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Former MIT student is the subject of film about gambling

From left, writer Ben Mezrich, real-life subject of the film Jeff Ma and producer Dana Brunetti attend a Cinema Society screening of
From left, writer Ben Mezrich, real-life subject of the film Jeff Ma and producer Dana Brunetti attend a Cinema Society screening of "21" at the IFC Center, Wednesday in New York. Associated Press (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Scott Bowles USA Today

LAS VEGAS – Jeff Ma walks past the blackjack tables at the Planet Hollywood casino and grins a little.

It wasn’t that long ago when, on a good night, he and his buddies could walk away from Vegas with $900,000 in winnings stuffed in a duffel bag.

“Sometimes, I do miss it,” Ma says, glancing at dealers who eye him as if he’s a shoplifter about to shove something in his jacket. “How do you not miss making that much money with a little bit of math?”

Of course, that “little bit of math” has gotten Ma and his former classmates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology banned from about every blackjack table in Vegas.

And thanks in part to the group’s profitable experiment in card counting – which took casinos for millions in the mid-1990s – your face is videotaped and run against a database of known counters when you walk into the city’s more hawkish casinos.

Ma, now 35 and an Internet gambling personality in San Francisco, seems equally proud and defensive about the group’s legacy, which gets the Hollywood treatment in the movie “21,” opening today.

“There was nothing we did that was against the law,” he says. “We just had a system that worked, and that’s not what the casinos are about. For a while there, we were the kings of this place.”

Whether “21” will rule theaters is a riskier bet. Gambling pictures – particularly those that center on cards – typically are more art-house favorites than cineplex seat-fillers.

In 2003, “The Cooler” was a hit with critics but took in only $8 million. The 2000 blackjack drama “Croupier “earned $6 million. Even with stars such as Matt Damon and Edward Norton, 1998’s poker film “Rounders “did a modest $23 million.

But “21” director Robert Luketic wagers that gambling is hotter now with college kids and young professionals.

“You’ve got poker tournaments on TV, and I think a lot of kids see Vegas not so much as a way to make money, but for socializing,” he says. “We wanted to make a movie more about that lifestyle.”

Luketic says many card films “focused too much on the hardware, the mechanics of gambling.”

“Unless you’re a participant, blackjack is not a spectator sport,” he says. “You have to personalize the gamblers.

“They had double lives, studying at MIT, then jetting off to Vegas and Monte Carlo. They could turn it on instantly. They were walking computers.”

Ma doesn’t look part cyborg. Tall and easygoing, he became the real-life inspiration for “Bringing Down the House,” the Ben Mezrich book that became a 2002 best seller.

A quantitative analysis whiz at MIT, Ma was hoping to enter medical school when he was recruited by two classmates in 1994 into a card-counting system that was untraceable for years.

Card counting isn’t illegal; casinos just refuse service the way an upscale restaurant can to underdressed patrons.

The MIT students stymied casinos by working as a team. One student played the minimum bet at a blackjack table, counting how many high and low cards were being dealt. If a table was “hot,” with high cards still in the deck, the student signaled a partner, who would place single-hand bets as high as $10,000.

Though deft card counting increases your odds by only about 3 percent, “that makes a big difference in what you can make,” Ma says. “It’s pretty simple math.”

Simple for Ma.

“He’d try to teach me how to count, and my eyes would glaze,” says Jim Sturgess, who plays Ma in the film. “He’s a … walking Pentium chip.”

And for nearly seven years, a pretty rich chip. Ma and his team routinely flew to Vegas on weekends with more than $100,000 stuffed in their jeans. Usually, they flew back with more.

One evening, Ma says, he and his buddies decided to take a swim at the MGM casino, but they couldn’t decide what to do with the $900,000 in their worn duffel bag. (They chucked it under a pool chair.)

He and the “21” cast spent weeks traveling to Vegas to watch high-stakes gamblers, though the stars say that only Ma seemed to understand the mentality of laying down thousands on a single hand.

“I don’t gamble. I don’t do any of that,” says Laurence Fishburne, who plays a casino muscle man who ultimately cracks the scheme. “Life is risky enough.”

Sturgess, too, found something a bit disheartening in his first trip last year to Sin City.

“It can be depressing,” he says. “You’re watching a room full of people losing their hard-earned money.”

Of course, those gamblers aren’t being comped posh suites in Vegas, as Ma and his cohorts were.

Though Ma says the movie captures the MIT crew’s camaraderie, “21” takes plenty of liberties. It has the students hunted by men who drag counters into casino basements to pummel and ban them.

In real life, Ma left because video technology was catching up with the team, and “I didn’t want to be known as the blackjack guy for the rest of my life.”

He’s now the host of “Jeff Ma’s Wild World of Gambling” on the Web site

Ma also isn’t British, as is his on-screen counterpart, Sturgess. The actor says he was concerned about whether Ma, who is of Chinese descent, would be upset by Hollywood’s ethnic change.

“But he was very funny about it,” Sturgess says. “When we first met, he said, ‘You look exactly like me.’

“Then we went to the top of the Palms to smoke cigars and get to know each other. We realized how similar we really are, from the films and music we like to experiences when we were drunk with girls.”

Ma, who has a cameo in the film as a dealer, says he was more concerned with having an actor who captured his personality and the dynamic between his friends.

“I would have been a lot more insulted if they had chosen someone who was Japanese or Korean, just to have an Asian playing me,” he says.

Ma won’t say exactly how much cash he got away with, though he says he still does “pretty well” and is being recruited for other online gaming sites.

One bet he isn’t taking, though, is on box office prospects.

“That’s something I have to admit I don’t know much about yet,” he says, “but I’d give us 50-50 odds of being a hit.”

If anyone is confident of the movie’s future, it’s Sturgess.

“Normally, I get nervous before a movie opens,” he says. “But if this doesn’t do well, I’ll just hang out with Jeff, and we’ll get all our money back.”

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