April 2008
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“21” the movie

Here’s a rarity – I saw a movie based on a book I’d actually read.

I think the only other time this has ever happened before was with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

There’s no point trying to do an objective critique of the film because – let’s be honest – it was going to have to be a real turkey for me not to love it.  Just look at the ingredients: Vegas, gambling and maths geeks.  It’s already a winner on paper as far as I’m concerned.  Who needs exploding helicopters? 

Of course the little things bug me a bit.  Like how they walk into the Hard Rock and then they’re seen playing at Red Rock (it says so on the tables and chips, but you can’t really see it in YouTube-def) – even though those casinos are about 10 miles apart.  I guess having one word the same in the names is enough that we’re not meant to notice.

Then suddenly they’re inside Planet Hollywood in the same sequence (the interior is quite distinctive, even without the fake plastic jewels from the former Aladdin) and finally walk out of the Hard Rock into the morning sun (guitar-shaped door handles @ 1m59 in the trailer, if you’re bothered).

In one scene, the team have a discussion about whether you should split pairs of 8s and 10s, with some saying "yes, always" and others saying it’s a "sucker play" against a dealer’s ace.

This is a team apparently comprised of very clever individuals who have figured out how to make money by working the mathematics of the game to their advantage.  There’s just no room for debate on topics like this – the numbers do the talking.

Blackjack is a game played to a fixed set of rules with a finite number of possibilities (you can’t keep hitting for ever) so there can only be one right answer.  These guys would know the correct play for every situation or they wouldn’t be betting thousands of dollars of Kevin Spacey’s money on a hand.

In fact, you should always split 8s – even against an ace as long as the dealer checks for Blackjack first, otherwise you surrender if possible and hit if not.  You never split a pair of tens or face cards.  Unless you’re card counting, when a very high count can flip the strategy on its head.  Or unless you "have a feeling", of course.

Of course, we see the big player splitting tens in the movie – and winning big because the deck is rich in tens.  You see whenever the count is high, players invariably get 20 and the dealer invariably busts.  That’s just the way it works.

Perhaps including this uncertainty and – to some extent – misinformation about the game was payment in kind to the casinos where filming took place.  Or perhaps I’m a little too cynical.

Anyhow, I still enjoyed the movie and it’s always good to know I’m not as picky as some.  Several reviews have plenty to say about just how bad this movie must be because it’s not 100% true to life as every Hollywood movie obviously should be.  They’re taking it much too seriously, and they’re all wrong.

John Chang, the real Micky Rosa

MIT team member and poker pro, Andy Bloch:

Blackjack author, Don Schlesinger:

Internet legend, the Wizard of Odds:

Some dude called "Bootlegger" on Stanford Wong’s forum:;read=156592

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