REVIEW by Andy Bloch (of the M.I.T. Team)
Andy Bloch, an increasingly respected world class poker pro, was an MIT team member.
His BLOG has HIS review "21". Very entertaining.
Contributed by: AndyBloch
(This may be a little rambling, but us MIT grads aren't known for our writing. Plus I'm still up at 6am after seeing the movie. This review contains some spoilers, so don't read more than the first few paragraphs if you want to maintain the suspense. If you want to look like a genius in front of your friends when you watch the movie the first time, read it all the way through.)
As a former member of the MIT blackjack team, I've already been interviewed a couple of times about the new movie, '21', based on the team and inspired by the book "Bringing Down the House" by Ben Mezrich. The movie opens nationwide on March 28th, but tonight was the Las Vegas premiere. Originally I wasn't going to go, since I wasn't invited and didn't have anything to do with the making of the movie, but I decided that I should see the movie sooner rather than later so I'd know what I was talking about the next time I got asked. The real "Mickey Rosa" came through with a ticket for me, from a friend who got it comped (in true MIT blackjack team style).
"Mickey" also passed along a plot synopsis, which didn't give me high expectations. Another former teammate gave a good review after seeing it in Boston, so I tried to keep an open mind.
There were plenty of scenes that I found implausible, but overall I enjoyed the movie. I worked on a couple of versions of my own blackjack script with some friends (mostly Jeremy Levin, a friend from Harvard Law School) and it seems the writers had the same trouble we had. How do you make the plot fit into the standard three-act movie structure -- particularly, how does Act Three resolve the Act Two confrontation in a creative, exciting, yet believable way? In the end, they borrowed a plot twist from other movies of this genre, most notably Ocean's 11. However, they did it in a way that reinforced the team ethic, which ultimately won me over.
To be sure, there were plenty of scenes and dialog that made "Mickey" and I lean over to each other and say, "We'd never do THAT!" We'd NEVER leave a teammate alone in Vegas after gettng backroomed. We never used a strip club as a meeting place. We wouldn't drink alcohol on a trip, until we were completely done playing.
There were lots of basic inaccuracies, too, most of which would only be noticed by a blackjack expert or MIT student. At one point, there's an argument about whether to split a pair of 8s against a Ten. Basic strategy (for Las Vegas rules) is to split, but the Mickey Rosa character (Kevin Spacey) says not to. (If you're counting cards, you do stand if the true count is above +5, however you should surrender first if the rules allow. If you're playing "European" no-hole card where a dealer blackjack wins both bets after a split, you shouldn't split either.) At a Chinatown casino, "Ben" starts playing with a count of +17. We see mostly high cards which should drop the count to +8, but Ben says the count is +18. I caught these things, but 99% of the audience wouldn't notice.
One of the most disappointing parts of the movie is Kevin Spacey's character, "Mickey Rosa", the MIT professor who runs the team with an iron fist. (I'm critical of the character, not Spacey's acting.) The MIT administration and faculty will be justifiably furious with Sony Pictures for such a negative portrayal of an MIT professor. If they saw the script in advance, it's not surprising that they didn't allow filming on campus. The leaders of the MIT team (yes, there were several, and none of them were professors) may have overreacted on occasion, and there were mini-revolts against them, but they would have never ratted out a member of the team or stolen from them.
I also felt that Ben's recruitment and ultimate decision to join the team was unrealistic and took too much screen time. Although he kept turning them down, we knew that he was going to say yes or there wouldn't be a movie (you'd think Kate Bosworth would have sealed the deal faster) -- yet it didn't seem clear to me what ultimately changed his mind. (Maybe I was talking to "Mickey" and missed it.) It didn't take me long to decide to join the team (since I'd already had experience in beating casinos at another game and winning at poker), so I couldn't emphathize with this personal struggle. However, I'm sure there were several people on the team who didn't make the decision so quickly.
Most of us didn't hide our blackjack team involvement from our close friends -- instead, we often recruited them and sometimes brought them on trips.
(Harvard Medical School? No MIT electronics nerd dreams of going to med school, and certainly not Hahvahd. Law school would have been so much more believable. ;)
Like Good Will Hunting, there are the scenes of MIT that aren't MIT, but the classrooms (where we actually practiced just like in the movie) were close enough to the real thing, right down to the numbers on the doors. There are trips on the T (Bostonese for "subway") to stops that don't make any sense (why are they taking the T to Quincy?) and a variety of other Boston and Cambridge outdoor shots that don't fit. Overall, I think Good Will Hunting did a much better job portraying the city, even though some of the scenes were shot in Toronto.
