Counting Cards

The Counting Cards Gamble: 21 at 10

You may remember 21 (2008) as the movie that made all of your friends and their dads think they could take Vegas by storm counting cards. It’s the kind of feel-good heist movie that makes you forget that the characters doing all of the counting are hyper-intelligent MIT math students, so none of what they’re doing on screen seems all that difficult. It’s a little like watching a less ambitious (but still entertaining) Ocean’s 11 (2001) spin-off. The movie stars Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, and Kate Bosworth, and it’s turning 10 this year, which makes this the perfect time to look back on the saga of Ben Campbell, card counter extraordinaire.

The Counting Cards Gamble: 21 at 10

Basics and Background

21 is based on a debatably nonfiction book written by Ben Mezrich called Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. The book traces the rise and fall of a group of MIT students who used an advanced system of card counting to make a small fortune. Kevin Spacey liked the story and stepped in as the producer of what would become 21. Jeff Ma, whom the book was based on, cameos in the movie as a blackjack dealer. In spite of the criticism the book has received for its exaggerations and inaccuracies, it’s still a solid companion piece to the movie that tells the (somewhat) true story of a group of people who got very rich gaming the system at blackjack tables.

Aside from sports betting, blackjack is the most accessible form of gambling available to anyone looking for something more engaging than dropping a coin in a slot machine. The rules, at least as far as card games go, are fairly straightforward—get closer to 21 than your dealer without going over. You’re not playing against other players, you’re playing the house, so the only thing you have to worry about are the cards on the table. Counting cards is the act of assigning numerical values to the cards in a deck and then keeping track of the deck’s total value as cards are played. When a lot of low-value cards have been played, the desk is running hot because you have a better chance of pulling a high-value face card and when the deck is cold you have a better chance of pulling a low-value numerical card. In 21’s version of counting there are “spotters” who play the minimums at tables and signal when the deck is getting hot and “big players” who step in to make more substantial bets and rake in real money. Professional card counting gets a little more complicated than that, but this is about as deep as the movie goes and it’s good enough for entertainment purposes.

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

The movie opens with a monologue from Ben Campbell, the protagonist played by Jim Sturgess, telling audiences an origin story for the weirdly-famous gambling phrase “winner, winner, chicken dinner.” He goes on to reassure us that counting cards isn’t illegal and gives viewers a very shallow rundown of the system he and his team had in place that allowed them to take Vegas for hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is all played over shots of blackjack and Ben putting on a disguise that won’t come up again until very late in the movie. And for those of you who haven’t seen it in awhile, it’s actually a pretty effective introduction.

Next, we’re reminded how smart Ben is—he tells us as much in his opening monologue, but it never hurts to drive the point home with a sledgehammer a scene later. We cut to him sitting in a very swanky office interviewing for a scholarship with a Harvard admissions officer. Ben’s already been accepted, pending graduation from MIT, but there’s a problem—he can’t afford the school of his dreams. Unfortunately, he’s told, wanting the scholarship isn’t enough; it’s reserved for students who “dazzle” the admissions office and “jump off the page.” And Jim, with his run-of-the-mill nerdy interests and his average life story, has all the dazzle of mud.

From there the story picks up pretty quickly. Ben answers a complicated math question on variable change during class, which catches the eye of Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), his professor who moonlights as the ringleader of a team of card counters. There’s the standard song and dance with Rosa and his team attempting to woo Ben, promising him that he’ll have the time of his life if he joins up, and swearing that everyone should experience the rush of winning big in Vegas. Eventually, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, he agrees to join, but with one caveat—he’ll only count cards until he has $300,000, enough to pay for Harvard.

Following the golden rule of contemporary American entertainment, Ben is flawed, but exceptionally good at what he’s doing. He’s so good that the girl of his dreams, Jill (Kate Bosworth), starts to take notice of him. Sure, she shuts him down when he tries to kiss her on the subway after a night of light drinking, but he’s the lead, so she can’t resist Sturgess’s adorkable performance for the movie’s entire 123-minute runtime; they eventually make sweet passionate love in a Vegas suite. He’s also so good that the other “big player” on the team (Jacob Pitts) gets jealous, makes a scene at a blackjack table, and gets dropped from the roster by a frosty Micky Rosa who, up to this point, has been the very image of charm and wit. It’s a very well-played transition—almost as if there were a quiet menace lurking beneath the surface that Spacey was able to draw on for these scenes where he shows Rosa’s darker side.

The Cost of Counting

Ben’s trips to Vegas take a toll on his friends outside the high-octane world of card counting and their inevitable falling out with him puts him in a bad frame of mind before a night at the blackjack tables. He ends up losing $200,000 in one night, which results in Rosa abandoning the group. But it’s okay, because Ben’s riding high and decides that he can lead the team in Rosa’s place. Jill is concerned and asks him how much money he’s made on their Vegas trips—“$315,000,” he tells her, which, if you’re keeping track, is more than the $300,000 he originally said was his limit. Apparently money corrupts and good men lose their way. 21 isn’t the first movie to say it, sure, but has anyone else ever used gambling to convey the message? Probably, but who cares.

This would all be fine and dandy, except for the fact that Laurence Fishburne is working as an old security chief who’s being made obsolete by new biometric security software that can apparently do anything Fishburne’s character, Cole Williams, can do. He’s been watching the team and he’s got it out for Spacey’s Rosa, who once took a casino Williams was working at for $1,000,000 and cost him a job.

It’s worth noting here that he gets one of the cheesiest lines in the film when Ben asks Rosa if there’s anything dangerous about counting cards in Vegas. The camera does a quick cut to Williams standing over some hapless gambler, holding up a bloody fist and saying, “You think you can beat the system? This is the system—beating you back.” That’s not a major plot beat, but it’s important to honor actors who bathe in the River of Ham for a performance, and Fishburne really hams it up in that 20-second bit.

Twists on Twists on Twists

At any rate, Williams basically abducts Ben from the casino floor because he knows he’s been counting cards, takes him to a back room, and beats him. Ben returns to MIT to find that all of the money he’s earned has been stolen and he’s back to square one. It takes some time, but he convinces Rosa and the team to return to Vegas with him in disguise and take all they can from a casino one last time. This leads to what is probably the best sequence in the movie—Ben and Rosa in disguise as an awkward middle-aged man with a caterpillar mustache and a hard-living Vegas cowboy, respectively, playing at the top of their game and raking in cash.

Naturally, it can’t last, and Williams arrives on the scene to apprehend them. They flee, then split up, and Rosa takes the bag with all of their winnings, intending to steal it and return to Boston without the others. He climbs into a limousine and reaches into the bag, only to find that instead of the chips he’s expecting he’s been given chocolate coins. For some men, hundreds of thousands of dollars for a sack full of chocolate money might seem like a fair trade, but Kevin Spacey-as-Rosa is not most men. Things get even worse for him when it’s revealed that the limousine is being operated by Williams’s associates who deliver Rosa to the security chief.

We’re then treated to a Steven Soderbergh-like sequence that lets us know we weren’t in on the whole plan—Williams and Ben agreed to a truce while the latter was receiving his beating. Ben would be allowed to come back and count cards for one night and keep all of his winnings in exchange for delivering Rosa to Williams. But then there’s a twist on the twist where Williams forces Ben to hand over all of the money they’ve made because pension plans for Vegas security chiefs are nonexistent and he’s ready to retire. Ben reluctantly does as commanded after Williams subtly threatens to shoot him if he doesn’t comply.

The monologue kicks back up again, with Ben tying up the loose ends of the story. Cut to: Ben in the admissions office from earlier. The running monologue has actually been a story he’s telling to the admissions officer from earlier about his time counting cards—the movie’s final twist. “Did I dazzle you? Did I…jump off the page?” he asks, concluding the tale. There’s a shot of the interviewer staring open-mouthed (cue canned laughter), and the credits roll.

The Cast

Jim Sturgess leads the principal cast as Ben Campbell. Sturgess never really took off as a leading man, and, aside from Across the Universe (2007), this is one of his best-known roles. That being said, he’s good in this movie, bumbling around as the awkward and shy math student who lets success go to his head. Think of him as a less ambitious Walter White. His romantic interest, played by Kate Bosworth, and the secondary antagonist of the film, played by Laurence Fishburne, also turn in solid work, doing what they can with the script at their disposal.

But some of the unsung heroes of 21 are its bit players. Jacob Pitts appears as Fisher, the number one guy on the team before Ben arrives, who seethes with jealousy at the newcomer’s success. This is several years before Pitts took his role as Tim Gutterson on FX’s Justified, but even back in 2008 he had his deadpan drawl down and knew just how to parcel out his drier-than-the-Sahara line readings.

Another shining light in the film is a young Josh Gad, who plays Ben’s best friend before he enters the world of card counting. He bumbles along, the baby-faced template of the man who would, in time, give life to Frozen’s Olaf the Snowman. While he doesn’t necessarily do much in the film, watching Gad in such an early role knowing that he’s going to be the most successful member of this cast in less than a decade (with the exception of Fishburne) is a real bonus for cinephiles.

The elephant in the room at this point is, of course, Kevin Spacey. Back in 2008 he was still riding high, an acclaimed character actor on his game. Over the last several months a very different picture of Spacey has emerged, one that has cost him his career. His presence in the movie may be a turn-off for some, which is understandable. Within the context of this film he turns in a solid performance as the mentor-turned-antagonist of Ben, but because of the villainous nature of the character, he isn’t celebrated and he does get his just desserts. 21 can be a fun movie in spite of him these days, if no longer because of him.

Closing Remarks

Obviously, there’s a cap on how good 21 is from a critical standpoint. When it came out it made quite a bit of money, but it wasn’t lauded as a refreshing take on the heist film, which is what it clearly wanted to be. In a lot of ways, as has been alluded to earlier in this review, it plays like Ocean’s 11-lite.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You’re not going to find the meaning of life in 21, and it probably isn’t a movie you want to watch on a regular basis, but it’s impressive how well it has held up over the last decade. A lot of the humor still plays, the performances, while nothing groundbreaking, are solid, and if the melodrama isn’t anything inspired, it at least keeps you watching.

One of the best things the movie does is take the average American viewer and make them feel like they have the potential to do something cool—there are a lot of movies that show complicated things and send a very strong message: you can’t do this. 21, on the other hand, takes something deceptively complex and reduces it to “simple math.” Now, to be clear, most people probably can’t do what the characters in the movie do, and in his opening monologue Ben Campbell does say that counting cards requires a “gifted mind,” but it’s easy watching the movie to decide that your mind might be just gifted enough to do what they do. And there’s something to be said in a cinematic landscape filled with characters wearing their superiority on their sleeve for a movie that’s able to elevate you in that way.

Something that comes up many times in 21 is the distinction between gambling and counting cards. Gambling is random and it’s for losers who don’t actually know what they’re doing. Counting cards involves following a mathematic system that maximizes your odds of success at the blackjack table. In a lot of ways, watching 21 feels like gambling—not everything works, some of the dialogue is a little sweaty, and it can feel hammy or cheesey when it’s trying to be menacing and cool. But what you end up with is a movie that’s breezy, fast, and fun. It’s one of those rare things—a gamble that pays off.

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