Film Feature: “21”

Reflecting on his experiences in Las Vegas casinos, renowned card counter and inspiration for the new film “21” Jeff Ma said, “It’s sort of similar to someone having a high price buffet.”

But instead of indulging in potato salad, Ma and his classmates at M.I.T. returned from casinos with myriad luxurious prizes and thousands of dollars. Their story was first chronicled in the book, “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions,” by Ben Mezrich, and now by Columbia Pictures in a film released last week.

“I think it definitely was something that came out of audacity,” Ma said in an interview with The Hatchet. “Blackjack gave me elements of my personality.”

He is portrayed in the film – under the name Ben Campbell – by up-and-comer Jim Sturgess (“Across the Universe,” “The Other Boleyn Girl”).

Ma explained that he was initially hesitant to count cards, citing his more conservative upbringing as a factor holding him back.

“I was definitely reluctant to get involved,” Ma said. But his apprehension apparently dissipated once he started hitting the tables more aggressively.

While at M.I.T., Ma and others were trained in card counting by professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who encouraged students to hit Vegas casinos on the weekends. Soon after, the students were beating casinos on the blackjack table, earning thousands of dollars each time and inevitably running risks along the way. For example, the students in the film meet an unfriendly casino owner (Lawrence Fishburne), who is less than amused with their finely honed skill.

Ma had the chance to turn the tables – figuratively – when he was invited to participate in the film as his real life opponent, a blackjack dealer. And though the film adaptation changes some arguably relevant details of the story (Ma, of Chinese descent, is played by British actor Sturgess), he said the necessary and enduring qualities of his experience remain.

“I think there’s been a lot made of (race). This really isn’t a race story,” he said, explaining that the bond between the students was captured effectively onscreen.

“The most important part was bonding with friends to win casinos,” he said.

He added there was no one more appropriate to play himself than Sturgess, appearances aside. “He took such an interest in my story,” Ma said, citing that he was happy Sturgess didn’t view the role as another “notch in his belt.”

Ma also pointed out the value in his experience for his personal success. Now a business owner running a fantasy sports stock trading Web site called, he credits his card counting as formative to his accomplishment. For example, Ma earned his first job as a Wall Street trader when an employer took interest in the “card counting skills” listed at the very bottom of his résumé.

“There isn’t one path to success,” he said. “The reality is that the experience has put me in a better place to succeed.” n

“21,” directed by Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde,” “Monster-in- Law”), produced by Dana Brunetti, Kevin Spacey and Michael De Luca, written by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb and based on the book by Ben Mezrich, stars Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, with Laurence Fishburne and Kevin Spacey. It is now in theaters.

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