'21' serves up a heaping dose of blackjack

Published: 4/25/2008 12:07 AM

I recently saw the Kevin Spacey movie "21" at a local theater. All in all, I'd have to say I enjoyed it. Was it totally down-to-earth in representing real-world blackjack? No, not totally. Like so many poker movies before it, some of the blackjack reality was traded in for Hollywood movie sensationalism.

Still, it did give a reasonably accurate description of what card counting is about and how it basically works. There were some things in the movie I really liked, and others I wish they hadn't exaggerated so much.

On the positive side, I liked how Professor Rosa (Kevin Spacey) presented the "game show paradox" to Ben (Jim Sturgess) in math class to test his sharpness with probabilities.

The game show paradox was used regularly on the "Let's Make a Deal" TV program many years ago. Monte Hall would have a contestant select one of three doors. Behind two of the doors was a goat, while the third door concealed a new car. Once a door was picked, Monte would then always open one of the other two doors, revealing a goat. He'd then ask the contestant if he wanted to switch his choice to the other closed door, or remain with his original pick.

Ben astutely answered that his chances to win the car would double if he always switched doors, and that got him recruited onto the secret blackjack team that Professor Rosa ran.

It was also accurate how they illustrated that card counters add points to their count when low cards come out, and subtract points when high cards are dealt. Hence, when the running count reaches a significant positive number, enough extra high cards are in the shoe to give the player an advantage.

What wasn't accurate is how the movie kept implying that you need to be a math whiz to count cards. Truth is, most people with average math intelligence who are willing to practice can probably do it.

Since this was a movie about blackjack, I kept wishing they'd show some real hand-playing strategy in the many blackjack scenes. It pretty much glossed over that, except for the scene where Ben was taking hits to his hand while tabulating the running count under his breath. I guess with blackjack movies and poker flicks, the general viewing public doesn't care much about real strategy.

It also bothered and confused me when at a team get-together, one of the senior members (Kate Bosworth) asserted that splitting a pair of 8s against a 10 was a sucker play -- and team captain Kevin Spacey agreed with her. I hope you all know better than that. Always split those 8s!

Then there was the audio-visual timing miscue where Ben's dealer had an 8 up, turned over a 2 in the hole and Ben began shouting for a "monkey" (face-card). That shouldn't have been heard until one card later when the dealer pulled a 4 to make 14. I'm surprised that one got by the editors.

On an unrealistic note, Ben never seemed to lose except for the one time he went on tilt, and kept playing into a shoe that developed a bad count. In real life, a card counter will lose money on more than 40 percent of his "good count" shoes. There's just no getting away from it.

It was also a bit silly how this card counting team who was beating the game to death with $5,000 and $10,000 bets kept going back to the same casino again and again. There are scores of casinos to play at in Vegas, and if you're killing them with your skill, you definitely want to spread your action around.

In spite of its negatives, the movie "21" portrayed a vivid, life-sized picture of how intense and involved playing serious blackjack can be. If you take the extreme scenes with a grain of salt, it was a lot like real blackjack.