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No. Jeff Ma, the real life Ben Campbell, came from a well-to-do family. Unlike in the movie 21, his mother never offered him a life savings of over $60,000 for med school. "I actually did want to go to Harvard Medical School," admits Jeff Ma, "but I didn't actually play blackjack necessarily to go to Harvard Medical School. ... One of the reasons I ended up not going to Harvard Medical School is because of blackjack and all the money I could make there." -DoublePlayTV.com
No. Former team leader John Chang said that the movie's scholarship interview is a plot device that "never happened" in real life. "It's a clever technique to tell the story, but because of it, it makes the ending too predictable. You know that Campbell never gets to keep what he made — otherwise, why would he be applying?" -MickeyRosa.com
No. The real Jeff Ma (Ben from the movie) says that his father is very much alive and well, unlike the character's father in the movie. His parents and his sister were his guests at the 2008 21 movie premiere at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. -AICN.com
The movie shows the characters talking on cell phones and playing blackjack at the Red Rock and Planet Hollywood casinos, which didn't open until 2006 and 2007, respectively. The 21 true story reveals that the real MIT Blackjack Team, on which the movie was based, played in the early 1990s. The MIT Blackjack Team first came into existence in 1980. It was started by Bill Kaplan (part of the inspiration for Kevin Spacey's character), who founded the team on the same business principles and practices that he had employed in starting and running a Vegas based team for the previous three years. "JP Massar and a couple of his MIT friends were the first players I trained and brought on board," says Kaplan. "I brought JP on to co-manage with me about a year later and we ran the Team through the mid-1980s. One of the players we trained in late 1982 and 1983 was John Chang." (Bill Kaplan)
Yes. Mike Aponte, the real life Jimmy Fisher, recruited Jeff Ma (Ben Campbell in 21) to play on the MIT team. "When we were good friends in college I brought [Jeff Ma] onto the team, recruited him and taught him how to play," says Mike Aponte. -RawVegas.com
No. The movie falsely makes the team out to be an MIT only club. In reality, there were members from other schools, including Harvard and Princeton. For example, Jane Willis, the basis for Kate Bosworth's character, attended Harvard not MIT (The Boston Globe). Bill Kaplan, one of the team's leaders, graduated from Harvard University and Harvard Business School (WickedLocal.com).
Yes. The movie shows Ben using flash cards to practice the various code words, which were used to represent the count. The Spotter conveys the count to the Big Player by casually using the code word in a sentence. For example, after the Big Player has been signaled that the table is hot, the Spotter might say nonchalantly, "This iced tea is too sweet," letting the Big Player know that the count is 16, because "sweet" = "sweet sixteen" = 16. A list of the code words and their corresponding values is displayed below:
Tree: +1 (a tree looks like a one), Switch: +2 (binary, on or off), Stool: +3 (a stool has three legs), Car: +4 (cars have four tires), Glove: +5 (a glove has five fingers), Gun: +6 (a gun holds six bullets), Craps: +7 (lucky seven), Pool: +8 (eight ball)
Prior to this point, the count isn't high enough in face cards and 10's to warrant extravagant bets. However, after this point, the odds are in your favor. It is okay to bet semi-recklessly.
Cat: +9 (cats have nine lives), Bowling: +10 (strike is ten pins), Football: +11 (eleven players on a football team), Eggs: +12 (twelve eggs in a carton), Witch: +13 (superstition, bad luck number)
If the count is greater than this, Ben Mezrich's book "Bringing Down the House" tells us that we should put it all on the table.
Ring: +14 (fourteen carat gold), Paycheck: +15 (day of the month most people get paid), Sweet: +16 (sweet sixteen), Magazine: +17 (name of the teen magazine), Voting booth: +18 (age you can vote)
Mike Aponte, who the Fisher character is based on, addressed this question by saying, "There are some parts in the book where I just scratch my head because obviously Ben Mezrich, the author, took artistic liberties. ...there was no secret casino in Chinatown, but I do know how Mezrich came up with that idea. Martinez, [Jeff Ma] and I had a friend who was king of the Asian nightclub scene. On Chinese New Year, he invited us to a private party in Chinatown. When we arrived, we saw they had a few blackjack tables set up. It wasn't much, but they were playing for real money." (BlackJackInfo.com)
Mike Aponte, the basis for the Fisher character, says that they did carry most of the money on their persons when going through airport security. This is because cash was easily recognized by security through the x-ray machine. If they had a lot of chips, they stored them in carry-on bags. Mike says that security usually didn't realize the number of chips that were actually there (BlackJackInfo.com).
