The man who first told the story of this month’s bigscreen gambling movie, 21, is proof
that the house doesn’t always win.
While at a Super Bowl party in the late ’90s, Ben Mezrich ran into an acquaintance, a former MIT student, who he assumed now worked for a software company. During the game’s halftime show, Mezrich’s friend let him in on a secret. He was part of the MIT blackjack team, a group of supersmart math wizards who made hundreds of thousands of dollars by counting cards — a legal but casino-angering practice of a player placing large bets after he or she has determined the previous run of low cards suggests more high cards to come, which favors the player.
(As complicated as that sounds, it’s actually slightly more complicated than that; see the sidebar “Card Counting the MIT Way.”)
Were you putting down $10,000 bets too?
No, I wasn’t a guy making big bets. I was a “gorilla” player, just doing whatever I was told to do, making small bets and gathering information so the big players could make their big bets. I’m good at math, but I’m not great at math.
How did the movie deal happen?
Two months before the book came out, I wrote an article about it for Wired. A few days later, a guy calls saying he’s got Kevin Spacey on the phone and he wants to talk to me. I’m a huge Spacey fan, but I didn’t believe it. My mom thought it was some of my friends pranking me. But after I met with him, he said he wanted to make the movie.
We sold it to MGM, which was funny because they owned one of the casinos the players were kicked out of.
The book doesn’t have a dramatic ending: The team gets discovered, and the group ultimately disbands. Was the story Hollywood-ed up for the movie?
Sure, they had to turn it into more of a Hollywood thriller. But they let us have input. I read the screenplays; they had me and the MIT kids on the set. They shot some scenes just a few blocks from my place in Boston, so I got to hang out with the actors. I haven’t seen the final movie yet, but I know they kept the feel of it alive.
Has it become impossible to count cards now that most casinos use automatic shufflers, not to mention face-recognition software?
It’s hard, but it still goes on. There’s another MIT blackjack team now. There are more big-money casinos now than there were in the ’90s. They just can’t do it for years without getting found out.
Can you, personally, bet in those casinos now?
I would definitely be kicked out if I tried to bet big. But I don’t. I go back to Vegas every few months, and I still like to play, but just normal bets — $25 a hand or whatever. I’m more into poker now. But I’m not a great poker player. I’m not a gambler. I’m a storyteller.
Do you think the movie will spur folks to give blackjack and card counting a try?
Movies are so much bigger than books, so I’m sure it will. I see people reading my book on the flight to Vegas. I see it all the time. That’s the worst thing you could do. The MIT blackjack team practiced for six months for hours a day before trying it. And they had a team. And they were MIT students.
But everyone has a dream when they go to Vegas.