21: Based on the True Story of the MIT Blackjack Team

21: Based on the True Story of the MIT Blackjack Team

21 movie posterPresented by Columbia Pictures in association with Relativity Media, 21 (2008) follows a group of young geniuses from an MIT classroom to the Las Vegas casino floor. The film, which stars an ensemble cast headed up by established stars such as Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, and Kate Bosworth, also features relative newcomers Jim Sturgess, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, and Aaron Yoo.

Directed by Robert Luketic, 21 brought in over $157 million worldwide, enchanting audiences with the excitement of Las Vegas, the intrigue of expert card sharks, and the suspense surrounding their efforts to beat the house. Here are four facts about the popular 2008 film and the incredible true story that inspired it:

The film drew inspiration from a real blackjack team formed at MIT.

21 expands upon the true story of a team of math geniuses who used their mental prowess to turn the Vegas odds in their favor. Their game of choice? Blackjack, also known as “21.” Unlike other casino games, a game of blackjack gradually develops a history—or “memory”—of played and discarded cards. While this allows players to theoretically track which cards remain in the deck (or decks), thereby calculating their odds of winning each hand with increasing accuracy, to do so requires a firm understanding of statistics, impeccable concentration and attention to detail, and the ability to think on your feet. The MIT blackjack team leveraged these skills to achieve considerable success. At its height, the team included over 80 players from MIT and several other elite schools, including Harvard and Princeton.

The cast used the same strategies developed by MIT’s legendary card sharks.

A well-known blackjack strategy since the 1970s, card counting involves assigning a numeric value to each card and adding or subtracting from a “running count” each time the dealer places a card on the table. This way, players can keep an ongoing tally that corresponds with the proportion of high cards left in the deck.

By the time the MIT blackjack team formed, the casino industry was well-versed in card counting and its many indicators. In addition to using multiple decks and frequent shuffling to deter potential card counters, the majority of Las Vegas casinos will not hesitate to escort suspected counters from the premises. With this in mind, the MIT team had to innovate.

Their solution to casinos’ increasing vigilance was to split the labor across the casino floor. By working in teams, they could utilize code words and signals to track the status of blackjack games and hone in on opportunities to win big. If they executed their plan correctly, they could end the night with hefty winnings from multiple tables without piquing the suspicion of dealers or casino authorities.

The MIT team trained extensively to memorize code words and signals directly corresponding with the state of each blackjack deck in play. The team’s “spotters” wagered low bets and counted cards, crossing their arms to signal when a deck became “hot” with high cards. This cue would summon the “big player”—a team member tasked with placing large bets to reap the full benefits of the hot deck. To provide the big player with the count, the spotter would discreetly inject a corresponding code word into a casual sentence. For example, the word “car” would indicate a count of four because cars have four tires. “Cat” would indicate a count of nine, while “sweet” would communicate a count of 16.

While 21 is based on a true story, it was Ben Mezrich’s novelization of that story that inspired the 2008 feature film.

A September 2002 issue of Wired magazine featured an article titled “Hacking Las Vegas,” which offered a crash course on the world of card counting and the incredible success of the MIT blackjack team. The article inspired Dana Brunetti, a producing partner of Kevin Spacey, to explore the possibility of a movie about card counting. The article offered something of a truncated preview to Mezrich’s 2003 novel, Bringing Down the House. By presenting the team’s exploits through the eyes of MIT graduate Kevin Lewis—a character based on mechanical engineering graduate Jeff Ma—the novel chronicles the highs and lows of the blackjack team’s risky and prosperous efforts, including challenges from both within and outside of the group.

The cast learned from the experts.

In order to learn blackjack basics such as table etiquette—as well as more advanced skills such as elaborate chip moving techniques—the cast relied on the instruction of professional card consultant Kyle Morris. A Las Vegas resident, Morris has assisted numerous Hollywood productions in accurately portraying the world of gambling, and he even had a cameo appearance as one of 21’s many blackjack dealers.

Some of the cast members also turned to a legendary tome of blackjack knowledge to hone their card counting skills. Decades ago, UC Berkeley mathematics professor Edward O. Thorp developed a method to track the changing ratio of high to low cards in a blackjack deck, thus enabling him to predict the probability of winning each hand and gain an advantage over the dealer. This revelation eventually became Thorp’s 1962 book Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One.

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