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The Original MIT Blackjack Card Counters Behind the 21 Film

In 21, we are introduced to wily math professor Micky Rosa and his team of university graduates that take gambling as a part-time job. Using their math skills and team play, they manage to beat one of the most popular casino games – blackjack. Without spoiling anything, the movie is packed with suspense and plot twists, and offers the usual cocktail of romance, drama and violence that keeps the viewer entertained. However, it also claims to be based on facts – and indeed, it is. There was a MIT blackjack team, and they did manage to earn millions by playing casino games. In fact, in the movie you can find many easter eggs paying homage to them. But of course, as is often the case, their story was quite different from the one you see on the big screen.
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The Real People Who Beat the Casino

Those of you looking up the names of Ben Campbell, Micky Rosa, Jill Taylor or anyone else from the movie will be left disappointed. Such people do not exist, at least not under the same name or ethnicity! The film 21 is actually based on Ben Mezrich’s bestseller Bringing Down the House. You might remember the title from our infamous list of gambling books .Bringing Down the House first brought attention to the exploits of the MIT team back in 2003, but later on many former members of the group went on to say publicly that Mezrich’s take on their story had been greatly exaggerated.

It is somewhat hard to pinpoint on whom exactly Micky Rosa and the rest of Mezrich’s characters were based, since the real MIT team was a large organisation with constant player turnover. At times, there were over 60 people playing in different cities. Still, there were a few core members that served as direct inspiration for the closely-knit group of card counters that we meet in 21.

Ben Cambpell – an Asian Face

Jeff MaIn 21, Jim Sturgess got to play the lead role as Ben Campbell, a math graduate with dreams of going to Harvard and becoming a doctor. In Mezrich’s book, the lead character was named Kevin Lewis, and by the author’s admittance he was based on Jeffrey Ma, one of the younger MIT Blackjack Team members that joined in the mid-90s.

Jeff Ma has gained huge popularity thanks to the book and the movie, but he looks nothing like Jim Sturgess – for starters, he is Chinese! However, he took great pleasure in seeing his story on the big screen, and was rather pleased with the actor choice. The most observant 21 fans might even find his face slightly familiar, because Ma did appear in the movie. He got a cameo as casino dealer Jeffrey, and Ben Campbell even referred to him as ‘my brother from another mother’.

“Honestly, all this movie stuff – all the interviews and promotion – it’s been way more crazy than the actual card-counting we did in school.”

Jeff Ma

In real life, Jeff Ma admits he never had the same adventures as his movie counterpart. He did want to go to Harvard Med School, but was not in dire need of funds to do so, and even gave up on that dream because of the opportunities that blackjack offered. After being a successful MIT player for a while, Jeff moved on to other ventures; he is the founder of no less than 4 successful businesses that were sold off to industry giants such as Yahoo and Twitter. Jeff has also dabbled with sports, and is closely associated with the ‘moneyball’ strategy that is painfully familiar to all Liverpool fans.

Nowadays, Jeff Ma is a Senior Director of Business Insights at Twitter, and looks back to his blackjack playing days with pride. He freely talks about his initial doubts when he was invited to the MIT team, but states that card counting was not illegal in any way. The former MIT graduate did have his share of excitement and midnight chases, but he was never beaten up by casino security. The legal ways of stopping card counters were much more reliant on intimidation and permanent bans.

For all his fame, Jeff Ma was one of the later additions to the MIT Blackjack Team, joining in after their peak years. The people that started the whole thing, and kept it going for over a decade, are hidden behind a very famous face.

Micky Rosa – a Composite Character

Micky RosaKevin Spacey took up the role of Math Professor Micky Rosa, much to the delight of the people on whom the character was based. However, none of them were actually professors at the MIT. The blackjack team was started and run entirely by former graduates, and they were the ones who handled all the recruitment.

It is hard to pinpoint a person so important and influential for the original MIT team as Kevin Spacey’s character was in 21. With more than 60 members and over 20 years of history, a more complex management structure was needed. There are no less than 3 people on whose shoulders Micky Rosa stands – J. P. Massar, Bill Kaplan and Johnny Chang.

J. P. Massar, famously known as Mr. M, was the one who started it all – after attending a university course titled How to Gamble if You Must. A chance meeting with Harvard graduate Bill Kaplan (pictured above), allowed him to turn the part-time occupation into a successful business model that lasted for over a decade. As we showed in our comprehensive post about the history and secrets of the MIT card counting team, it was Kaplan’s business prowess that became the foundation of the team’s success.

Soon after, the partners would be joined by John Chang. John Chang would become one of the longest serving players of the MIT team, and allegedly continues to count cards to this day. Of course, he has to use a disguise, because he has long been blacklisted in most casinos. John Chang is one of the less public members of the original group, but in 2007 he became the first to be officially inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame.

This trio wasthe driving force behind the MIT ventures until the middle of the 90s, when the team was disbanded. However, there were no dramatic upheavals such as those pictured in 21. In fact, most of the MIT blackjack team founders have gone on record to unveil their displeasure towards Mezrich’s description of Micky Rosa.

“I don’t even know if you want to call the things in there exaggerations, because they’re so exaggerated they’re basically untrue.”

