INTERVIEW MIT, Vegas, Hollywood

A Conversation With Ben Mezrich and Jeffrey Ma

1007 blackjack
Jeffrey Ma ’94 is the real-life basis for the character Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), pictured here, in the upcoming movie 21 about the MIT blackjack team. 21 is based on the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich.
Peter Iovino—Columbia Pictures

In 2002, Ben Mezrich released Bringing Down the House, the story of how a group of MIT students counted cards to win millions playing blackjack. Later this month, 21, the movie based on the book, will be released. Recently, The Tech sat down with Mezrich and Jeffrey Ma ’94, who is the real life basis for Ben Campbell in the film. Below is an excerpt from the conversation.

The Tech: Did you ever think the book was going to be this successful?

Ben Mezrich: I would definitely say no. When I handed this book in it was like a 12,000 first printing; it was this little book. Cards weren’t really on TV yet and people said, “No one’s going to read a book about cards,” … And then the book took off. And then this is on a whole other level now with the movie and everything. It’s pretty crazy.

Jeff Ma: Yeah, I would say that I had no idea it was going to do so well. When Ben and I actually talked about it he said, “Oh, it’ll kind of be an interesting book.”

BM: Then about two months before the book came out I was sitting at home, and I had written an article for Wired magazine, and the phone rang and it was a guy named Dana Brunetti, who said, “I have Kevin Spacey on the line, he wants to talk to you.” And I said “No you don’t really,” and he said, “Yeah, I do.” So I took his phone number and I hung up on him and I called my mom, and I said, “Kevin Spacey’s trying to call me.” And she said, “No, it’s MIT kids prank calling.” I Googled the name Dana Brunetti and it turned out he really did work with Kevin Spacey and actually they found me by Googling me after reading my article in Wired. And Kevin said, “I want to make this into a movie.” That was sort of the first inkling I got that we were on to something that was kind of cool. And then I got The Today Show [where] you’re on for 5 minutes [but] after that it just went crazy.

TT: Jeff, how much of the book is true to your story?

JM: I always tell people about 75 percent because the reality is Ben and I sat down for three weeks everyday for about two or three hours and I told him every story I remembered from the times in Vegas. He took that and turned it into a book … so there are little things that he did take some liberties with. But in general, the spirit of it is dead on … I bet you wouldn’t actually be able to guess what didn’t happen and what did happen because the truth is that whole cliché: the truth is stranger than fiction.

BM: The other thing is that the MIT Blackjack team has been in existence for 25 years. There’s a lot in the book that’s true that didn’t necessarily happen to Jeff. So I would say more like 90% of the book is true to the stories of the MIT Blackjack team.

JM: I don’t know, you wrote it. I only lived it; you wrote it.

BM: The idea was to compress a time period into sort of a readable narrative thriller, and was also to compress certain characters to protect them — at the time, none of these guys wanted anybody to know who they were.

TT: Ben, if Jeff was so intent on keeping his anonymity, how did you find out about him?

BM: I was at a party [with] the Jill character in the book, who is played by Kate Bosworth in the movie, [who] unbeknownst to me played on the MIT Blackjack team — she was actually a Harvard girl … She invited me to a party and said you got to meet this guy Jeff. I met Jeff and he basically had these great stories, and as a writer you hear that a lot. But Jeff immediately started telling me stories, and he had all this money in hundred dollar bills and you never see hundred dollar bills in Boston, ever. I mean, when was the last time you saw a hundred dollar bill?

JM: When I open my wallet (laughs).

BM: Why would he have hundred dollar bills if this stuff isn’t real? I actually ended up going to Vegas with him and I saw the whole thing in action. It was spectacular … Then we just started sitting down and talking about it.

JM: My recollection was a little bit different in that I think that I thought this would be a great story and wanted Ben to write it and Ben was like whatever … But then when I took him to Vegas it all kind of changed.

BM: Yeah, when I saw Jeff in Vegas — ’cause in Boston I always like to call him the geeky MIT kid, [but] in Vegas they’re like rock stars. It was really amazing to see that kind of transformation. That’s what really turned me on to this story.

TT: How did you both feel about the movie?

BM: I really enjoyed it and I think when people see it it captures such a feel from the book. And obviously it goes off and it’s more Hollywood. You’ve got Laurence Fishburne in it, and Kate Bosworth and it’s not a group of MIT guys, but I think they did a really good job.

JM: Yeah, I think the movie’s awesome. I think what it does is it really captures the sort of spirit of what we did and the way we felt. I think you leave the movie thinking, “Yeah, we beat Vegas and we can beat Vegas.” Everyone loves that story.

TT: Do you think the movie’s going to spark a big blackjack trend, or do you think Laurence Fishburne’s character is going to scare people away?

BM: I actually think it’s going to spark a lot more college kids doing it. I’ve got letters from people already, just from the book, who wanted to put teams together. So I have a feeling there will be — you know what, it’s much harder than it looks, most of the teams that try it will probably fail — but I bet there will be people doing it.

JM: I think it can be done really well still, on a small scale. But on the scale we were doing it at, I don’t think it can really be done. You just need to bet so much money and they immediately notice you. Things have changed a lot. But I do think people will watch this and want to try it. I think it will spur a big interest in blackjack again which will be cool because poker has definitely become the more dominant Vegas thing.

TT: How long did it take you to master the art of card counting?

JM: I’d say like 6 months.

TT: Was Kevin Spacey’s character as conniving in real life as he was in the movie?

JM: No. I mean, I don’t think so. He’s a composite of a couple people, but the actual people that were involved that he was sort of based on were sort of more like the Kevin Spacey at the beginning of the movie, and less like the Kevin that sort of turns on [Ben Campbell]. You definitely see some bits of him. All the characters in the movie you see little bits of the actual person, and it’s kind of eerie when you do.

TT: Jeff, how did you get into the whole blackjack thing? Were you approached by a professor, or another student, like in movie?

JM: Actually, for me it was my friends, to be honest. You know how the whole MIT [blackjack team] is around, it’s like a legend and you kind of hear about it. And it was friends of friends of friends that were doing it first, then it became friends of friends, then friends, then actually my roommates were doing it. They were leaving every weekend and I was like, “Where the heck are you guys going?” And they were like, “We go to Vegas every weekend.” And I joked, “Can I just go and hang out? ‘Cause that sounds like fun.” They’re like, “You can if you learn this system.” I felt weird about it because it seemed like a weird thing to do at first. You know the whole scene where Ben Campbell’s like, “No, I’m not interested”? That really happened. I was like, “No, this isn’t for me.” The idea of being a professional gambler just didn’t seem right.

TT: How did your parents feel about finding out about all of this?

JM: They’re having so much fun with it now. They really are. It took them a while to get used to the idea.

BM: I remember when I sat down with Jeff to write the book he hadn’t really told his parents. And he’s like, “Before the book comes out, can I show it to my parents?” And that’s what he did. He let them read it.

JM: I actually tried to tell my parents the whole story, but it’s really hard to tell someone the story unless they’re there. It’s kind of unbelievable.

TT: Were you upset that the main character wasn’t Asian?

JM: I think that part of it is being overblown a little bit, just because the reality is that if you had a movie made about you, what would be the most important thing? It wouldn’t necessarily be that it was incredibly accurate to life; It would be that it be a good movie. I wanted a great actor to portray me, and Jim [Sturgess] is an unbelievable actor.

Next week will feature my interview with Jim Sturgess, with the review of the movie following in the April 4 issue.