Ben Mezrich's book Bringing Down the House describes much more elaborate techniques that the players used to smuggle money. The methods include using fake umbrellas, laptop computers, plaster casts and hollow crutches. The author even quotes the book's main character, Kevin Lewis, whose real life counterpart is Jeff Ma. But Ma said that he never described such techniques to Mezrich, or knew of anyone using them. Jeff Ma said that the first time that he had heard of such cloak-and-dagger tactics was when he read Mezrich's book. -The Boston Globe
In an interview with Quint from Ain't It Cool News, Jeff Ma, the real life individual on whom the movie's main character is based, said the following, "I realized it's not really a movie about me. It's not like an autobiographical documentary about my life. It's a cool movie about stuff that we did and a lot of the stuff that we did is very on point and true in the movie, but the storyline has changed quite a bit." -AICN.com
Mike Aponte, the basis for the Fisher character, addressed the movie's fiction by saying, "Well, the movie is pretty different from the book, but it is a Hollywood version. I think what it does do well though is it captures the excitement of what we pulled off during our playing days." -RawVegas.com
No. In the movie, Ben's weekends as a high roller nearly cause him to lose his two closest friends, who no longer want him to participate with them in a robotics competition. Ben grows frustrated with the person that he is becoming, and he deals with his stress by haphazardly losing $200,000.
Former MIT team leader John Chang responded to this scene in his blog by saying, "Starting from the part where Ben loses control at the Red Rock and loses 200K, the movie takes off on a tangent that has no resemblance to reality. Our players were far too disciplined to even think of doing something like that. As I see it, that entire scene is a plot device to end the movie - create a conflict between Campbell and Rosa that leads up to the switcheroo finale." -MickeyRosa.com
No. In the movie, we see Ben (Jim Sturgess) take a beating from Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) after he is caught counting cards. Similarly, in Ben Mezrich's book Breaking Vegas, we find the Fisher character beaten bloody in the bathroom of a Bahamian casino. Mike Aponte, the real life Fisher, says that he was never beaten up in a casino anywhere (The Boston Globe). John Chang, part of the inspiration for Kevin Spacey's character, 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)
No. In the movie 21, Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) impresses professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) by coming up with the idea of using strippers to cash out their MGM Grand chips. In the book, Micky is the one who comes up with the idea. In reality, it never happened at all. "We went to MIT, do you really think we would give strippers $1,000 and $5,000 chips? Who in their right mind would do that?" says Mike Aponte, the basis for the Fisher character (BlackJackInfo.com).
No. In the movie, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) steals Ben's winnings that he hides in the ceiling of his dorm room. In real life, there is no confirmed report of a team leader ever stealing money from a player. In addition, no such incident is mentioned in the book. -Bringing Down the House
No. John Chang, part of the inspiration for Kevin Spacey's Micky Rosa character, has stated that the average yearly take for a player on the team was $25,000, much less than the $300,000+ that Ben earns in the movie (BlackJackForumOnline.com). Even with smaller actual profits than we see in the movie, players left some of the money in Vegas. "We kept a large inventory of chips so that we didn't have to continually cash in and out every trip we played," says Mike Aponte, Fisher's real-life counterpart (BlackJackInfo.com).
