Saturday, March 22, 2008

MIT Team Blackjack film 21's Jeffrey Ma AKA Kevin Lewis and Ben Mezrich Review

Card Counting Teams have been portrayed in film before but never in a major motion picture. The MIT Blackjack Team will now be the first to have that honor. The real-life main MIT Blackjack Counter is Jeffrey Ma. Apparently he is happy with the way his character was portrayed in the Card Counting Film, as was Ben Mezrich, the author of the book Bringing Down The House upon which the Kevin Spacey film 21 is based.

The Providence Journal's Michael Janusonis caught up with the dynamic blackjack duo and chronicled this in the paper:

It’s not everyone who has their life story transformed into a best-selling book or movie.

Those who have are often dead or turn out to be unhappy with the way they’re portrayed on screen.

And many authors, who’ve seen their works cut and mashed by screenwriters they’ve never met, are also often unhappy.

That’s not the case with Jeffrey Ma or author Ben Mezrich, who not only love what the moviemakers have done, they’re part of a national tour promoting it.

Ma is the former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student who headed for Las Vegas on weekends with a group of student comrades who turned their system of counting cards at the blackjack tables into huge winnings.

Ma became the real-life prototype for the character known as Kevin Lewis in Boston author Mezrich’s book Bringing Down the House, which rode atop the bestseller lists for months in 2002. Mezrich’s book has been turned into the film 21, which opens Friday, starring British actor Jim Sturgess as the Ma-Kevin character. Only Ma-Kevin has been transformed by the screenwriters into a Boston-raised MIT student named Ben Campbell who is enticed into joining the secret blackjack club on campus so he can earn the $300,000 he needs to enroll in Harvard Medical School.

Despite all that movie laundering, the tall and outgoing Ma, who grew up in Boston but now lives in San Francisco, is happy with his screen reincarnation. So much so that he even has a very brief scene in 21 as a Vegas blackjack dealer, in a turnabout-is-fair-play moment. That’s especially true because Ma is now the host of Jeff Ma’s web show "Wild World of Gambling."

Both Ma and Mezrich are philosophical about having their life and work, respectively, twisted around into something that’s close but not quite the same.

Ma, who is 35 and graduated from MIT in 1994, points out that “You take seven years [of my life] and turn it into 300 pages, and then take those 300 pages and turn them into two hours. There’s just no way you’re going to be able to tell the exact same story.

“But what I think that they did, which I was really happy about, is they captured a lot of moments, a lot of feelings, a lot of themes from my life on the screen. So the way that we acted in casinos, my dual life between Vegas and Boston, the transformation that I personally went through that would enable me to date a girl like Kate Bosworth [who plays his character’s girlfriend in 21], that whole thing was right on point.

“A lot of things are embellished, but 75 percent is dead-on. I told the story to Ben for three weeks, every story I remembered from that time. A lot of it’s through my eyes.”

The things that ring true to life in the film include the little signals devised by the students to let each other know everything about the casino set-up, from whether a blackjack table was “hot” or “cold” to whether danger was lurking, in the form of casino security officers who occasionally arrived on the gambling floor to check out suspicious activity.

“I really feel they went to a lot of painstaking effort that they didn’t have to do to make this as accurate to what we did as possible. Using the right code words. Using the right signals. At the end of the day, there’s no license that they had to do those things,” Ma says.

He recalls a funny scene in the film when the blackjack crew is practicing late one evening in an empty MIT classroom when a girl walks in, gazes around, and asks, “Is this chemistry review?”

“That really happened!” exclaims Ma. “That exact scene happened. We used to practice all the time in these classrooms at MIT after 7 p.m. and we’d sit there and have casino chips and cards out and felt on the table and this girl sheepishly walks in and says, ‘Chemistry review?’ And then we all barked at her and she slammed the door and ran away.”

Mezrich, who is 39, was introduced to Ma at a party by the character that’s played by Kate Bosworth in the film. She insisted that the writer meet Ma “because you should write a book about him,” Mezrich recalls. Over the years, he says, dozens of people have come up to him with the same “you should write a book” proposal, and it almost never amounts to anything. But in this case, Mezrich was intrigued by Jeff Ma’s “amazing story.”

“It was spectacular to see the transformation of this geeky MIT guy into a ‘rock star’ in Vegas,” wearing expensive tailored suits and knowing all the right people at the hotels, restaurants and casinos. “I just loved it,” says Mezrich. “I was very fortunate that nobody had written it yet.”

He wrote Bringing Down the House and, shortly after its publication, excerpted it in articles for Wired and Playboy magazines. The Wired article was brought to the attention of actor Kevin Spacey by an associate in his production company. Shortly afterward, Spacey optioned the book. He now co-stars in the film, playing the MIT math professor who organizes his students into the blackjack club that raids the Vegas casino tables. That character is based on a real person who appears in Mezrich’s novelization, but in the book the man is a rather sleazy moneyman who bankrolls the student operation.

Mezrich says the movie “is much more of a Hollywood thriller than the book was, but I think that was a necessity.”

In the film, Laurence Fishburne plays a beleaguered security chief watching over the blackjack tables via TV cameras placed in the ceilings above them. He feels his job is threatened by new computer software that can recognize facial characteristics and will render him unnecessary in finding cheats, even as he is trying to track these young hot-shot blackjack card counters.

Fishburne is the film’s scary, imposing villain. In real life, Mezrich says, “There was a bad guy chasing them, but of course Laurence took it to a much more sinister level than it was in the book. There was a private eye who really wanted to take them down. But in the end he actually asked for a ticket to the movie premiere.”

For the record, card counting is not a crime, although it’s certainly frowned upon by casino operators, who don’t want anyone to come up with a system that could beat the house.

For his efforts, Ma wound up with a bundle of loot that he used to buy a house in Boston’s then up-and-coming South End.

In real life, Ma, who is “100 percent Chinese,” eventually became rather famous among casino security people. Because of that, he says with a laugh, “I pretty much can’t play blackjack anywhere. It’s kind of like I don’t like to have my Mom yell at me. Well, I don’t like to be yelled at by casino people either.”

Sturgess, who plays Ma in the movie, recently played Anne Boleyn’s doomed brother in The Other Boleyn Girl. In Mezrich’s book, his character was given a non-distinct ethnic background. That was fine with Ma, says Mezrich, because at the time he wrote the book, “he didn’t want anyone to know who he was. He just didn’t want to be ‘The Blackjack Guy.’ ”

Ma concurs. “I didn’t know how [the book] was going to turn out. As much as I like Ben and trust Ben, you never know how it’s going to turn out.”

“So I was very careful to make changes in the characters,” adds Mezrich. “Some of the characters are now composites. And the chronology has definitely shifted because it takes place over many years and I condensed it all into one narrative. I tried to play the story out as truthfully as I could.”

“It’s just what works,” chimes in Ma. “I think there were certain things that just worked that may not have been to the letter of what happened. The book was never Jeff Ma’s autobiography. It’s a story that was based on or inspired by a true story. I would argue with anyone who says, ‘Hey, they changed this, they changed that.’ Who cares? At the end of the day this is so dead-on and interesting, and at times more interesting, than what happened at every single point.”