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FAQ for
21 (2008) More at IMDbPro »

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FAQ Contents


A Note Regarding Spoilers

The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. . Spoiler tags have been used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.

For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs, and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDbs Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for 21 can be found here.

Yes. 21 was based on Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions (2002) by American author Ben Mezrich.

The basic premise, that a group of MIT students and grads ran a card counting operation and would play in Vegas on the weekends, is true. All of the characters are fictionalized, however, and the story of being betrayed by Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) and being tailed by the thuggish security man Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) are entirely fictional. Also, a number of the memorable scenes in the movie, such as the underground blackjack game in Chinatown and the use of strippers to cash in chips, were made up.

In real time, the events happened in the mid 1990s. In the movie trailer, there are a few previews showing them using cell phones, which never happened in real life because in the mid 1990s cell phones were not as prominent as they are today.

The ones who have come forward are: (1) Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) (Kevin Lewis in the book) in real life is Jeffrey Ma, an Asian American male who played water polo and was in a fraternity while at MIT. Jeff co-founded a sports player stock-like trading website called Protrade in 2004. A picture of him can be seen here. Jeff Ma has a small role in 21 as a Planet Hollywood blackjack dealer. In the re-release of Bringing Down the House, AKA 21, there is some added stuff, and one of them is an interview with Jeff Ma from June 2007, where he says that he does still play occasionally at casinos that are newer. However, he says he no longer plays for profit but for fun and bets low. He said he was recently told by casino personnel that he could come in, but had to stay 25 feet away from the blackjack tables; he did not say which casino. In a recent interview, author Ben Mezrich said Jeff Ma and one of the movie producers were playing Blackjack at a Las Vegas casino "The Playboy Club," and after a few rounds of hands three big security guards told Jeff he couldn't play there. Ma was using his real name and casino security said when they typed his name into their computer "bells and whistles practically started flashing in the security room."

(2) Steve Fisher (Jacob Pitts) in real life is Mike Aponte, also an Asian American male. Aponte now runs the Blackjack Institute, which teaches card counting with fellow MIT Card Counting Team Member David Irvine. (At this time it's unknown who David was portrayed as in the book or if he was portrayed at all.) In an interview with the Las Vegas Sun regarding the book and movie Aponte said, "The book changed everything. I retired from blackjack in 2000. I thought that the blackjack part of my life was over for good. Then I started to get asked about it all the time. After a while, I realized (the book) was a blessing." While at MIT Aponte studied economics and played football. Aponte is pictured here. In 2007 Mike became the first blackjack player to be depicted on a trading card in Topps' Allen & Ginter champions set and he was recently written about in an article in the New York Times.

See here for more detailed info on who is who in real life.

Micky Rosa is a fictionalized character. There was no MIT professor who started and ran the team. The MIT Blackjack Team was started in 1980 by a Harvard Business School graduate, Bill Kaplan, who had run a successful Vegas-based team for the prior three years. Kaplan met a few MIT undergrads (including JP Massar), who had been trying to win at the game with little success for months. A few months later, Kaplan launched a new team with a few of these players based on the structure, strategies, training methods, and management processes he had honed in starting and running his Vegas-based team. Kaplan ran the MIT Blackjack Team through the mid-1980's until just about all the players became too well-known to play. Little team play occurred in the late 80's until 1992 when Kaplan jumpstarted the Team again by raising $1 million through a limited partnership. Ben Mezrich never interviewed Kaplan nor either of his 90's co-managers. He made up the Micky Rosa character to add another story line to the book. Neither the original players on the MIT Team nor any of the later co-managers bear any resemblance to the unethical Micky Rosa persona.

Yes, Jeff Ma has a small role in 21 as the main dealer in the Las Vegas casino. Henry Houh, another team player, plays the dealer in the underground Chinese gambling parlor and says the line, "Winner, winner. Chicken dinner." Bill Kaplan, the founder of the Team, also appears in the same underground Chinese parlor as a poker player in the corner of the room.

Yes, in the book he talks about taking the early evening flight America West #66 out of Logan nonstop to Vegas. They would leave MIT as nerds and arrive in Vegas as high rollers. They would return on Sunday night in time for class Monday morning. They didn't go every weekend, but went very often.

Yes, Griffin Investigations, the leading casino surveillance company in the world, went after them. In interviews, Griffin talked about how hard it was to break the MIT team. It took years for Griffin Investigations to figure out the MIT group was involved in team play. Once they did, every casino was notified and the team was virtually shut down. Griffin Investigations has recently filed for bankruptcy after being sued by a card counter who didn't think he belonged in the Griffin Book of cheats. He won the case and the after effect was Griffin in chapter 11.

No. Jeff Ma (Ben Campbell in the movie, Kevin Lewis in the book) came from a family that had financial means to support him with his tuition. A few of Ma's acquaintances also had loads of money, but he never asked how they got it. Eventually they told him how they were making their money and recruited him to play on their "team". Unlike in the movie, Ma never joined to help pay for his education or anything else.

