May 14

Movie ‘21’ – Blackjack reality or utopia?

‘21’ is an American heist drama about a group of MIT students armed with the knowledge of mathematics and quick wits who give Vegas casinos a good run for their money. As the movie turned out to be a box office success, many people surely know that 21 is an alternative name to Blackjack and that counting cards (whatever that means) can give you an advantage like free spins on sign-up and increase the winning chances.

The movie is based on the best-seller by Ben Mezrich called ‘Bringing Down the House’, which, in its turn, is supposed to be based on a real story. But how much fiction did the creators add to ‘21’? And can you use its main theses (or at least pieces of them) as guidelines on beating the almighty Casino?

The core

The team managed to pull off a huge card-counting scheme and make a load of money, even though none of them was a professional gambler or had criminal or near-criminal experience. True.

The members of the Card-counting squad were not only MIT students: besides this fine institution, the participants were also from Harvard, Harvard Business school, and Princeton.

We are sure everyone loved the character of Kevin Spacey – an MIT professor, inspiring leader, and, in addition to his other duties, a sponsor. To put the record straight, the Blackjack team was led by three people: Bill Kaplan (Harvard Business school graduate), J.P. Massar, and John Chang (MIT graduates). And as for the funding, in real life, the three leaders mentioned above chipped in and managed to find investors among their university friends and relatives.

Betting in Blackjack

Incredibly high bets – fiction.

Most of the time MIT team members place bets of $1,000 – $2,000 while playing Blackjack. More than that, they consider them low bets and, at some point, try to wager $500,000. That’s an exaggeration and fiction multiplied by fantasy. If you go to a real casino, you will see that the maximum bet limits differ: you may come across the establishments where $10, $100, $1,000, $2,000 are the limits. On average, the maximum bet will lie inside the range from $10 to $1,000.

Secret language

Using code words to mark the count of the deck – True.

The gamblers did use code words to communicate with each other and, most importantly, pass a message to the Big Player. As you probably know, counting in Blackjack is like weighing the deck. Depending on which card has been played, the value of the card deck changes: you add 1 point (+1) or extract it (-1). To identify the count, the team had to slip a code word in a sentence:

  • ‘stool’ for +3 as stools have 3 legs;
  • ‘pool’ for +8 as the game associated with an 8-ball kind of strongly;
  • ‘cat’ for +9 in honor of 9 lives these animals famously possess;
  • ‘sweet’ for +16 associated with ‘sweet 16’, etc.

Card Counting in Blackjack

And the last but not the least thing the movie pictured that we disagree with is the feeling that you have to be a genius MIT student to count cards. On the contrary, the primary strategies like Hi-Lo are more than comprehensible to anyone who has basic mathematical knowledge – and that is all of us.

Hi-Lo is a system that helps Blackjack players ‘weigh’ the card deck and evaluate the odds of the next draw.

All the cards are assigned a value depending on their contribution to each hand:

  • +1 – the value of all the cards from 2 to 6;
  • -1 – the value of all the Face cards, Aces, and 10s;
  • 0 – the value of all the cards from 7 to 9.

We start with the idea that the default weight of a 52-card deck is 0. When a card is dealt we add or abstract 1. Like this, the higher the deck has, the better chances players have to get a High card – the card bringing the most points.

Another system to use at Blackjack is the Blackjack Basic Strategy Chart. It will require much more diligence and time to master, though.

In short, you have to memorize the chart and follow it:

Blackjack Basic Strategy Chart (1 Deck, Dealer stands on all 17s)
Dealer Upcard
Hard Total 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 A
5-7 H H H H H H H H H H
8 H H H D D H H H H H
9 D D D D D H H H H H
10 D D D D D D D D H H
11 D D D D D D D D D D
12 H H S S S H H H H H
13 S S S S S H H H H H
14 S S S S S H H H H H
15 S S S S S H H H H H
16 S S S S S H H H R R
17 S S S S S S S S S S
Soft Total 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 A
A, 2 H H D D D H H H H H
A, 3 H H D D D H H H H H
A, 4 H H D D D H H H H H
A, 5 H H D D D H H H H H
A, 6 D D D D D H H H H H
A, 7 S DS DS DS DS S S H H S
A, 8 S S S S DS S S S S S
A, 9 S S S S S S S S S S
Pairs are listed on the back of the card. 

By Kenneth R. Smith.

We won’t get into detail – you can always look into the matter on your own – but the chart is believed to be the best thing for boosting your winning chances when playing Blackjack.

Final words

In addition to all that, in reality, the story took place much earlier – in the early 90s (from 1979 to 1994, to be more precise) – a decade before the events shown in the movie. We guess, if it really had happened in the 2000s, the team would have used their mobile phones and other computer devices somehow. But again, it’s just our take.

The Internet blessed us with unlimited access to information of all kinds and, on top of that, we have a lot of virtual game simulations, Blackjack card counting exercisers, and free demo versions available at online casinos. With the variety of Bonus offers – from free spins on sign-up to No Deposit cash – you can practice playing Blackjack, online slots, Roulette, and Poker with minimal financial risks.


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