Movie Review: Unpicking the Strategy in 21 Blackjack

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21 Blackjack  scene

Anyone who has ever visited a casino will have dreamed of scooping a massive win, but for the majority of people it remains an unfulfilled ambition. However, towards the end of the 1990s the MIT Blackjack Team proved that it was entirely possible to consistently beat the house.

The group of students and ex-students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, used clever techniques and strategies to beat casinos worldwide at blackjack. Their efforts spawned numerous media coverage, most notably with the 2008 film entitled 21 starring Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth.

Although the script takes plenty of artistic license with events, the film makes no secret of the fact that it was based on the MIT Blackjack Team’s activities. Read on as we take a closer look at 21 and assess the strategy that was used to go head-to-head with the different casinos.

Laying the Foundations

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For anyone playing blackjack in land-based venues or at an online casino knows how entertaining this game is. As shown in the movie counting cards can be a pretty lucrative business too.  The strategy was expertly leveraged by the MIT team in the film, who were taught by mathematics professor Micky Rosa how to use it to best effect.

He passed on the technique to six of his brightest students, showing them how memorising which cards had been dealt would help them win at blackjack. The strategy allows players to bet more when the count gives an advantage and reduces losses during an unfavourable count.

The theory behind card counting works on the premise that high cards (aces, pictures and 10s) are more beneficial to the player.  Knowing when these cards are most likely to be dealt increases a player’s chances of hitting a natural blackjack.

Doubling down on additional hands can increase profit, while counting cards provides extra splitting opportunities for the player; while the dealer cannot split.  Playing with strategy can get you real money, if you learn everything about the games and their odds.


Putting it into Practice

The plot of the movie 21 revolves around Ben Campbell (played by Sturgess) who dreamed of studying at Harvard Medicine School. However, with fees of $300,000 Campbell desperately needed to secure the solitary scholarship that was on offer.

After impressing Rosa in one of his lectures Campbell was offered a position with the blackjack team, but he was initially hesitant about the idea. After turning down financial help from his widowed mother by lying that he has already secured the scholarship, Campbell was forced to relent.

After a successful trial of the strategy in an illegal basement casino, Campbell and his MIT teammates were sent to Las Vegas to work their magic. Over the next few weekends, the team enjoy huge success at the blackjack tables and start to revel in their new-found wealthy status.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in these situations, trouble lies ahead for the team and things quickly start to unravel for Campbell.

Enjoying the game of  Blackjack.

Adversity Strikes

The head of security at the casino, Cole Williams, had been monitoring the team and started to focus heavily on Campbell’s activities. A fallout between Campbell and Rosa leads to the latter tipping off Williams, who then beats up Campbell and tells him never to return.

Rosa subsequently steals Campbell’s winnings from his dormitory room, leading the team to hatch a plan to persuade him to accompany them back to Vegas for one last trip. The team put on disguises and returns to Planet Hollywood, winning $640,000 before they are spotted by Williams.

Rosa flees with the bag of chips, but he soon finds out that they are fake as Campbell had worked with Williams to lure the professor to Vegas. Williams had a pre-existing grievance with Rosa and took him hostage before subjecting him to a series of beatings.

In return, Williams agreed to allow Campbell the opportunity to play for one more night in Vegas, but all was not as it seemed.

Overcoming the Odds

Campbell expertly uses the strategy to win at blackjack, but as he is leaving with his haul Williams double-crosses him and steals all his chips. However, Campbell hadn’t been alone at the casino and his friends had managed to rack up huge earnings aided by card counting.

The film closes with Campbell reciting the whole story of the team’s Vegas exploits to his astonished scholarship director. It was a fitting end to a film that had seen the MIT Blackjack Team overcome the odds by proving that using casino strategies can lead to big wins.

Sturgess is excellent in the lead role, turning in a performance that matched his other notable efforts in The Other Boleyn Girl and Across the Universe.

Bosworth was solid enough as Jill, another member of the team, while Laurence Fishburne displayed his nastier side to great effect as Williams.

While never likely to win any Oscars, 21 is an enjoyable yarn that just about manages to stay on the right side of being believable.

21 Blackjack – The Final Word

The movie was inspired by the book ‘Bringing Down the House’ by Ben Mezrich, which also takes a more exaggerated approach to telling the story. The script takes quite a few liberties with the Rosa character, with this based on at least three other individuals as opposed to just one professor.

Another anomaly is the number of team members, with the real-life group having around 80 people as opposed to the six depicted in the movie. Williams is also fictitious, with the real MIT team’s activities exposed by security agency Griffin Investigations.

The card counting element of the movie is well handled, giving viewers a deeper insight into how the strategy works when compared with the likes of Rain Man. While the film received mixed reviews when it was first released, it was rated as the number one movie in North America during its first two weekends of release.

If you love seeing casinos get beat at blackjack, the 21 movie will be right up your street.