In the movie "21," opening in theaters Friday, Jim Sturgess plays an MIT student and math whiz who learns the ways of card-counting and joins an elite gambling club so that he can pay his tuition. The movie is based on a book called "Bringing Down the House," and the book is based on the real-life experiences of Jeff Ma.
This morning I spoke with Ma, who had just arrived back in his San Francisco office from a night of partying in New York City. He admitted that the film based on his life was pretty Hollywood-ized--although he was not bothered that his character is being played by the decidedly un-Asian Sturgess.
"My race is important to me, but when people were asking me who I would want to play me in a movie, I wasn't saying Jet Li or Chow Yun Fat," he said. "I was saying Topher Grace."
Since Ma has so much gambling experience, I asked him to tell me which movies portray gambling the most accurately. He agreed, but prefaced his list by saying that most movies bungle gambling horribly.
7. "Two for the Money." "It's an absolutely terrible movie, but it portrays gambling in a somewhat realistic sense because it captures the ideas of 'touts.' There are people out there that tout their services and tout their picks. They make a lot of money off of people, but they aren't guaranteeing wins and they are no better than anyone at picking games, but they convince people they are."
6. "Vegas Vacation." "It's funny that it's on here, but there is a great scene when Chevy Chase is down on his luck and he goes to a casino where they play alternate games like Rock, Paper, Scissors, or Pick a Number. When gamblers are down on their luck, they are willing to play anything to make it back--even something like Pick a Number."
5. "Casino Royale" (the 2006 Daniel Craig version). "It's not all about gambling, but it has got great gambling scenes where he is trying to get in the head of the guy he is playing against. That's definitely true to real life. People are trying to get reads on you and pick up on any kind of mannerisms."
4. "The Color of Money." "I think that movie is very realistic and captures the notion of the hustle -- setting someone up to beat them. And I love the cockiness involved -- how he'll take the shots with big money on the table and he won't even look at what he's doing. He'll look at his opponent. That's an idea of how cocky gamblers get."
3. "Bookies." "I'm not sure how many people have seen it, but this is a really good small movie about a bunch of kids who start their own bookie service in college, and then it gets out of hand because of the greed. I could easily see that happening in college."
2. "Rounders." "This movie was way ahead of its time. If it came out now it would be a total blockbuster. I think it was a limited success because of how into gambling it got -- the Texas Hold 'Em Game, the cheating and betting, the reads. It's a great movie."
1. "21." I think it is realistic for what we did. They show us winning all the time, and we didn't necessarily win all the time, but the level [at which] they try to tackle the concept of card counting is impressive. It tries to tackle such an intricate subject and does that absolutely accurately."
Ma currently runs a website called ProTrade.com where players can trade sports stars as if they were playing the stock market.