Like most Vegas movies, those familiar with Vegas casinos will find a lot of location errors and discontinuities. Driving from the airport, the limo passes most of the Las Vegas strip casinos in a random order, before arriving at the Hard Rock which is right by the airport in real life. Such inconsistencies are so common in Vegas movies (if not movies in general) that it's almost an in-joke to Vegas-savvy moviegoers.
"Good Will Hunting meets Rounders and Ocean's 11" is the natural tag line for an MIT blackjack team movie, so it's not surprising that there are several scenes in '21' that could be borrowed from those flicks. (Is Jim Sturgess the new Matt Damon?) "Ben" lets his friends down by failing to do his part on a group project, much like "Mike McDermott" does to his moot court team (including his girlfriend) in Rounders. However, when "Ben" says he doesn't care about the robotics competition, you can tell he really does and the scene is redeemed. In Rounders, "Mike McDermott" might have felt sorry for his actions, but he ultimately doesn't care about moot court. That is a subtle but critical difference between the two movies. In both Good Will Hunting and Rounders, Matt Damon's character changes and moves on to follow his passion, leaving behind his friends (chasing his girlfriend in Good Will Hunting, and his poker dreams in Rounders). In '21', Ben stays with (or, rather, returns to) his old friends, while gaining a few new friends from the MIT team. That's the way the team was in real life, and that's why I like the movie. With all the disguises and different identities we assumed in Vegas or elsewere, ultimately most of us on the MIT team didn't change who we were. Instead, it reinforced who we were by forcing us to think closely about our own identities. We learned we could be whomever we wanted to, but ultimately we just wanted to be ourselves.
Despite its other flaws, '21' ultimately and unexpectedly succeeds at capturing those critical essences of the MIT team. I give the movie 1.61803399 thumbs up.
If I had to change one thing in the movie, I'd have Cole Williams run over by a Vegas cab right before he gets tossed the bag at the end.
There are some other things I wanted to bring up but can't think of at the moment.
Oh, yeah. There are a couple of scenes in the movie that are pretty close to scenes from my DVD, Beating Blackjack with Andy Bloch, which has been out for 2 years. Coincidental? If they did borrow from us, we deserve some credit.
I just read a review complaining that the movie ignores "dozens of other necessary elements of a plan like this."
Actually, no. Blackjack card counting and team-play really is fairly simple. The movie touches upon just about all the necessary elements of the blackjack team. (I think it ignored deck estimation and true count conversion.) It doesn't go into detail for most of them, but it's not a how-to DVD like mine or a documentary like The Hot Shoe.
The movie does give one the false impression that you should win just about every trip if you keep your cool. We probably only won on about 3/4 of our trips.
I don't think the movie made it clear enough.... Card counting is not cheating.
Card counting is not cheating.
Card counting is not cheating.
And neither is hiding your identity from the casino in order to play. Don't believe me? Would you believe the Supreme Court of Nevada? Read the case of Chen v. State, Gambing Control Board, invoving a member of our MIT team. Findlaw version (requires free account)
Early on in the movie, Professor Rosa in his class asks Ben about the Monty Hall problem. There's a big prize behind one of 3 doors. You pick one door. Before you open the door, the game show host opens a door and reveals that there is nothing behind it. Do you switch? The correct answer is, it depends on the game show host's strategy. Ben doesn't do a good job at all explaining his answer (you should switch), which is based on the assumption that the host always opens one of the other doors without a prize (he picks a door at random if neither door has a prize). If Ben's first pick was wrong, the other unopened door must have the prize and he wins by switching. Since his first pick will be wrong 2/3 of the time, he wins 2/3 of the time if he switches. Still don't get it? Imagine 1000 doors, and the game show host opens up 998 doors. Now are you going to switch?
Most people won't realize that the question doesn't have anything to do with the subject being taught. If that was on purpose, it shows that Rosa was just trying to test Ben's suitability for the blackjack team -- he cares more about recruiting for his team than teaching the subject at hand. I think it was more likely just an accident.
I also think the problem, if answered correctly, is more applicable to poker than blackjack. I suppose if you view it as a lesson in information theory, then you can relate it to Kelly's paper which has a lot to do with blackjack. Regardless, it's a fun problem, one that even the Kevin Bacon of mathematics got wrong. There's a wikipedia article on the Monty Hall problem and lots of webpages devoted to it.
Once I made money on it (around $5) off of a coworker who didn't believe the answer. He insisted on betting and we played with coins or cards until I won enough by switching that he was convinced.
I was just thinking that there needs to be a scene before Ben plays and bets out of control, where Ben realizes that it's time to get out from under Rosa. Ben knows that Rosa won't let him go easy. The only way he thinks he can break free is if he can convince Rosa that he's now worthless to the team, and maybe if he does it right the entire team will be free. But he tragically underestimates Rosa's vindictiveness...
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