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.”

Friday, March 21, 2008

A Whacky Casino Story

Many of you might not know that before I became a casino cheat I was a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas. That's where I met my mentor Joe Classon, but before that I met a diverse group of characters. While dealing cards to them, players often told me their life stories. I heard about the sons in medical school, the daughters who were now assistant prosecutors, everything from cobalt treatments to mistresses in Italy, who were often kept in neighboring hotels while the wives of these storytellers were kept busy at slot machines.
And then there were the nuts, the raving lunatics. Like the bars had their drunks, the casinos had their degenerates. After being transferred to the swing shift which ran from six o'clock at night to two in the morning, I became familiar with a pathological gambler of about fifty, who looked at least seventy and went by the name of Whacky. Everybody on the swing shift knew him. He came into the Four Queens every night at nine o'clock, had been doing so for years. One night while I was standing on a dead mini-baccarat game, Whacky told me an incredible story which, to my amazement, turned out to be true.
Spending most of his adult life panhandling on Las Vegas's streets to scrape up whatever money he could to booze and play slot machines, Whacky was also a roulette junkie. One rainy night the day before Christmas Eve ten years before, he rolled into the casino a little earlier than usual because of the rain. He still was as drunk as ever, although the coins in his pocket weighed less because of the absence of crowds in the street.
Whacky quickly lost all his coins in the slot machines. When he approached his favorite roulette wheel in the middle of the sparsely peopled casino, he had but a solitary one-dollar bill left in his pocket. He put it on his favorite number: 4. The dealer spun the ball and it landed on number 4. Whacky won thirty-five dollars. Intoxicated, but knowing instinctively what he was doing, Whacky put his lucky dollar bill back in his pocket and let the thirty-five bucks he won ride on number 4. It came in again and now Whacky was ahead $1,225. He wanted to let it ride again but the casino limit on betting a number straight up was a $100. Whacky bitched at the pit bosses but they refused to raise the limit for him. Annoyed, and cursing loudly for the whole casino to hear, Whacky bet the $100 on number 4 and it won a third time. He was up $4,725. The casino manager was called over to the wheel and he immediately yanked the dealer, put in another one with a mean disposition. But that didn't cool off Whacky. He not only won a fourth but an amazing fifth time in a row. Not too unofficially, that was a Las Vegas record for consecutive times a number came out on an honest roulette wheel. The Nevada Gaming Control Board had examined Whacky's favorite wheel the next day and concluded it was both honest and free of defects.
Whacky took his nearly twelve grand in roulette profits and sat down at a blackjack table, where he placed a thousand-dollar chip on all seven betting squares. Being that a single deck was in use, the four blackjacks Whacky got that first round were the most possible. He went on a massive winning streak. The Four Queens kept changing the dealers in order to break the streak but Whacky kept beating them all. He was ahead three hundred grand by the time he got to the craps table. And there he held the dice an amazing two hours. By the time it was over Whacky had the Four Queens beat for a cool million. At that point he passed out and fell into the craps table. The casino manager, in a panic, immediately coaxed Whacky to allow the casino to lavish its most luxurious suite on him. Whacky agreed, let the Four Queens put his million bucks in the casino cage for safekeeping, but not the lucky dollar bill that had started it all. He took that up to the suite and went to bed with it, putting it safely underneath his pillow. When he awoke the next day realizing that he was a millionaire, and that he no longer had to go out begging on the streets, it was just too much. Having nothing else to do and perhaps following his destiny, Whacky went back into the casino. It took him a whole week to lose back the million bucks. Before they booted him out of the suite into the street, the casino manager offered Whacky $100 for the lucky one-dollar bill that had remained in his pocket. Whacky refused and went back outside, where eerily it was raining again in the desert. The very next night Whacky was arrested in the Four Queens Hotel gift shop for stealing a candy bar and pack of chewing gum that together cost one dollar.
After he had finished his story, I asked Whacky why he hadn't paid for the candy bar and chewing gum with his last dollar. I should have known the reason. All he had left in his life was his lucky dollar, and the Four Queens, he said, was never going to get that.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Poker Movies: The Grand

Is "The Grand" a good poker movie? Is any cheating portrayed?

