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Comments on the Blackjack Movie '21'

This might be the first time I've used this column for any type of review on a movie. This movie deals with blackjack rather than video poker, but it's certainly advantage gambling in Las Vegas, andBob DancerBob Dancer is one of the world's foremost video poker experts.  He is a regular columnist for Casino Player, Strictly Slots, and the Las Vegas Review-Journa land has written an autobiography and a novel about gambling.   He provides advice for tens of thousands of casino enthusiasts looking to play video poker.  Bob's website is  broadly defined that's what this column is about, so that's what this week's column is going to be about.

If you haven't seen the movie and are planning to, you might want to read this column later as I'm going to reveal certain parts of the ending.

The story deals with how certain MIT students took Vegas for hundreds of thousands of dollars. As historical fiction goes, the movie is reputed to be essentially worthless. Andy Bloch, a current live poker player and former MIT team player, wrote an interesting review here. Bloch's review and mine cover largely different subjects.

Although I was playing blackjack in Vegas when the MIT teams hit the town in the early 90s, I was worlds apart. I was a $5 player working the "Gambler's Spree" programs where you could play something line four hours and get a $50 rebate. There was nobody who game to any tables I was playing at and started betting thousands of dollars a hand, so I likely was never near these players in real time.

There was a classroom scene where the professor (Kevin Spacey) asked "Ben" (Jim Sturgess --- the hero of the movie) the famous Monty Hall paradox, although Monty's name wasn't used in the movie. In this paradox, the player is given a choice of three doors. There is a car behind one door and behind two is a goat. Ben quickly picks the first door (more about this later). Then the emcee, who knows where the car is, intentionally opens a door showing a goat and asks you if you wish to keep your initial choice or to choose the remaining door. Ben correctly chooses to change doors and gives the correct increase in odds.

What surprised me about this was that this movie was shot in contemporary time (there are scenes at Planet Hollywood, after all, which means it must be within the past year or so). Students at MIT I would think would be EXPECTED to generally be familiar with this paradox, but in the movie Ben figures it out on the spot. Although it was intended to demonstrate that Ben was a mathematical prodigy, I found this not too believable.

One of the things that struck me was when Ben was given his initial choice of doors, he picked the first one very quickly. He had no information at the time to indicate one door was better than another, so he made a rapid random pick. As is frequently true for me, I found a parallel to video poker.

In video poker there are numerous Deuces Wild variations where you are dealt two pair and the correct play is to hold only one. "Pick either one quickly" is the correct play, but often you see players agonizing over the choice. These players would do well to follow Ben's unspoken advice. When it's a pure pick with no information favoring one of the choices, there's no benefit in lingering over it. Get on with it. Maybe the next hand will be more interesting.

I grew up in Southern California --- not too far from Cal Tech --- a school whose students are roughly equivalent to those at MIT. (Perhaps others will disagree with this assessment, but for purposes of this review, it is true enough.) Cal Tech is 1500 miles closer to Vegas than MIT is. Although superior intelligence is useful at blackjack, and video poker as well, the best students at hundreds of universities across the country are "superior enough" to do what these MIT kids did. And yet it didn't happen that way. In addition to the intelligence, you need the spark of an idea to make things work. That spark COULD have risen at any number of places, but it DID arise at MIT. This is a frequently underappreciated fact of gambling success. Playing well isn't nearly so important as being the first one to figure out there's an edge in it.

And since the "big player" idea was clearly explained to one and all in Kenny Uston's 1981 "Million Dollar Blackjack", more than ten years before the heyday of the MIT blackjack team. Since any book about winning at blackjack should be required reading for the game protection experts in casinos, you'd think the casinos would be more hip to the concept than they actually were. The MIT version was refined a bit over Uston's, but largely it was the same.

All in all, I enjoyed the movie. Vegas is my hometown now and advantage gambling is my profession --- so this was a movie that struck home to me. Even though I'd read the book beforehand, how the movie actually unfolded was a mystery to me. Although I found the double crossing not too believable in the movie, this actually made it more enjoyable. I couldn't predict how the movie would actually end, partly because my mind discounted the probability of double crossing, so when it actually did happen, it was a nice surprise.

The book the movie is based on, "Bringing Down the House" by Ben Mezrich, doesn't have such a neat ending. In the book, everywhere the players went the casinos became wise to them because their pictures and names got posted in the Griffin Book (called something different in the book for libel purposes presumably). Eventually the players couldn't "do their thing" anymore. In the movie, only Vegas was burned as a playground. Presumably these players could take their craft anywhere else there were casinos. In actual fact, this isn't too likely any more.

I haven't heard any figures yet, but it wouldn't surprise me that this movie generates a lot more play at blackjack in the near future. Although the actual MIT players took the casinos for a LOT of money, this time around it will be the casinos that benefit from this increased play.
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