Film

21: The Real People Behind The Blackjack Card Counting Film

The principles of blackjack are so simple, and yet it’s one of the most popular casino games in the world. There are numerous versions of games in the blackjack family played internationally, so it is only natural that the game is referenced repeatedly in popular culture.

Films about gambling have always been popular. A casino makes a perfect backdrop for a variety of classic plots from heists to buddy movies. Alongside the glitz and glamour of the casino, the games of chance and potential for winning big provide a level of excitement that’s hard to beat.

Blackjack is often woven into movie plots and it’s the ideal game to show on the silver screen. The rules are simple and almost universally understood, the outcome rests on a mixture of skill and chance, and having a calm and professional banker as the opponent only makes the players’ action seem more dramatic. 

Some of the most popular films to feature blackjack also include themes of card counting and other strategies that can give players an advantage:

• Swingers

• The Cooler

• Austin Powers

• Licence to Kill

• Rain Man

• The Last Casino

There are also a number of documentaries and exposes featuring that tend to focus on those who are subverting the system and trying to find ways to increase their winnings. 

Card counting in films

One theme that is seen in many casino films is the idea of a way to beat the odds and win against the house. There are various ways in which players attempt this, from elaborate methods of seeing the cards before they are dealt to the controversial skill of card-counting. 

The film 21 focused on a team of students that used their card-counting skills to win hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was based on a true story, which was detailed in the novel Bringing Down the House, written by Ben Mezrick.

While card-counting isn’t cheating, in the same way that some other game rigging techniques are, casinos do try and identify those using the technique and eject them. Using mathematical skills to beat the odds while avoiding the attention of casino experts is often easier to do as a team rather than a solo player.

The plots details the exploits of a team of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who are recruited by a professor to join a blackjack team. They learned to count cards and developed a system of secret signals in order to win money playing blackjack as detailed in this review.

Real life card-counters

The events portrayed in the film follow the true story of the team that was brought together by their professor. Comprising engineering and maths students, they were perfectly placed to use their cognitive skills to gain a statistical advantage in games of chance. 

The team then travel from casino to casino on the Las Vegas strip, winning big and avoiding detection by even the most prestigious casinos such as Caesar’s Palace and The Mirage. While card counting is hard to detect, casinos monitor the behaviour and performance of the players at their tables to try and identify any that are gaining a significant advantage through any means.

The methods that casinos use to reduce the incidence of card-counting vary. Some employ staff simply to observe the players and intervene if anyone appears to be counting cards; others have a more robust approach and use intimidation tactics to discourage players from using their skills in this way.

In the film, the team attracted the attention of a casino security guard who made it his mission to stop them and prevent them from making off with their winnings. In the book, the team disbands when the players struggle to maintain their interpersonal relationships. 

21: Film reception

When it was first released, the film 21 was well-received, taking nearly $25 million in its first weekend and gaining the top spot at the box office. The success continued and the film spent another week at number one, remaining in the top ten for some weeks after its initial release.

During its run, 21 earned more than $150 million worldwide and was widely praised by fans who enjoyed the story of the casino-beating students. While some of the details had been embellished for dramatic effect, the knowledge that the film was based on a true story made it all the more compelling.

There were some concerns that casinos would object to the details of card-counting being widely shared through the techniques shown in the film. However, one of the extras included on the DVD release revealed that MGM was in favour of the film and not concerned that it would encourage a spike in card-counting.

While some of the events depicted in the film were exaggerated, the allure of card-counting as a way to beat the house in a casino is an enduring one. From Rain Man to the team from MIT, the idea of an underdog using their mental agility to beat the casino and win big has a universal appeal.

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