Yes, his name is Andy Bloch. He has been a poker pro since the 1990s. He joined the MIT Blackjack team about the same time as Jeff Ma. A few months later, the team split up into two teams: the "Amphibian" and "Reptiles." Bloch went with the Amphibian team, not the Reptile team, which was the one focused on in Bringing Down the House. Mezrich wrote a second book, Busting Vegas: The MIT Whiz Kid Who Brought the Casinos to Their Knees, that is mostly fictitious but relates to stories about the Amphibian team with which Bloch was involved. Bloch can often be seen on TV playing in some of the biggest poker tournaments in the country. He is a Harvard University Law School graduate and a member of the Bar Association.

The MIT Blackjack Team started in 1980 and ran winning "banks" until the mid-1980's, when most of the players got too well-known to play. Little play occurred from that point on until 1992 when the Bill Kaplan, JP Massar, and John Chang, a player trained by Kaplan and Massar, decided to start it up again. Kaplan formed a limited partnership, Strategic Investments, which raised $1 million and the Team was off and running again. After growing to nearly 80 players and generating substantial profits and heat from casinos throughout the world, the managers decided to end the venture on December 31, 1993. A few of the players who were trained during the Strategic Investments regime continued to play on in small groups on and off through the mid-1990's. One group called itself the Reptiles and other group called itself the Amphibians. Both groups carried on the strategies they had learned, with each claiming to be more successful than the other to this day.

It is explained in great depth here. It is useful to remember that the premise is based on the situation not being random; the game show host knows what is behind each door, and is perhaps trying to enhance the player's chances of winning (or, perhaps, manipulating the situation for dramatic effect).

The only logical reason to hide money in the ceiling rather than using a financial institution is to hide one's earnings from the IRS. Presumably, Ben was intending to commit tax fraud. Jeff Ma hid his winning under his dirty clothes in a laundry basket thinking no one would ever look there. He was correct; in real life Ma was never robbed. Ma was actually audited by the IRS twice and passed both audits without any problems.

Card counting is neither cheating nor illegal. Cheating involves breaking the rules to give oneself an unfair advantage. Card counting involves skillful playing of the game. However, private companies' casinos can refuse service to card counters and exclude them from the premises.

None of the real MIT card counters were beaten up by casino security, although some were detained temporarily. The scenes of the security director Cole assaulting card counters were done for dramatic purposes. While Las Vegas once did have a "leg breaking" phase, most famously immortalized in the Scorcese film Casino (1996), that was a long time in the past. Nowadays most casinos are billion dollar businesses which have much more to lose from a lawsuit by a card counter who had been beaten up than they have to gain by threatening them with bodily harm. Modern casinos simply document the card counters identity and ban him from further play. Indeed, Griffen Security, the company which eventually broke the MIT Card Counting Team, maintained a book of card counters which they shared among casinos, effectively banning known counters from wide segments of the gaming world.

It might have been that Mickey would give Ben a passing grade and Cole would not turn Mickey in to the IRS

It's called 'Hold My Hand' by UNKLE. The complete 21 soundtrack can be found here with scene descriptions.

This seems to be a question many people ask. People seem to think the casinos are not thrilled with the movie and book. The opposite couldn't be more true: the casinos love it! So much so they allowed the 21 producers to film scenes for the movie in several Vegas casinos. It takes a big bank roll, much patience and most importantly great skill to count cards and even then you may not make a profit. The everyday person reading the book or seeing this movie who tries counting cards in a casino will lose over 95% of the time. The casinos welcome players like that and worst case for them, if you start to win too much money they can kick you out.

The film portrays the MIT blackjack team as composed mostly of Caucasians, the two Asian-Americans on the team, Kianna (Liza Lapira) and Choi (Aaron Yoo) are supporting characters while the main players Ben and Jill (Kate Bosworth) are both white. In reality, the MIT team was disproportionately Asian-American, and the character of Ben is based mostly on Jeff Ma, a Chinese American. This has led some to criticize the film for "white washing" by turning Asian-Americans into white characters.

No. The Last Casino did come out four years before 21 and the plots are very similar but this is simply because both movies were inspired by the book "Bringing Down the House" which was published in 2002. The book was optioned for a movie a year later by Kevin Spacey but was held up for 4 years before filming due to production issues. The producers of The Last Casino, with the increased flexibility of a smaller studio, did not come across these issues, and released their movie in 2004. However, if not for the book "Bringing Down the House", most likely neither of these movies would have been made.

Yes, card counting is a very popular subject. The Last Casino (2004) bears strong resemblances to 21 as it was also influenced by the book Bringing Down the House on which 21 was based. In Hit Me (2005), the characters are adults, not students. The main character answers an ad in the newspaper looking for math whizzes. Rain Man (1988) has a scene where the characters are counting cards in Vegas, but it isn't the central element of the plot. The independent film Aces (2006), by Daniel Zirilli, is also loosely based on the events of the MIT students. However, in this film the students use the system for the game of Texas Hold 'Em poker, along with a chemical mark on the cards which can only be seen with special technically-advanced apertures.

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