John Chang on Micky Rosa

One of the main inspirations for all the founding members of the MIT blackjack team was Edward Thorp, the creator of card counting who topped our list of great casino cheats – due to the fact that he actually managed to beat the casino without cheating! His famous book Beat the Dealer can even be seen in the movie. Ben Campbell is reading it while on the plane.

Just like Thorp, the MIT blackjack team managers aimed at capitalising on their skills rather than breaking the law. This strategy has allowed them to be successful at many ventures outside gambling. After the team was disbanded, Bill Kaplan moved on to other business projects and has become an well-established entrepreneur, while Massar and Chang are known as blackjack masters and have trained some of the most famous tournament players.

Jill Taylor – Were There Female Blackjack Experts?

Jane WillsThe rise in prominence of professional female players in poker and blackjack has been a hot topic for quite a while now. The movie is correct in showing that there were female pros in the MIT blackjack team. In fact, female gamblers have held sway in casinos worldwide for a long time, as the Queen of Sorts reminded us just recently during the infamous edge sorting scandal that surrounded poker icon Phil Ivey.

MIT graduate Jill Taylor was portrayed by the beautiful Kate Bosworth, and she did have a real-life counterpart: Jane Wills. However, Jane was not part of the MIT community – she was a Harvard recruit. Contrary to what the movie implies, the MIT team had members from other universities. Being considered a math whiz was a more important endorsement than where you had studied.

Jane Wills was fairly close with Jeff Ma, Bill’s real-life counterpart. However, there was never even a hint of romance between them. Jeff was the one who recruited Jane to the MIT team – together with her boyfriend. Both were very close friends to him. Jane would later on marry her boyfriend, divorce him and remarry. Following her gambling days, she went on to become a very successful lawyer, and now boasts more than 15 years of experience. Considering her respectable position in society, her blackjack past would have remained a mystery had the movie not prompted her to unveil her story.

“We didn’t do anything dishonest or fraudulent. We were good kids. It’s totally legal to use your brain.”

Jane Wills

What About Cole Williams?

Cole WilliamsWe covered some of the most prominent MIT team members, but what about the other side of the barricade? Did the card counters ever face an adversary such as Cole Williams, hell-bent on stopping them?

Well, yes… and no. Cole Williams is one of the characters without a direct basis in real life. During the time the MIT team operated, card counting was already more or less familiar to most casino security staff. After all, Edward Thorp had written a book about it, while Ken Uston had publicised the idea of team play. Casino officials were actively working on preventing the practice, and keeping a lookout for any suspicious players.

The biggest nemesis of the MIT card counters was Griffin Investigations – a security agency used by casinos worldwide. They were famed for their database keeping track of cheaters and scammers. Around the time the MIT team disbanded for the last time, the agency had already figured out many of their techniques, and were using MIT graduation books when keeping a lookout for suspicious players.

Andy Anderson is usually credited about cracking the MIT case. He was the chief field agent of Griffin Investigations for more than 20 years, and during the time became well-known in US casinos for his studies on scammers and his constant patrols. The head of the firm was Robert Griffin, later replaced by his wife Bev. The famed agency did not outlive the MIT team by long, as it had to file for bankruptcy after it lost several law-suits against alleged card counters.

“I’m just fine with the one-on-one card counter–that’s a skill. But it’s those who work in groups I don’t like.”

Bev Griffin

Other Famous MIT Blackjack Team Members

As we already mentioned, the MIT Blackjack Team was a huge beast, and its managers often registered legitimate firms to better divide the earnings. There have been at least several incarnations, with players coming and going constantly. After the main team split during the 90s, ex-players formed several splinter groups famously known as the Amphibians and the Reptiles. They continued to terrorise casinos worldwide until the tightening of security measures slowly forced them to lose interest towards the beginning of the new century. Here are some of the more famous members that we are yet to mention:

  • Al Francesco: Never part of the MIT teams, but he was the guy who invented the concept of team play that all blackjack card counting teams have utilised ever since. Ken Uston, who published the first book on the topic, was one of his team’s members.
  • Sarah McCord: She was another female pro who joined the team in 1983. Sarah was so good at card counting that she was made partner and received the important task to instruct and train new players. She stuck together with Kaplan, Massar and Chang till the 90s. Had she received an incarnation in the movie, it would have been a character very close and loyal to Micky Rosa.
  • Mike Aponte: He was part of the later generations of MIT players, joining shortly before Jeff Ma in 1992 and keeping up with it till the 2000s. In 21 he is the basis of Fisher, but he was never unprofessional when counting cards. In fact, Aponte was the one who recruited Ma.
  • David (Dave) Irvine: He was a close friend and associate of Mike Aponte, and has become one of the most public MIT team members. Together with Aponte, he co-founded the infamous Blackjack Institute, and still keeps in touch with many of his card-counting colleagues.
  • Laurie Tsao: She can probably be considered the basis of Kiana from 21. Laurie was a MIT player towards the beginning of the 90s, and got married to team manager and famous veteran Johnny Chang. As recently as 2012 she got involved in a dispute with the Caesars Entertainment casino, so her card counting days are obviously not behind her.
  • Semyon Dukach: He is arguably one of the most famous MIT members, and the only one to feature in Mezrich’s books with his real name. He was the head of the Amphibians branch that appeared after the original MIT team fell apart, and continued to operate till the end of the 90s. Since then, he has become one of the top angel investors in New England, funding over 100 start-ups and aiding many of the immigrants that want to start a business in the USA.

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