Friday, March 28, 2008

21 - The Blackjack Movie

I saw the new movie "21" tonight.
It's loosely based on the book "Bringing Down The House" by Ben Mezrich, one of my all-time favorite gambling stories.
It seems like I've waited years to see this movie. I give it a 7 on the 10 scale.
Heaven help me if The Libertarian Party triumphs and we have legal gambling in all 50 states. I have enough problems just getting through Shreveport.

The story goes like this, and I promise not to ruin the movie for you....A generic math whiz-kid attending M.I.T. gets recruited to be a member of a blackjack team.
Blackjack teams take advantage of a practice called Card Counting. Blackjack is the only casino game that has a memory. For instance, if a roulette ball has landed on the color red for two dozen straight rolls, the odds against the ball landing on red the next time don't change. The little silver ball doesn't have a memory. Your odds at a particular slot machine don't change after a huge payout. The computer chip in the slot machine (supposedly) has no memory.

But in blackjack, the object of the game is to get as close to 21 as possible without going over. Same for the dealer, but he has to keep taking cards until he's reached at least 17. And what happened in the past has an impact on the possibilities for the future. The cards, in this case, DO have a memory, or they do if you're smart enough to remember how many high cards and low cards have been played. It also helps to memorize this chart, known as "basic strategy".

If there are more high cards than low cards left in the deck, that's to the player's advantage. And if you've seen a disproportionate number of low cards leave the dealer's "shoe" of cards, you need to raise your bets accordingly. They player can stop any time, knowing the ratio of high to low cards. The dealer, however, has to take cards until hitting at least 17.
That's when knowledge of what remains in the deck becomes valuable.

If you want to practice this, go here.

Unfortunately, when your bets spike wildly toward the end of a deck, that's when casinos will accuse you of Card Counting, and ask you to leave. (Unfortunately, I have problems counting past 10 without taking my shoes off.)

That's when teams come into play. The math genius sits at the table counting cards, and making minimum bets. He or she signals a team member known as The Big Player to approach the table at a point when the odds favor the customers. The "counter" uses code words in conversation with the dealer, a waitress, or other players to let The Big Player know how "rich" the deck is.
For instance, a reference to "Football" would mean the count is Eleven Plus. (There are eleven people on a football team.) A code word for "The Count is up by Twelve Plus" would be "Eggs", since eggs are sold in quantities of twelve.
Addition from April 2nd....People are coming to this site looking for a complete list of the code words used by the MIT blackjack team. I found "Bringing Down The House" in The Whited Sepulchre archives, and am typing this list for you as a public service:
Tree: +1. A tree looks like a one
Switch: +2. Binary. on or off
Stool: +3. A stool has three legs
Car: +4. Cars have four tires
Glove: +5. five fingers
Gun:+6. Six bullets
Craps: +7. lucky seven
Pool: +8. eight ball
Up to this point, the count isn't high enough in face cards and 10's to justify extravegant bets. But now we're getting somewhere. At this point, the odds are in your favor. Bet semi-recklessly.
Cat: +9. nine lives
Bowling: +10. strike
Football: +11. eleven people on a football team
Eggs: +12. one dozen per carton
Witch: +13. superstition, bad luck number
If the count is higher than this, in the words of the book, you should mortgage the house. Take out a loan. Get it all on the table.....
Ring: +14. fourteen carat
Paycheck: +15: the day on which you get paid
Sweet: +16: sweet sixteen
Magazine: +17: the name of a teen magazine (and 16 was already taken)
Voting booth: +18: the age you can vote
The Big Player plops down a wad of cash based on whether the counting is merely ok (plus eight or 9) or fantastic (plus 16 or more) and usually goes on a winning streak, since there are mostly high cards left in the deck. He can't possibly be counting cards because he's new to the table.
When the deck returns to normal, The Big Player leaves. The two team members don't even acknowledge each other.

The M.I.T. blackjack team made millions doing this before they were busted by the casino security firm Griffin Investigations. (In the movie, the owner of the security company is played by Lawrence Fishburne, who does a great job. And it was refreshing to see a movie cast a talented African-American actor as the villain without casting dozens of black actors and actresses in angelic roles to act as a counterbalance. Very refreshing. Probably a milestone of some sort.)

As a devoted fan of the book, here's where they did really well in the movie.... (I work in shipping, logistics, and transportation, so I'm well-qualified to spout off opinions on these things....)

They give an explanation of all the hand signals, code words, and strategies that the players used to bust the casinos.
There are more laugh lines in the movie than in the book.
As a gambling addict who is NOT in recovery, the scenes where the players are first shown using their system and winning made my heart go into overdrive. My mouth went dry. I was there at the table. I almost looked back over my shoulder to order a bourbon and coke. When they started losing, I felt my own loser-at-the-table sensations, and started wondering how I was going to explain my failures.

The acting is good. The soundtrack is good.

The movie spends a little too much time establishing the hero's friends, mother, dead-end job, geekiness and general desperation.
In reality, the incident where strippers and Ho's have to cash in the players' chips....that was caused by the riot after the Mike Tyson/Holyfield ear biting incident, if I remember correctly. I guess that would have cost too much to re-enact.
The romantic angle in the movie is pointless.
The shopping montage, where the kids run through the casinos buying Louis Vuitton crap - that has to be a blatant product placement deal.
The movie has a Keyser Soze ending, which is probably appropriate for a Kevin Spacey movie. (A "Keyzer Soze Ending" is Roger Ebert's term for a movie that has to be re-interpreted because of new information presented to the audience in the last few minutes. This wasn't in Mezrich's book, and it doesn't quite work in "21".)
Unless you're a math genius, don't even think about trying to count cards. After the well-publicized success of the M.I.T. team, the casinos have added more decks of cards to each shoe, and they cut deep into the shoe and re-shuffle long before a counter can determine an advantage.
But it's nice to dream. Good movie.


Kent j said...

I thought one missing feature in the movie was a better explanation of the money and how the initial bankroll was so important. They did carry a lot of cash TO Las Vegas, but we really didnt get a feel for how many times you have to lose, not just win?
Does that make sense.
I still can't figure out how they can ban card counting. Its weird. I mean.. someone could count cards intuitively and not even know it.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Yeah, it takes a lot of seed money to make big money.

My memory of the book is that even the counters sitting at the table (betting the minimum) had minimal losses except when they wanted to look like total amateurs. There were occasional bad nights when, regardless of the odds in their favor, the cards just wouldn't cooperate. But not many.
I could be wrong.

The casinos don't have signs up saying "No Card Counting". What they do enforce is their right to ban certain people from their property. And if you're sitting at a blackjack table, betting the minimum, and suddenly bet the max numerous times and win big toward the end of a shoe. you will be banned from their property. (And it has been decades since someone in the U.S. has been "backroomed" and knocked around in a casino. That's not the case overseas or in the Carribean, though.)

You will never, ever, get lucky enough to do this intuitively. You're a high end bettor, a low end bettor, or an insane person who zigzags all over the place all night long. Leopards don't change their spots toward the end of a shoe.