Sunday, April 13, 2008

Is Andy Bloch the real-life 21 Movie MIT Blackjack Team Guru?

So who's the real hero in Kevin Spacey's film 21, Andy Bloch or Jeff Ma? At first it seemed to be Ma, but more and more I'm seeing news articles claiming it was Bloch. It also appears that the real-life MIT Blackjack Card Counting Team is getting bigger and bigger with each new day the film has been out. The first controversy stems from casting Jim Sturgess supposedly in the role of Jeff Ma. Sturgess is Caucasian while Ma is Asian. The MIT Blackjack Team was, according to everything I've heard, purportedly made up of several Asian players, but not according to the movie. When asked about this, Andy Bloch told the UK Telegraph that the team was decidedly "white." For those of you unfamiliar with Andy Bloch, probably believing Jeff Ma was the brains behind the MIT Blackjack Team, Bloch is another MIT graduate who began his successful gambling roll as a blackjack card counter but who gave that up for even greater success and riches in the poker world, not only through playing but by writing books and producing instructional DVDs. Whichever of the two is the real-life catalyst of the card counting team, there's still no disputing Bloch's success in the gambling world. I, however, would just like to know not only who the film's main character is based on but also how many players this MIT Team really had. Perhaps they should publish and official roster like a football club!

In any event, the UK Telegraph published a major article on Andy Bloch. Read it and come to your own conclusion about who was the MIT Card Counting Team's big player.


By Tim Shipman

Handcuffed, arrested, accused, threatened - and all for being too good at cards. Tim Shipman meets the former student gambler whose winning streak has become a Hollywood hit.

The blackjack dealer flicked the cards with a felicitous snap across the green baize. With every low card that hit the table, the young man's pulse increased. The count was good. It was time to strike.

Andy Bloch was 24 years old. By day he was an engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; by night, part of a team making millions at the blackjack table.

The movement of his hand was imperceptible to those nearby, but to his watching friends it conveyed urgency: Get in now. This is our chance.

A swaying figure stumbled up to the table, spilling his drink and betting big. "Don't egg him on," said Bloch.

He caught the merest flicker of recognition from the apparent drunk - in reality a man Bloch had trained with for months. "Eggs": code for a dozen. Twelve times the basic bet. Bloch watched as the "Big Player" on his team put down the chips: $12,000. The cards came: another win.

It was a scene repeated in casinos the length of the Las Vegas strip between 1993 and 1999, when Bloch was part of the fabled MIT blackjack team, who for 10 years ran one of the most successful card-counting operations in the history of gambling.

Now 38, Bloch still looks like the kind of guy who tells you to turn your computer off and then on again, but now he has been immortalized in the film 21, starring Kevin Spacey, which has gone straight to No 1 at the US box office.

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, Bloch - now one of the world's top poker players - describes how they beat the casinos at their own game. "I probably made half a million over six years," he says, sitting in a steak house in Washington. "Some I earned as a player and some as an investor."

He was also threatened, arrested and barred from every casino in Las Vegas.

Card counting is not illegal, it is not cheating, but casinos can refuse to let you play. The concept is simple, if difficult to execute undetected. "You can get an edge by watching the cards that come out of the shoe [card holder]," he says.

A succession of low cards stacks the odds in favor of the player, because the high cards remaining give him a better chance of getting a score close to 21 and increase the likelihood of the dealer going bust.

Every time a card under seven comes, the spotter mentally adds one to the "count". For every 10, picture card or ace, he subtracts one. When the count reaches more than 10 it is time to increase the size of your bet.

To avoid detection, the MIT team used signals to get a Big Player into the game. "We had codewords for the numbers zero through 20 to tell the Big Player how much to bet," Bloch says.

"A word beginning with the letter A would be one unit and J would be 10. You would say: 'Jesus, how could I lose that hand,' and they would know to bet 10 units, which might be $10,000."

Bloch is not your average card sharp. He has two electrical engineering degrees from MIT and a third from Harvard Law School. This year he finished runner-up in the world heads-up poker championship, taking his lifetime tournament winnings to $3.2 million.

He was recruited by the Blackjack Team in 1993. In the film, the team mentor, played by Spacey, is an MIT professor. In real life the leaders were MIT graduates.

Unlike the hero of the film, who agonizes before joining up, Bloch had no qualms about what he did: "The only people who think it is cheating are people who don't understand it. You're just using your mind."

Like every team recruit, Andy Bloch had to complete a rigorous training regime. "I didn't pass for six months," he says. "We would deal fast and have lots of distractions. People would ask you questions. We'd have music playing and the dealer would try to cheat you. If you missed it, you failed."

On Fridays in game week, the team would fly to Las Vegas and find the busiest high-stakes blackjack tables. "You want a lot of action because if you're the only big player you're going to get a lot of attention," Bloch says.

Andy played every role, but the most exhilarating - and the most frightening - was to be the Big Player. "It's the most risk," he says. "If you get spotted, you're the face they're going to fax around all the casinos."

In the opening lines of Casino Royale, Ian Fleming describes the "compost of greed and fear and nervous tension" in a casino. It is a sentiment Bloch knows well.

"When you're playing blackjack, with every tap on the shoulder you worry that it could be the last time you're in the casino," he says. "When you see the heat coming, you want to get out as quickly as possible.

"I never got beaten up. I got grabbed, I got handcuffed, I got arrested on trumped-up charges or false accusations of cheating."

He does, though, know of other counters who experienced violence. "I know of a guy who won money and then was playing golf with the casino owner, who pulled a gun on him and said: 'Give me all the money you just won from me and I won't kill you.' So he gave him the money."

The bad guy in the film is a casino security boss, played by Lawrence Fishburne. In reality the team's opponents were the Griffin Detective Agency, which specializes in catching card counters.

But Bloch says the real villain was losing. "The most brutal moment is when you lose and they come up to you and say you're no longer welcome to play. You're down and you're out."

When in real difficulty, the team were able to call on the services of a leading defense lawyer, recommended to them by Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law professor who helped defend OJ Simpson.

The team first called on his services when their founder left $100,000 in a plastic bag in an MIT classroom and the janitor, fearing it was drug money, gave it to the police,. The lawyer helped recover the money. Dershowitz's nephew later joined the MIT team.

The film has created some controversy because the lead characters are white, while the hero of the book on which it is based, Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House, was Asian. But Bloch says that while his team did capitalize on the view of some casino managers that Asians can be erratic gamblers - a perfect cover for the Big Player - his team was mainly white.

Andy Bloch doesn't play much blackjack now. When he enters a casino, the managers steer him straight to the poker tables. When he entered the World Series of Poker Europe in London last autumn, he had to get special dispensation to enter the gaming floor at all.

Bloch says poker and blackjack give him "different kicks". While he has won more money at poker, blackjack may be harder. "I've never been arrested or had to worry about who I am playing poker. You have to hide what you have in your hand - but in blackjack you have to be acting the entire time you're playing."

For six years it was an Oscar-worthy performance of which Kevin Spacey would have been proud.