Monday, September 01, 2008


After I read Beat the Dealer, a very popular book that gave a system for playing blackjack, in the 1970's, I tried several counting systems in Las Vegas. The favorite was counting 10's, with the theory that the higher the ratio of 10's left in the deck, the more you should bet and the more you should win. It's thought that casinos went to 6-deck shoes to counter this system, although I believe they went to the shoe to speed up play and, thus, players' losses.

I found it hard to keep up the count, though, very hard. And even when I could, I wasn't winning. I then went to counting fives, which seemed easier especially with 6 decks, but that didn't really seem to work either. I then went back to where I am today when I play blackjack: try to play smart, lessening the odds.

So, you can imagine my interest in a movie like 21, based on a magazine article which followed publication of the book recounting the escapades of the 6 MIT students who "beat the bank" for five years. 21, however, is a fictional account of that story. Characters have been changed totally. For instance, the main character in the movie is not Asian. A love story has been forced into the story. The idea that gambling could pay for this student's med school tuition was added. Also inserted into the story was retribution by the casinos, far worse than what actually happened.

Ben is a very smart undergraduate student at MIT who has nerdy buddies, none of which can pay for a beer, let alone a car or grad school tuition. Ben has just been accepted into medical school, but obviously can't pay for it. His math prof, played by scene-stealer Kevin Spacey, invites him to join a group he's put together to play blackjack under his team system. The blonde he's been eyeing, played by Kate Bosworth (Superman Returns), presses the issue, and Ben seems to join, not for the money, but for her.

Their time in Las Vegas is fascinating. The director employs all of his tricks, like slowing down the cards, neon flashing, the lights of the Strip, everything except money floating in mid-air. And he even employs that shot later. What's intriguing to me is that this is a team system, and they live and die by the team. The spotters spread out, play at a table, continue to count cards until the deck is exactly right, and then use signals to entice the big players of the team to come over and then tell them what the count is. There is no ego involved, and presumably there's no fun for the player who is counting continually. And there's the weakness of the system.

Spacey is perfect for this role. He's a producer as well, having bought the original property and nursed it into a film, but as the professor who's looking to pad his pockets, he's wonderful: a father figure at some moments, but fiercely punitive if someone steps out of line. Newcomer Sturgess caught American eyes in Across the Universe, and does a wonderful job as the new guy, or, basically, the viewer as if we were brought into this group. Kate Bosworth is adequate, although her story isn't revealed enough. And I wish someone would lay off the eyeliner when they dress her up.

I also wish they hadn't changed the facts of the original true story. I mean, THAT's a fascinating story, and nobody had any money stolen from them or were beaten within an inch of their lives. However, I think as entertainment value this movie works rather well, all the pieces fit together to entice you into the game, make you play it, with a few surprises along the way.

Thumb's up.

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