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MIT Blackjack Team

Who can resist a movie with a tag line like “They proved Vegas was beatable…by beating the hell out of it”? “21” is a hot new fast-paced movie just out, about a group of MIT students who use their mathematical skills to take down the casinos and win it big. But did you know that this film is based on the real life story of Jeff Ma? Who would have thought that all that action and drama not to mention skill and theft actually happened! But this is Hollywood we are talking about, so of course, they changed the story just a tiny bit… you know, to commercialize it and create more drama and tension, in case the real story got too boring, if that’s possible.

[21] The movie presents Ma’s character as the student Ben Campbell, who is reluctant to be drawn into the world of cards, but in reality this was hardly the case. Ma was more than happy to join the private card playing club, simply for fun and not to get into Harvard as Ben does in the movie. Through the club he discovered his talent for counting the cards and winning it big. In fact this club, in reality, had a long history, dating back to 1979. Would you believe that across many of the bigger universities students studied card counting techniques and the ways to beat the casinos at Blackjack?! That sure beats your regular statistics and probability class!

The group was between ten and twenty mathletes at MIT who spent their time perfecting their methods, which were completely legal, simply based on mathematical principles (could you doubt it?). They had special hand signals and key words, which they used between themselves as they played and with this, the killer team, all innocent looking, managed over a few years to win millions in casinos and it took the authorities years to catch on to their game! Of course the casino owners were not too happy with these big winnings, as you can imagine and this caused some problems for the gang.

Obviously at the end of the film, Hollywood has the hero giving back all of his winnings to get himself out of a sticky situation; but in real life, who would give back millions of dollars?? Jeff Ma and his team made millions which they divided between themselves and Ma himself personally made a million more – and did he give it back?? Of course not! Their money was won through skills that are technically speaking legal, based purely on math and the casinos had no legal base to sue the players. Now doesn’t that make you wish you had payed more attention back in high school and done your homework?

Nowadays Jeff Ma is a motivational speaker, here’s a clip from one of his speeches: