A textbook case of card counting

Times Staff Writer

The cardsharp playing blackjack at the Riviera Hotel & Casino didn’t say “hit me,” but he got hit anyway, and hard. After a remarkably profitable run at Riviera’s tables, the man was dragged off by a casino security detail and hustled into a room, where he was promptly pummeled.

The scene, part of the beat-the-dealer movie “21,” which opens Friday, is not exactly a slam-dunk sales pitch for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Yet the Riviera’s representatives said they had no problem having the loosely factual story of a team of card counters be filmed on their casino floor.

That’s because there was an upside during production in February 2007: While the “21” actors were raking in piles of make-believe money in front of the camera, some of the film’s below-the-line workers were losing their per diem checks at an alarming clip at the real blackjack tables. And the Riviera was hardly the only Las Vegas gambling destination welcoming “21” into its hotel suites and blackjack pits. “Planet Hollywood gave us unfettered and unprecedented access,” said the film’s director, “Legally Blonde’s” Robert Luketic. As did several other casinos.


It’s a curious turnabout given the film’s source material, the 2002 book “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions.” As author Ben Mezrich’s bestseller chronicled, a team of college-age math whizzes repeatedly traveled from Boston to Las Vegas in the 1990s, combining an effective (albeit complex) strategy for counting blackjack cards with a fat bankroll to beat the casinos at their own game.

While card counting is not technically illegal -- the strategy requires players to track cards dealt from a shoe holding multiple decks, betting more heavily when the remaining cards favor the gamblers over the house -- the casinos scarcely tolerate it. As both “Bringing Down the House” and “21” colorfully recount, the book’s blackjack experts were eventually spotted and chased out of town.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology team’s top player, Jeff Ma (depicted in the book as Kevin Lewis and in the movie as Ben Campbell), said he is still not permitted to patronize Nevada’s blackjack tables.

In fictionalizing the story for “21,” Luketic and screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb preserved the mechanics of the team’s strategy but added an array of imaginary movie material, concocting a romance between the team’s Campbell (“Across the Universe’s” Jim Sturgess) and Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), internecine team warfare where little existed, a back story about one player’s worries about paying for medical school and a clash between math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey, also one of the film’s producers) and security consultant Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne).

Even with the security guard slap downs, the movie is ultimately a Las Vegas love letter, selling the town’s most alluring fantasies -- easy money, women and fame -- while minimizing its potentially destructive sway: It is to casinos what “Top Gun” was to the U.S. Navy.

“I think the movie should be used as a promotion for Las Vegas,” Ma said. “Has Las Vegas ever looked so good in a movie?”


Given that two of the film’s key creators -- director Luketic and screenwriter Loeb -- have wrestled with uncontrollable gambling themselves, it’s more than a rhetorical question.

Luketic and Spacey separately had read an early excerpt of Mezrich’s book in Wired magazine and each pursued the story’s film rights. Spacey beat Luketic to the punch and the project landed at MGM, where it was developed but eventually languished.

When MGM was absorbed by Sony Pictures, “21” was one of the handful of MGM movies attracting Sony’s interest. “Rush Hour’s” Brett Ratner and “Night at the Museum’s” Shawn Levy previously considered directing “21.” Loeb’s rewrite ultimately earned Sony’s green light, with Luketic coming in to direct.

“No one does excess like Las Vegas,” Luketic said between takes in the somewhat downscale Riviera early last year. “It was a very theatrical idea: placing these kids in this environment. And there is nothing like the thrill of beating the house.”

Luketic should know. Flush with cash after directing the 2001 Reese Witherspoon hit “Legally Blonde,” the Australian director headed to Las Vegas and made a beeline for the tables to have some fun. Like millions before him, he didn’t.

“I lost $25,000 in one hour at the Bellagio,” Luketic said. “It was devastating.” One friend, so upset over Luketic’s losing so much money so fast, took $10,000 of the director’s cash and stuffed it in a trash can, telling him there was little difference between that and his reckless wagering.

Loeb’s gambling on cards as well as sports was even worse, ultimately leading him to join Gamblers Anonymous. Loeb said he hasn’t gambled in about five years. “I was really ready to quit when I quit,” said Loeb, co-creator of the new Fox series “New Amsterdam.”

Given their backgrounds, it’s fair to ask them if their movie romanticizes gambling.

“Most people are not as smart as MIT students,” Loeb said. “So even if you come up with a system, you will never beat your own emotions, so it’s a sucker’s game. Very, very few people have the discipline to win.

“Is the movie going to get people who wouldn’t gamble go gamble? I hope not. But will it get people who were going to gamble anyway to go to Planet Hollywood or one of the other casinos in the movie? Absolutely,” Loeb said.

Luketic sees the movie as more of a cautionary tale and a kind of masquerade story, a tale of a college geek who turns into a jet-setting playboy through his high-rolling alter ego: Just as Campbell in the movie can enjoy a Las Vegas dream, so too can moviegoers who watch his transformation and triumph.

“I’m letting the audience come in on their fantasy,” Luketic said. “But we take a position in the movie that his greed and lust is fun only in moderate doses. It’s like substance abuse -- too much of anything is not going to be good for you.”

Still, the lure of the game is unrelenting and, at times, completely understandable.

“I think the movie is going to inspire thousands and thousands and thousands of college kids,” author Mezrich said. “They will lose a few hundred dollars -- not too devastating. But I think the movie is really about the consequences.”