Blackjack, also known as 21, is the theme of the 2008 hit movie ‘21’. It’s loosely based on the novel, ‘Bringing Down the House’ by Ben Mezrich, a true story about the activities of The MIT Blackjack Team during the 1980s. But how much of the movie is true to life?
The Movie vs The Truth
The main difference between the true story and the movie is the historical accuracies, like the use of mobile phones which didn’t exist in the early ’80s. Another obvious discrepancy shows Blackjack being played at the Red Rock and Planet Hollywood Casinos in Las Vegas but they didn’t open until the mid-2000s. If mobile phones did exist at the time, the MIT team would likely be gambling at online sites like those found at sister casinos.
Forming the Team
In both real life and the movie, the players successfully manage to pull off a mass scale card-counting scam, despite none of them being experienced gamblers or from a criminal background. In the movie, they are all highly talented students with exceptional maths brains from one of the top universities in the USA and are tutored by a card-counting mastermind.
In real life, the team was formed by three individuals, with the brains behind the initiative being Bill Kaplan, a Harvard Business School Graduate. Having already recruited and trained a similar team in Vegas, he formed the MIT Blackjack Team employing the same business principles and practices as before. Unlike the movie, students were recruited from sources other than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Kaplan himself was from Harvard as well as Jane Willis the real-life Jill Taylor in the movie.
One of the first to join Kaplan was JP Massar, whose interest in gambling led him to attend a university short course entitled ‘How to Gamble If You Must’. His chance meeting with Kaplan was timeous and together they managed the team throughout the 1980s. The third person, John Chang, an MIT Electrical Engineering graduate joined them in late 1982. Chang remains involved in counting cards but has since been blacklisted in most casinos.
In the movie, exceptionally bright and talented students, especially in the field of Mathematics are observed by Micky Rosa, a professor of the university, who recruits and teaches them the art of card counting and other winning strategies. He puts them through a rigorous round of training before introducing them to the Blackjack tables but doesn’t play himself, rather observing and training his protegees whilst making a tidy profit from their winnings.
The Main Characters
In the movie, the main character, Ben Campbell is a Maths genius with phenomenal numbers skills. His ambition to study at Harvard is scuppered due to lack of funds, which makes him an easy recruit, and very soon he is raking in the money. His initial intention to make just enough to fund his studies is overtaken by his success, the excitement of the game, and his disagreement with Micky Rosa.
His real-life counterpart, Jeff Ma, was one of the youngest MIT Blackjack Team recruits and very soon swapped his intentions to attend Harvard for the Blackjack table, which he found more rewarding and exciting. The movie has been criticized for its casting of Ben as Jeff Ma since Ma is of Chinese heritage and bears no resemblance to Ben.
In the movie, Ben’s father passed away, but in fact, Jeff’s father is very much alive and was a guest at the 2008 movie premiere. The money Ben’s mother offered him towards his studies in the movie didn’t happen in real life as Jeff came from a wealthy family and could have afforded to study.
The Movie Romance
Jill Taylor, another of Professor Micky Rosa’s recruits, persuades a reluctant Ben to join the team and an on-screen romance develops. However, Jill Taylor’s real-life counterpart had no romantic connection to Jeff Ma. She and was simply brought into the team at the same time as her boyfriend and nothing ever occurred between the two.
Ben’s Frustration and Outburst
Ben’s constant weekend absences in Vegas jeopardizes his relationship with his two best friends resulting in them kicking him out of their project group. Highly upset and frustrated, he haphazardly loses $200,000 at the casino. In truth, John Chang declared that this would never happen as any member of the MIT Team would be too disciplined and controlled to do anything like this.
In the movie, Cole Williams is the Casino Security Chief who is tasked with watching the players, and, in particular Ben, after it becomes obvious that he isn’t playing a straight game. Ben gets beaten up by Williams and ordered to stay away from the Casino. In reality, this would never happen as major casinos typically use professional security companies such as the real-life Griffin Investigations. Their employee, Andy Andersen, was instrumental in bringing down the MIT Team after following and observing them over several years.