The poker world certainly needs a good movie. In recent times there has been nothing but trash. The last good poker movie was "Rounders," but since then we've been hit by duds like "Lucky You," which really was ridiculous, especially that scene with Eric Bana winning that "pokertriathlon" bet on the golf course. And as far as fictitious poker on TV goes, the ESPN series "Tilt" was also horrible.

Good News: The Grand is not bad!

Whereas prior poker movies took the poker world very seriously, finally we have a movie with a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of poker. In fact, I'd call it and out and out "mockumentary," much in the fashion of Christopher Guest movies. It does have a real poker feel to it, however, and is shot fast, loose and from the hip, and like Guest's movies takes a gonzo-style, documentary approach. From what I've heard there's a lot of ad-libbing along the way, which makes for some good laughs even if the ending is somewhat predictable.

The story unfolds at "The Grand", a World Series-style poker tournament with a winner-take-all $10 million first prize. Jack Faro (Woody Harrelson) inherits the "Rabbit's Foot" casino in downtown Las Vegas from his grandfather, and runs it into the ground while concurrently racking up numerous failed marriages and countless stints in rehab.

One thing The Grand does well is portray the poker world and its characters, certainly leaving none of their zany idiosyncrasies to the imagination. In fact, if you follow the poker circuits with an observant eye, you will pick out some of the players whose characteristics are loosely or less loosely depicted here.

The best and most entertaining character in the movie is Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell), a monotone, socially maladjusted 40-year-old "math guy" who still lives with his mother. Melvin spits out numbers and criticism at other players while reciting his poker mantra, adapted from the 1980s sci-fi thriller "Dune." In one poker hand, Melvin scolds Daniel Negreanu about his play, snapping, "You should have moved in when your stack still meant something."

Besides Negreanu, there are numerous appearances of real-life pro poker players and poker-playing celebrities. Of course there's Doyle Brunson, along with Phil Hellmuth, Phil (the Unabomber) Laak, Antonio Esfandiari, Shannon Elizabeth, Jason Alexander, Hank Azaria, and Robert Thompson in his role as the tournament director. Player/author Phil Gordon plays a TV poker analyst and well-known director Brett Ratner plays "Sob Story" Barry Blausteen, a player who tries to get his opponents to fold by telling them sad tales such as, "My mother has three months to live."

A lot of poker minutiae and inside jokes permeate the movie. The logo on the hat worn by casino titan Stave Lavish (Michael McKean) is nearly identical to a Wynn logo. Jack Faro's grandfather is based on the famed Horseshoe owner and legend, Benny Binion, complete with the big fur coat and cowboy hat.

And yes, there is a cheating element! I'm glad that the director brought it to light in the movie as cheating is such a MAJOR part of poker, which many poker enthusiasts don't want to admit. It comes at the best time of the movie, the end, and although I won't tell you exactly what move was pulled off, I will say that it is not one of my top 10 poker scams!

Overall, The Grand is clearly the best poker movie since Rounders. Another poker movie on the horizon is "Deal" starring Burt Reynolds. The chatter I've heard about it so far is lots of thumbs-down. I will be reviewing that movie shortly.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Casino Poker Cheats or Poker Casino Cheats

Poker Casino Cheat or Casino poker Cheat? Do you know the difference? Does a casino poker cheat only cheat in the poker room? Does a poker casino cheat only cheat in the casino? And if so, why is he called a "poker" casino cheat?

No, I am not playing some stupid game with you. Rather I am copying this e-mail that I just received to my blog because I'm not really sure how to answer the e-mailer? If you have any ideas, I would appreciate you telling me because I always reply to my e-mails, and I don't want to leave this guy hanging.

For the time being, I would say a Casino Poker Cheat is a cheat who cheats brick and mortar poker rooms and not online, and that a Poker Casino Cheat is...well, the best I can come up with is a poker player who moonlights as a casino cheat! lol

Cheats at Cards, Dice Wanted!

