The movie “21” was pitched to consumers as a true story based on the factual events surrounding the MIT blackjack team and their exploits of the casino industry. Since everyone loves a good story about a group of underdogs taking down an entire industry, this film grossed over eighty-one million dollars at the box office in the US alone and nearly double that worldwide. Although this film sticks impressively close to real life events, there is also a good bit of Hollywood magic blended in as well. Here’s our review of where the movie 21 drifted a little bit too far from the real story-
The Formation of the MIT Blackjack Team
Hollywood- This film starts out with a young, nerdy MIT college student (played by Jim Sturgess) who is in desperate need of money for graduate school. He has his hopes pinned on winning a $300,000 robotics scholarship that would cover the cost of Harvard, but then he gets approached to join an elite blackjack team that would give him the funds immediately. After weeks of deliberation, he agrees to join up and he’s taught the system. That same weekend, he takes center stage as one of the team’s high rollers.
Real Life- There was in fact a MIT blackjack team and the movie picks up several years after their formation (and repetitive failures). There was also a professor who recruited brilliant students (played by Kevin Spacey), but by this time in MIT’s evolution it was more like a boot camp that a quick training seminar. Students were certainly not handed tens of thousands of dollars on their first weekend to play at high roller tables with.
Tipping off Security
Hollywood- Actor Laurence Fishburne plays a head security guard in the casino where the MIT team plays. He notices strange patterns almost right away that tell him something is not quite right, but his problems are escalated even further because he only has a fraction of the staff the hotel used to employ. This character essentially makes it his lifelong mission to take down card counters in order to prove to the casinos that their facial recognition software is a poor replacement for human eyes.
Real Life- Most casino security guards take their work very seriously when it comes to catching cheaters, and even though card counting is technically legal they really do not discriminate when people find ways to beat the system. When this movie took place (several years after other blackjack teams began to dominate) casinos were already on the lookout for card sharks and didn’t hesitate to put them in the hospital.
The Big Finale
Hollywood- After our young star essentially blows it and tries to form his own team, he talks his MIT buddies into one more marathon gambling session in order to break the house once and for all. They figure that since casinos were finally onto them and their future profits were limited, they may as well go out with a big bang.
Real Life- The final night portrayed in the movie probably never happened, simply because there were too many worldwide casinos and too many new faces for security personnel to track. Although the MIT blackjack team did eventually break apart as the players went their own ways, their strategy and con methods are still used in casinos today by new and upcoming groups that think they can recreate the film’s success rate.
In all honesty, Hollywood did not do too bad of a job keeping fairly close to the actual storyline of how the MIT Blackjack team rose to infamy. While many of the storylines were invented to make the film more likable to a broader audience, the essence of the film stays fairly true to how the group functioned inside a casino and how they managed their long-term goals. Even though the real-life story is much more interesting, the movie 21 is certainly worth watching.