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21: History vs. Hollywood

Starring Kevin Spacey, Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth
based on Ben Mezrich's book "Bringing Down the House" which tells the true story of the real MIT Blackjack Team during the 1990s

Jim Sturgess
Born: May 16, 1981
England, UK
Jeff Ma

After retiring from the MIT Blackjack Team, Jeff Ma co-founded the sports stock market website PROTRADE.
Kate Bosworth
Born: January 2, 1983
Los Angeles, California, USA
Jane Willis
Born: 1970
Birthplace: Mount Vernon, Illinois, USA

Jane became a partner at the high-powered Boston Law firm Ropes & Gray.
Jacob Pitts
Mike Aponte
Born: 1972

After MIT, Mike won the 2004 World Series of Blackjack and co-founded the Blackjack Institute.
Liza Lapira
Queens, New York, USA
Laurie Tsao
Kevin Spacey
Born: July 26, 1959
South Orange, New Jersey

(Spacey's "21" character is a composite of 3 individuals.)
John Chang
Pictured left, in disguise. Still plays.

Bill Kaplan
Kaplan co-founded FreshAddress

J.P. Masser
"Mr. M" in the History Channel program.
The first year I played, we returned 154 percent to our investors. That's after paying off expenses. You try and do that on Wall Street. - Jeff Ma (Wired Magazine, September 2002, under the alias Kevin Lewis)

Questioning the Story:

Was an MIT professor really the leader of the Blackjack Team?

Bill Kaplan - a leader of the MIT team
No. In the movie 21, an unorthodox math professor named Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) leads the team. The 21 true story reveals that the real MIT Blackjack Team was led by three individuals, none of whom were professors. Arguably, the most notable is Bill Kaplan, a Harvard Business school graduate who had also done his undergraduate studies at Harvard. John Chang and J.P. Massar were also very much the basis for 21's Micky Rosa. "While [author] Ben Mezrich has been quoted as saying that Micky Rosa was a composite of myself, J.P. Massar, and John Chang, the fact is there is little, if anything, that resembles either of us except that he started and ran the team and was focused on running the team as a business," says Bill Kaplan. John Chang graduated from MIT in 1985 with a degree in electrical engineering. An influential member of the original team, Chang would later re-team with Bill Kaplan as a co-manager in the early 1990s. J.P. Massar ("Mr. M" in the History Channel documentary Breaking Vegas) was an MIT alum who had helped Kaplan manage the original team in the early 1980s, shortly after the first casinos opened in Atlantic City. -Bill Kaplan

Did Ben really join the blackjack team to earn money for med school?

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."

Did the scholarship interview really happen?

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?"

Had the real Ben lost his father?

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.

Was the romance in the movie real?

Jane Willis and Kate Bosworth
No. In the movie, MIT team members Ben (Jim Sturgess) and Jill (Kate Bosworth) share a brief love scene and end up a couple at the end of the film. Their real life counterparts, Jeff Ma and Jane Willis, were never a couple. In fact, Jane and her boyfriend, who were both "math geeks," were recruited by Jeff Ma in the early 1990s. Jeff knew them and had been friends with both of them. Jane Willis and her boyfriend later married and divorced. In 2005, she got remarried to Rich Davey. Their wedding was held in a Catholic church located behind the Tropicana and across from the Mandalay Bay casinos in Las Vegas. -The Boston Globe

When did the real story take place?

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)

Beat the Dealer Blackjack Book
Buy the Book Used by the Real MIT Blackjack Team

This book is featured in the movie 21. In addition to presenting a variety of strategies for success at blackjack, it also includes Thorp's "Basic Strategy" chart. Learn how to use the chart to make decisions when playing blackjack.

Did Fisher really recruit Ben Campbell to play on the team?

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.

Did everyone on the real MIT Blackjack Team attend MIT?

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 (

Who bankrolled the MIT Blackjack Team?