The players were smart enough not to hide all of their winnings in a single location. In an interview, John Chang's wife recalled the time she helped him clean out his apartment before a move. She found $6,000 in chips in a jar sitting on a cluttered desk, and she found another $20,000 in traveler's checks in an old fanny pack in a closet. Over the course of two weeks, John and his wife found $165,000 that he didn't know he had. -BlackJackForumOnline.com
In an interview, Mike Aponte (the real Fisher) said that the most that the real MIT Blackjack Team ever won was about $500,000. It happened on the weekend of Super Bowl XXIX in 1995. "The most I ever won personally on a trip was about $200,000," Mike said. -BlackJackInfo.com
Mike Aponte (the real Fisher) said that concerning the MIT Blackjack Team's true story, the most that the team ever lost was around $130,000. "I think the most I ever lost was about $60,000," Mike said. These totals are somewhat less than the $200,000 that we see Ben lose in the movie. -BlackJackInfo.com
Yes. Despite what we see in the movie, the real MIT team played at casinos all over the world, including Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Foxwoods (Connecticut), riverboat casinos, the Bahamas, St. Martin, Aruba, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Playing at more locations allowed the team to remain undetected longer. -BlackJackInfo.com
This is true. John Chang, part of the inspiration for Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), dressed like a woman to fool casino security. He wore a hat, a dress, and pantyhose. His feminine disguise worked in the Bahamas, but it caught the attention of surveillance at the Taj in Atlantic City. "It just happened that an Asian woman sat down next to me. She's all petite, and I look at her hands, and they're just tiny. Then I look at my hands next to hers and I thought, "Ooo, not good." I took my hands off the table. It turned out that when I was noticing this, surveillance was noticing the same thing, and they just busted up laughing." A reporter wrote an article about it and it ended up in The Washington Post. -BlackJackForumOnline.com
"No, there aren't any blackjack teams at MIT that I'm aware of," says Mike Aponte, the basis for the Fisher character. Mike unofficially retired from the MIT team in the spring of 2000. By then, it was much tougher for him to play. "By that time our team was so well known, and even feared by casinos, that they had caught on to how we operated and began scrutinizing anyone who came into the middle of a shoe with large bets." Mike says that the team was unable to replace its core group of big players, because the new recruits weren't as "dedicated and gung-ho." -BlackJackInfo.com
No. MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) did not permit the filmmakers to shoot on their campus. Most of the MIT campus scenes were filmed at Boston University. -The Tech (MIT Newspaper)
Edward O. Thorp used mathematics to create the blackjack "basic strategy" chart. Since the release of his 1962 book, Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One, players have memorized the chart in an effort to have an advantage when the cards are dealt. Thorp's table has been described as the next best thing to actually learning how to count cards. Here, you can view the basic strategy table.
View the Blackjack "Basic Strategy" Chart
Play blackjack online for fun (not for money). The first free blackjack videogame listed below is available from WiiPlayable.com. The site hosts hundreds of games that are playable on both your computer and the Nintendo Wii console, including blackjack. The second game is the official 21 blackjack movie game, which lets you play for free with other users from around the world. Have fun practicing blackjack strategy!
An interview with John Chang, the inspiration for Kevin Spacey's character in the movie 21. Chang talks with FOX Business analyst Neil Cavuto, who asks him about the movie and why he's wearing a disguise.
Jeff Ma, the basis for the main character in the blackjack movie 21, demonstrates the idea of team play with members of the CBS Early Show.
Denise Pernula of RawVegas.tv interviews Mike Aponte, the basis for the Jimmy Fisher character in the movie 21. Denise asks Mike how he was approached to be on the MIT team and if he's better than Rain Man.
|Jeff Ma Answers FAQs about 21|
Jeff Ma, the basis for Jim Sturgess's character in 21, responds to questions that he is frequently asked about the 21 movie true story. For more videos from Jeff, visit Jeff Ma's Wild World of Gambling.
|Jeff Ma Explains Code Words|
Jeff Ma explains the concept of using code words to represent the count in blackjack. For example, "voting booth" is 18 because you have to be eighteen to vote.
Bill Kaplan is interviewed on NECN's The Chet Curtis Report. Bill, who is part of the basis for Kevin Spacey's 21 movie character, talks about how the MIT team began.
|21 Movie Trailer|
21 Movie Trailer for the fact-based story about six MIT students who were trained to become experts in card counting and subsequently took Vegas casinos for millions in winnings. The film stars Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey. It is based on the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich.