Behind 21: The Real-Life Card Counters Who Inspired the Film

If you are a fan of gambling, you have probably seen the film 21. To be honest, even if you aren’t really into gambling, you should watch it anyway because it is an excellent film, full of witty dialogue and tense anticipation. The movie introduces watchers to Micky Rosa, a math professor at MIT who recruits the most talented students in his department to join his secret blackjack team. The film follows the team as they win big in Las Vegas and try to stay a step ahead of Cole Williams, the determined and violent head of security at the casino. While this might sound like Hollywood fiction, the story actually has a lot of truth behind it. But which bits are real and which bits are just for dramatic effect?
The film 21.
Published on: 27 July 2019

Meet the Team

Now, there is some confusion about how the producers came up with the plot for the movie. The film is actually based on a book called Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich. However, Mezrich based his book on the real-life activities of the MIT Blackjack Team. He has changed the names of the people involved but, in some cases, it is still possible to recognize after which real-life person a character was modeled. Numerous members of the real MIT team have come out and said that Mezrich also greatly exaggerated their story, and we can only assume that Hollywood has taken some liberties with it as well. So, while the film 21 might not exactly be a documentary showing events as they truly happened, everyone agrees that there is at least some truth to the story – and that is still pretty awesome. Let’s take a look at some of the characters and see how much is real then.

A man sits at a poker table.

Micky Rosa

The important role of Micky Rosa, the math professor, went to Kevin Spacey. In the film, the math professor is responsible for the founding and recruitment of the blackjack team. However, the truth is, the team was always run by current and former students and no professors were involved. It is difficult to pinpoint who exactly to give credit to for the group, since the MIT Blackjack Team spanned over twenty years, with more than 60 members coming and going. There are probably three men who are vital to the group, and to whom Micky Rosa should give thanks as he is most likely an amalgamation of all three – with some artistic license thrown in too!

J. P. Massar (often referred to simply as Mr. M) can arguably be credited with starting it all. Massar happened to meet the second of our protagonists, Bill Kaplan, when he heard him talking about professional blackjack at a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge and went over to introduce himself. Kaplan, a Harvard MBA graduate, ran a blackjack team on the side in Las Vegas while attending Harvard Business School. When he met Massar, Kaplan was just splitting from his Vegas team, and so agreed to join up with Massar.

The two men were soon joined by John Chang, who would become one of the longest-serving members of the MIT Blackjack Team (and apparently still counts cards now!). Chang was always a more discreet member of the team, due to being banned from the majority of casinos already. However, this did not stop him from being the first to be officially recognized in the Blackjack Hall of Fame.

Together, the trio started and ran the MIT team until the end of the 1990s, when the team split up. Thankfully, the break up was apparently far less dramatic than the one shown in 21. Many members of the MIT Blackjack Team have publicly stated their annoyance at the portrayal of Micky Rosa in both the film and book. John Chang has said, “I don’t even know if you want to call the things in there exaggerations, because they’re so exaggerated they’re basically untrue.”

After the team disbanded, Bill Kaplan moved on to other projects and is a well-established entrepreneur. Massar and Change have stayed in the gambling industry and are blackjack masters. They have both trained others in the game, including some famous tournament players.

All the founding members of the team praise Edward Thorp as a huge influence and inspiration in their lives. Credited as having invented card counting, Thorp’s book Beat the Dealer is hugely successful, and many professional gamblers have openly praised it. Ben Campbell, one of the film’s main characters, can be seen reading it on a plane in 21.

Ben Campbell

In Bringing Down the House, the main character is called Kevin Lewis. In 21, he’s called Ben Campbell and is a math graduate who needs the money to go to Harvard. In real life, he is Jeffrey Ma – the man who Mezrich based Kevin Lewis on.

Ma joined the MIT Blackjack Team in the mid-nineties, but he claims that doing so was nowhere near as adventurous and exciting as the movie makes it seem. Like Ben Campbell, Ma had dreams of going to Harvard, but he wasn’t in desperate need of the money to do so, and actually decided against attending when he realized that blackjack offered him numerous great opportunities.

After playing in the MIT team, Ma moved on to various other ventures. He is the founder of four successful businesses which he then sold on to industry giants such as Twitter and Yahoo. He also tried his hand in sports and is closely associated with the “moneyball” strategy. These days, he is a Senior Director of Business Insights at Twitter and looks back on his days in gambling fondly. He has openly spoken about his initial reluctance to join the MIT team when he was first invited but maintains that they never did anything illegal, as card counting is merely frowned up.