History Channel Breaking Vegas Documentary
The documentary
explores Strategic
Investments LP
and the MIT team.
In the movie, we're expected to believe that Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) provided the startup money for the team. In real life, the team leaders (J.P. Masser, John Chang, and Bill Kaplan) formed a Massachusetts Limited Partnership called Strategic Investments in 1992. Creating a company allowed the team to recruit its players and raise venture capital as a legal entity. Strategic Investments LP raised $1,000,000 as seed money for its endeavor. The money came from past players and the team leaders, including Bill Kaplan, who says that he also received investment capital from his former college roommate, a number of his Havard Business School sectionmates, and other friends and family. The company is further explored in the History Channel documentary Breaking Vegas, which also examines the rigorous "checkouts" that the players had to endure. J.P. Masser ("Mr. M" in the documentary) required that players be able to play through 10 shoes, while only making a limited number of counting mistakes. -Breaking Vegas

Semyon Dukach
Not chronicled in the
movie 21, Semyon Dukach
ran the most successful
MIT Blackjack team ever.
Strategic Investments LP disbanded on December 31, 1993 as the result of banned players, long losing streaks, and a lack of time due to more profitable business opportunities in the real estate market (Bill Kaplan). Shortly after SI was terminated, one of its former players, Semyon Dukach, created his own team, which employed 60 players in 5 cities. Semyon's team operated under the guise Amphibian Investments. Players invested their own money in the team, which won over $4 million during the course of its existence, making it the most successful MIT Blackjack Team ever. The movie 21 and Ben Mezrich's book, Bringing Down the House, were both based on a smaller team that was an offshoot of Amphibian Investments. -Breaking Vegas

Did the team really use code words to represent the count?

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)

What blackjack book is Ben reading on the airplane in the movie 21?

Beat the Dealer by Edward O. Thorp
Thorp's book
was the team's
blackjack Bible.
In the movie, Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is reading Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One by Edward O. Thorp. First published in the 1960s, Thorp's book became the Bible for the MIT team. The book's "Basic Strategy" chart reveals a set of mathematically correct decisions to employ when playing blackjack (view the "Basic Strategy" chart). Thorp, a former UCLA math professor, used a now vintage MIT IBM 704 computer to calculate "Basic Strategy" in blackjack. -Breaking Vegas

Where is the secret underground casino in Chinatown?

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." (

Were the former MIT team members upset that the movie didn't reflect their mostly Asian ethnicity?

Facebook Boycott 21 group
Despite various voices on the internet coming out against the movie's mostly white, non-Asian cast (some Facebook users have even called for a boycott of the film), the real MIT Blackjack Team's former members were not offended. The real Jeff Ma (Ben Campbell in the movie) said, "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...' I think people like to look at it at face value like that, the reality is if you ask anyone who they wanted to play you, it wouldn't necessarily be 'Who's the most ethnically tied to me?'" Instead, Jeff believes that most people would want someone who is 'cool' to play them, or rather a talented actor who personifies their personality the best.

John Chang, who is part of the real life composite that makes up Kevin Spacey's Micky Rosa, believes that if Spacey's cold, manipulative, Mephistophelian character had been portrayed by an Asian actor, people would be complaining about that too. "Being played by a 2-time Oscar winner isn't exactly an insult."

Did team members stuff money down their pants to get past airport security?

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 (

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

How do the former team members feel about the movie's inaccuracies?

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."

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."

I heard that much of Ben Mezrich's book is exaggerated and untrue?

Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich
Mezrich's book
has faced scrutiny.
Ben Mezrich began his literary career writing techno-thriller fiction. His 2002 nonfiction bestseller Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, on which the movie 21 is based, has faced scrutiny for its embellishment and massaging of the facts that make up the MIT Blackjack Team's true story. "I don't even know if you want to call the things in there exaggerations, because they're so exaggerated they're basically untrue," said John Chang, one of the inspirations for the Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) character. Mezrich attempted to defend such accusations by saying, "Every word on the page isn't supposed to be fact-checkable." He admitted that only one of the book's main characters, "Kevin Lewis," is based on an actual person (Jeff Ma). "I took literary license to make it readable," admits Mezrich. "The idea that the story is true is more important than being able to prove that it's true." -The Boston Globe

Did Ben really lose control at the Red Rock and cost the team $200,000?

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."

Is the Laurence Fishburne character based on an actual person?

Laurence Fishburne and Andy Anderson
Similar to Fishburne's character in
the movie, Andy Anderson (right)
investigated the MIT Blackjack
Team for over four years.
In the movie, Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) is a casino security expert who investigates the team. Fishburne's character was not specifically based on any single real life individual. The 21 movie's true story reveals that the real MIT Blackjack Team was investigated by Griffin Investigations, a security agency that had been used by casinos worldwide. Andy Anderson, a tall silver-haired man who worked for Griffin, followed the team for four to five years and played a major role in exposing their strategy (Breaking Vegas). As a result, several of the MIT team members were black-booked by Griffin. Their faces landed in the Griffin Book, a dossier of photos distributed to casinos around the world (Breaking Vegas). These players are usually allowed on the casino floor, but are forbidden to go near the blackjack tables.

