere in this article. MIT team members averaged only $25,000/yr.
Second, it's easier to keep a lot of the money in Vegas rather than moving it back and forth all the time. Teamember Mike Aponte confirms this: "We kept a large inventory of chips so that we didn't have to continually cash in and out every trip we played."
Third, even though they might hide some of their money around their abode, they wouldn't keep all of it in the same place. This story illustrates that:When John ["Micky Rosa"] was going to move to California I went back to help him pack and clean out his apartment. The first night I was sitting at his cluttered desk. On the desk was a jar. I opened it up and saw a bunch of chips. I said, "Oh, this is where you keep your chips." He said, "What, I have chips there?" I pulled it out and it was $6,000. I thought this was a fluke.
Then I was cleaning out the closet and I saw a dirty, old, fanny pack in the corner. I was going to throw it out, but I opened it first and found $20,000 in traveler's checks. I said, "John, you have $20,000 in traveler's checks here." He said, "I do?"
Next, there were all these boxes full of junk. I told him we should go through the boxes and throw out the stuff he didn't need rather than shipping them to California. He started going through the boxes and found an envelope. He ran out and hugged me and said, "Please, please, don't tell anybody. This is bad even for me." I sad, "What is it?" It was $120,000 in traveler's checks. I have never met anyone like this. I said, "Are you insane?" He said, "You aren't going to find any more. This is it for sure."
The last day I opened a big box and found $16,000 or $18,000 in Atlantic City chips. Over the course of two weeks I found $165,000 that he didn't know he had. He said he had a slight feeling he was a little short. (Blackjack Forum)
Training timeframe was skewed.
In the movie it takes (presumably) weeks of training before Ben is clued in about how team play works with a Big Player. That's crazy. This would be in the first fifteen minutes of any instruction I gave to anyone about counting cards. Likewise, we're supposed to believe that after all this training, when Ben gets to the casino he's unaware that he's not supposed to touch his cards. Likewise, when we hear him counting the cards in his head at the casino he does so at a glacial pace, not merely unbefitting an academic whiz-kid, but unbefitting anyone who's had a modest amount of practice with counting. He might have counted that slowly the first time or two he practiced, but not by the time he got to the casino. Of course, the slower scene worked better for the movie...
Timeframe is different.
Jeff Ma's team played in the early 90's. But the movie shows the Red Rock and Planet Hollywood casinos, which didn't open until 2007. Incidentally, the book mentions the hero seeing the Stratosphere casino tower from the plane on his first trip to Vegas, though the tower wasn't built until 1996.
Hard Rock interiors not actually the Hard Rock.
The hallways, rooms, and views of the Hard Rock Hotel in the movie are not actually the Hard Rock. (I've stayed at the Hard Rock myself multiple times.) The casino interior is legit, though. I've passed the area where Ben Campbell falls down nearly every day for the last couple of months, on my way to the Hard Rock gym.
There was one team of five players.
There were actually two teams, with as many as 25 total players. (Blackjack Info)
Didn't have strippers cash out their chips.
In the book it's Micky Rosa's idea to have strippers cash out the MGM Grand chips. In the movie it's Ben Campbell's idea. But in fact, that event never happened at all. M ike Aponte ("Fisher") says: "Whenever someone asks me that question, I say, 'We went to MIT, do you really think we would give strippers $1000 and $5000 chips?' Who in their right mind would do that?"
Object of the game is not to get close to 21.
The goal of blackjack is commonly misdescribed (including in the movie) as "trying to get as close to 21 as possible without going over." But that's not really true, because often you'll stand on a total of 12, and 12 is pretty far from 21. The proper description is, "The goal is to beat the dealer." Sometimes you'll do that by trying to get close to 21, sometimes you won't.
Splitting 8's a sucker bet?
I believe in the movie one team member told another team member that splitting 8's againts a dealer 10 or ace is a "sucker play", when in fact, splitting is the proper play. The Wizard mentioned to me that perhaps her comment was supposed to have been sarcastic, but I'm not certain.
Bet sizes were exaggerated?
Do I remember correctly that when "Ben" was rehearsing in front of the mirror, he was talking about placing a half-million-dollar bet? If so, then he would have likely been seriously overbetting his bankroll. In fact, the typical bet was only $1000, and $2000 at most. They just weren't capitalized to bet higher. You just don't suddenly bet 500x what you normally bet, no matter how good the count gets. Besides, no casino would let you bet that much anyway. And even if they did, you certainly couldn't bet that much and fly under the radar about it.
Playing style is different from the movie.
A member on Wizard of Vegas says, "I love how the DVD has commentary from Chris Ferguson, Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, and Chris Moneymaker. They all point out repeatedly how badly all the characters are playing."
- There were TV shows about the MIT teams that
predated the movie: "Breaking
Vegas" on the History channel and "Anything for Money"
on the GSN Network.
- Jeff Ma ["Ben Campbell"] on how card counting was
explained in the movie: "Any card counter that
watched that would feel like "Wow, they did a real good job
explaining something that is pretty difficult to explain
it Cool News)
Um, well, I don't think it was really explained that
well. I think they could have taken another 20 seconds
to explain the +1/-1 thing a little better, and that
wouldn't have been so technical that it put people to
sleep. Heck, they could have taken a full minute by
having "Ben" narrate over an animation.
- Mike Aponte interview. In this
interview, MIT team member says:
- MIT teams started in 1982.
- SI formed in 1991.
- Aponte joined SI team in 1992, which failed due to mismanagement.
- Rosa started a new team of ten players in 1994, picking Aponte and Aponte's friend, Martinez.
- The teams had as many as 25 players.
- Largest win was half a million, largest loss was $131,000.
The MIT team
- MickeyRosa.com. Web page of John Chang, upon whom the Micky Rosa character is based. Note that it's spelled "Micky" in the book and movie, but "Mickey" on the website.
- Chang not a professor. Casino Guide says that Chang was an assistant professor, not a full professor, but Chang says he wasn't a professor at all.
Chang's 1985 thesis on blackjack. From
the MIT archives.
P. Massar page on Wikipedia. Some claim
that the Micky Rosa character is partly based on Massar,
though I think there's general agreement that Micky Rosa is
mostly modeled after John Chang.
- Jeff Ma interview about "21". On Ain't it Cool News.
- Jeff Ma page at speakers bureau. Jeff Ma ("Ben Campbell" and "Kevin Lewis") is available as a speaker-for-hire.
- Mike Aponte interview. Lengthy interview with Mike Aponte, the MIT team member whom the character "Fisher" is based on.
- The Mike Aponte video interview I originally linked to is no longer online, but here's a YouTube video where Aponte explains card-counting.
- Andy Bloch reviews "21". Here's the take on the movie by another MIT team member.
- MIT players actually averaged only $25,000/yr. each. And the total team take was only $10 million over 20 years.
The movie and the book
- "21" page on IMDB. (Internet Movie DataBase).
- Bringing Down the House. Book upon which the movie was based.
Consequences to card counters
- James Grosjean's arrest in April 2000 at Caesars Palace.
- James Grosjean successfully sues Caesars Palace.
- Cases in which card counters were harassed (more recently) or even beaten (older times) by casino personnel.
General blackjack stuff