If you have an eagle eye, you can even spot Jeff Ma in 21. He makes a short cameo as a casino dealer and Ben Campbell refers to him as “my brother from another mother”. Ma has said: “Honestly, all this movie stuff – all the interviews and promotion – it’s been way more crazy than the actual card-counting we did in school.” Despite the prominence that Ben Campbell, who is inspired by Ma, has in the film, Ma was actually a later addition to the team and only joined after the group had already peaked.

Jill Taylor

Although the movie takes many liberties with the truth, it does also get it right sometimes too. There has been a lot of interest in the increasing number of women taking a prominent role in professional poker and blackjack, and this was true in the MIT Blackjack Team too. 21 has Jill Taylor, an MIT graduate, as part of the team, played by Kate Bosworth. She was, in fact, inspired by Jane Wills. Wills was from Harvard since the team did actually have numerous members from other universities, despite the film’s portrayal that all members attended or worked at MIT.

Jane Wills was good friends with Jeffery Ma (Ben’s real-life counterpart). Ma actually recruited both Wills and her boyfriend to the team and all three were friends. Jane later married her boyfriend, although she later divorced him and remarried. After she retired from gambling, she became a very successful lawyer and has been practicing for over fifteen years. While she apparently kept her years of counting cards quiet – probably due to her high-status job – Wills has no issues with that time in her life. She has said: “We didn’t do anything dishonest or fraudulent. We were good kids. It’s totally legal to use your brain.”

Cole Williams

So, we have covered the main characters on the MIT team, but what about another important character from the film? Was there really a Cole Williams character, intent on stopping the team at almost any cost?

There were security agents who disapproved of the team’s card-counting techniques and sought to help the casinos flush them out. However, Cole Williams is a fictional character without a direct counterpart in real life.

Card counting was already a pretty well-known phenomenon in the industry. Edward Thorp had published his book on the subject, and Ken Uston publicized the idea of team play. Casino security was aware that it was happening and did what they could to minimize it. It can be argued that MIT Blackjack Team’s nemesis was Griffin Investigations, a security agency hired by casinos across the globe. The agency kept a database of cheats, scammers, and those who counted cards. Bev Griffin, the wife of Robert Griffin who was the head of the firm, and who later took over herself, said: “I’m just fine with the one-on-one card counter–that’s a skill. But it’s those who work in groups I don’t like.”

Griffin Investigations had already figured out many of the MIT team’s techniques by the time the team disbanded, and they even kept an eye on MIT graduation books for potential suspects. Andy Anderson is usually given the credit for cracking the case. He was a chief field agent for the security company for over twenty years and focused on scams in American casinos. Although the agency was very successful, it actually didn’t survive much later than the MIT team. It filed for bankruptcy after losing several lawsuits by alleged card counters.

Honorable Mentions

As we have mentioned before, the MIT Blackjack Team is a tricky one to pin down as it had an ever-changing members list. Many people played for a while and then left, some even returning again later. After the main team broke up in the 1990s, some ex-players reformed in splinter groups, known as the Amphibians and the Reptiles. They continued to count cards in casinos across the world, although the new security measures eventually forced them to stop at the end of the decade. There are definitely some more key players worth mentioning though.

Semyon Dukach

Semyon Dukach actually featured in the book under his own name and was arguably one of the most famous members of the team. After the main team disbanded, Dukach became the head of the Amphibians and continued to play in casinos with his new team until the end of the 90s. Afterward, he became one of the top angel investors in New England and has funded over 100 start-ups. He also helps immigrants who are trying to start a business in America.

Laurie Tsao

Many believe that Tsao is the inspiration behind Kiana in 21. She played in the team at the beginning of the 1990s and married John Chang – one of the three men behind Micky Rosa. In 2012, she was involved in a dispute with Caesers Entertainment casino, so it would seem that she has not given up card counting to this day.

Mike Aponte

Aponte was one of the later members of the MIT team. He joined in 1992, just before Jeffery Ma who he actually recruited, but stayed with the team until the 2000s. The character of Fisher in 21 is based on Aponte, although the real-life version was apparently never so unprofessional.

David Irvine

Irvine was a good friend of Aponte’s and became of one of the most well-known members of the MIT team. He and Aponte founded the Blackjack Institute together and it is reported that Irvine is still in regular contact with many of his card-counting colleagues.

Sarah McCord

Sarah McCord joined the MIT Blackjack Team in 1983. She was fantastic at card counting and was made a partner. It was also her job to train new players when they joined the team. She was close with Kaplan, Massar, and Chang. Unfortunately, there is no character inspired by her in the film, but we imagine that if there was it would have had to have been as Micky Rosa’s right-hand woman!

Al Francesco

Although Al Francesco was never actually a member of the MIT team, he is worth mentioning in connection with the team since this is the man who invented the concept of team play that all blackjack card counting teams have used since. He is closely linked with Ken Uston, who published the first book on the subject of team play.

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