Did any of the team members ever get beat up by casino security?

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." (

Did the MIT Blackjack Team ever use strippers to cash out their chips?

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 (

Did team members ever drink, visit strip clubs, or play slots during the trips?

John Chang Blackjack 21
John Chang says
players did not
party in the
middle of a trip.
No, at least not like we see in the movie, where characters use such vices to celebrate a big night. John Chang, one of Micky Rosa's real life counterparts, said that, to clarify the MIT Blackjack Team's true story, the players did not "drink, visit brothels or strip clubs, or play slots in the middle of trips. Our time was too valuable, and our focus too intense to bother. You'd be considered such a losing sucker if you did any of that." ( "Drinking, strip clubs, etc. was strictly forbidden and were grounds for immediate dismissal from the team," said Bill Kaplan, also part of the inspiration for the Micky Rosa character. Mike Aponte, the real life Fisher, stated that "in contrast to what the book said, there was only one time that we, as a team, went to a strip joint. That was after our incredible Super Bowl weekend in 1995 when we won almost $500,000. Typically, we were all business in Vegas, but after that record win we had to go out on the town and celebrate." (

Did a team leader steal $315k from a player after the player lost $200k by playing carelessly?

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

Did Ben really hide his winnings in the ceiling of his dorm room?

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 ( 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 (

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.

What is the most that the team ever won on a single trip?

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.

What is the most that the team ever lost on a single trip?

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.

Did the MIT team play at other locations besides Las Vegas?

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.

Do any of the former MIT Blackjack Team members have cameos in the movie?

Jeff Ma has a cameo in 21 movie
Yes. Jeff Ma, the inspiration for the movie's central character, Ben Campbell, and Henry Houh, another former player, appear in the movie as casino dealers. Jeff Ma plays one of the Planet Hollywood blackjack dealers (the one the main character knows from playing so much). "I was on set a bunch of other times," Ma says, "but... It's not like I was sitting in the director's chair making adjustments. I was just there and if Robert [Luketic] had a question or if one of the actors said 'Hey, how do we do this or say this?' That's all I was there for." ( Team organizer Bill Kaplan also has a brief cameo in the 21 movie, appearing in the background in the underground Chinese gambling parlor scene.

I heard that one of the players dressed like a woman to fool casino security?

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.

Are any of the real life players featured in the History Channel documentary Breaking Vegas represented in the movie?

Busting Vegas by Ben Mezrich
Mezrich's 2nd book about MIT teams chronicles players from the History Channel special.
Released in 2004, the History Channel documentary focuses on a different group of students than we see represented in the 2008 movie 21. This is because throughout the 1990s the MIT Blackjack Team both dissolved and reformed, first operating as part of the company Strategic Investments LP, and then reforming to operate under Amphibian Investments. Also, at its peak, there were over 60 players on the MIT team, not 5 like we see in the movie. Often times, the team was organized into groups, which operated in different cities.

The characters in the movie 21 represent a team that began as a smaller offshoot of the Amphibian Investments team. Ben Mezrich's second MIT blackjack book Busting Vegas chronicles the group of players featured in the History Channel documentary. This includes the MIT computer science graduate Semyon Dukach, a math whiz who is the son of Russian immigrants. -Breaking Vegas

Are there still blackjack teams at MIT?

"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."

Were the campus scenes shot at the real MIT?

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)

View the Blackjack "Basic Strategy" Chart

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

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MIT Blackjack Team - Player Interviews

Meet former players from the real MIT Blackjack Team, who were the inspiration for the 21 movie true story. The videos below include interviews with John Chang, Jeff Ma, and Mike Aponte.

 John Chang

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.

 Mike Aponte Explains How to Use Count Values in Blackjack

Mike Aponte, the basis for the Jimmy Fisher character in the movie 21, discusses what count values to assign to which groups of cards in blackjack.

 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 How to Count Cards

Jeff Ma explains how to count cards in blackjack. For example, he points out that when there are a lot of low cards left in the deck, it's in the dealer's favor, and when there are a lot of high cards left in the deck, it's in the player's favor.

 Bill Kaplan

Bill Kaplan, who is part of the basis for Kevin Spacey's 21 movie character, talks about the origins of the MIT blackjack team.

 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.

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