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Brilliant Math Students Apply Skills to Las Vegas Casinos in '21'


A team of math students from one of America's top universities apply their skills to the Las Vegas gambling tables ...and they win millions of dollars. It's a true story that has been adapted for a feature film. Alan Silverman has a look at 21.

Ben Campbell is a shy, but brilliant math student at MIT - Massachusetts Institute of Technology - where his extraordinary skill with numbers catches the eye of a professor with a somewhat unorthodox extra-curricular activity.

The professor invites Ben to join his team of students for their weekend excursions to Las Vegas. Reluctant at first, Ben eventually finds himself drawn ...perhaps seduced is the better word ...by the prospect of an exciting and even dangerous secret life.

"The idea that there are very few people that leave Vegas (as) winners and we were the ones that almost always left as winners ...that's just an incredible high," says Jeff Ma, one of the students on that blackjack team about a decade ago. Ma says it is not 'rocket science.'

"The system is not like something that cost money to develop," he says. "It's not like a NASA or Jet Propulsion Lab thing. It's just something we did using our minds. We practiced a lot and it was basically using math to beat the casinos."

English actor Jim Sturgess plays star team member Ben and says even though the students had worked out all the probabilities to even the odds ...even give themselves a slight edge over the casino ...they still got excited.

"It's the thrill of winning the money, isn't it? It's the thrill of actually putting down a huge amount of cash on the table and when that card comes out ...and you don't know exactly when that card is going to come out ...when it comes, certainly in the earlier scenes when he sits down and gets his first blackjack and his first money, it's a huge thrill," Sturgess says.

Kate Bosworth co-stars as Ben's smart and sexy teammate Jill. She especially enjoyed the role-playing by the characters who adopted disguises and alter egos for each Vegas visit to avoid being spotted on surveillance cameras - the so-called "eyes in the sky" on the casino ceilings.

"When I did a bit of research into what these kids went through and started learning that they were beginning to be recognized by the 'eyes in the sky' and then having to put on disguises, I thought that's such a great element," Bosworth says. "So I sort of made that my character's thing more than anyone else, I think."

Card-counting systems are not illegal, but gambling houses ban 'counters' from the tables ...when they can catch them. So Australia-born director Robert Luketic says a film that shows the bank can be beat was not exactly welcome when he insisted on shooting it in real casinos ...at least not at first.

"When we came to Las Vegas we were greeted with somewhat mixed reception, I have to admit. We were either categorically denied, (told) 'stay away from us' or 'don't film on our property ...don't even come near us' to what we received with 'Planet Hollywood,' 'Hard Rock' and 'The Palms.' We had unprecedented access," Luketic says. "We had things that no other production has ever had in Las Vegas and not on the graveyard [overnight] shift either. We were filming at peak times. We were shooting at 'Planet Hollywood' and there was a giant convention arriving and they were rolling their bags through the lobby. And there was our giant crew with 150 extras and a big (camera) crane that's flying down the casino, Laurence Fishburne and Kevin Spacey running through the casino and people were just walking by going 'Oh, it really is Planet Hollywood ...' They thought we were staging some kind of show for them that was themed to the casino. It was bizarre."

21 features Laurence Fishburne as the casino security expert who is trying to catch (and stop) the student team. Kevin Spacey plays the math professor who dreams up the scheme and Oscar-winner Spacey also produced the film. The screenplay by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb is adapted from the 2002 book by Ben Mezrich Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions.

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