Card Cheats and poker Cheats eligible for the American Roulette Cheaters Hall of Fame will be inducted April 1st. The ballot as of now includes Duke Wilson, the notorious roulette mechanic from my Classon Pastposting Team of the '70s and '80s, Balls Abramowitz, a slick blackjack pastposter who worked with me and my great partner Pat Mallery during the 1990s (Mallery is already in the cheaters Hall of Fame), and John Soares, a notorious craps cheater who terrorized Las Vegas's craps tables for nearly three decades. If you have suggestions for anyone else you think should qualify for the American Roulette Cheaters Hall of Fame, please send me information on that person or persons, or send links to where I can get that information.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Computers and Scanners Aiding Dice Control Craps Cheating

Roulette computers have been around a long time now and just about everyone up and current on casinos, including the casinos, knows about them. We have also heard about computers being used at blackjack to aid in card counting operations; nearly everyone's heard about them too. But here's something I bet you haven't heard of; I surely hadn't until yesterday: Computers and scanners to beat Craps! I've received a dozen e-mails since last Friday asking about this new phenomenon. Supposedly, someone has developed a scanner that can gauge the tumble of the dice much like scanners can measure the revolutions of a ball spinning around a roulette wheel to predict which section of numbers the ball will land in. After several rolls of scanning the dice in this fashion and micro-computing the outcomes, a pattern of outcomes can be established pertaining to each pair of dice in a craps game, given no two dice are exactly the same in weight and balance.

What is my opinion on this? I say it's total bullshit. I don't even believe in manual dice control. So how could scanning the dice really amount to anything--unless somehow you could scan them after they crash against the back wall until they come to a stop, but that seems pretty far-fetched to me.

If anyone has info on this, please let me know.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Cheats Cheating Home Poker Games


In the last six months, we’ve all had our fill of online poker cheating. First it was the blockbuster hole-card peeking scandal at Absolute Poker, which created the biggest scandal in online poker history, then the two account-selling mishaps at Poker Stars and Full Tilt. In past articles for Blush Magazine I have covered cheating in brick and mortar public cardrooms as well as high-tech cheating in a private suite at the Borgata Hotel in Atlantic City. But, if you didn’t know, although cheating in online poker is rapidly on the rise and in public cardrooms is either slightly up or down, depending on who you want to believe, the venue with the most significant increase in cheating is neither online nor in your friendly or unfriendly neighborhood poker room, but rather at home—your home or somebody else’s home.

I’m talking about your beloved home games, which, you might not know, are the European venue where poker has seen its greatest increase of play over the last five years. I’d bet that the majority of you reading this article play poker at home more than you do in public cardrooms. If cheating is blowing up sky-high on the Internet, it’s gone nuclear in home games. How do I know? You’d only have to read my e-mails. Eighty-five percent of them querying me about cheating in poker ask about incidents occurring in the senders’ home games. Could my best friend Wally’s boss on Paternoster Square be moonlighting as a poker cheat? After all, I didn’t invite him to the game at my flat, Wally did! And what about Jenny from Fleet Street? Something about her hands at the poker table makes me awfully suspicious.

So what about it? Why am I getting so much e-mail from people all of a sudden suspicious of their poker buddies, who may be acquaintances or even friends? Is this because of the poker craze? And which forms of cheating at home happen most? Well, the poker craze certainly has got lots to do with it. Not only are more people playing poker across the UK and Europe, more people are playing for more money. The stakes have gotten higher everywhere from prep school cafeteria games to employee break rooms at Harrods Department Store (if you want to consider these as home games) to those in the chic homes of the rich and famous of Monte Carlo when they’re not playing among the pros in televised tournaments emanating from the gilded principality’s Le Grand Casino. Thus wherever you have more money involved in gambling, you will have more cheaters. I don’t care where the game is; Barons cheating Earls at royal gambling tables is part of European gambling lore. And in high stakes games at palatial homes, most of the players can afford to lose lots of money and few have much knowledge about even the basics of poker cheating, a combination making very ripe pickings for the home-game cheats.
Which cheating techniques are the most common at home? Unlike both in public cardrooms and online, the cheating method du jour is not collusion—although it almost always involves two players. Like you might suspect, it’s usually done with marked cards or a card-dealing mechanic using the old peek-and-second-deal to get the best hands in his cheating buddy’s hands, pardon the pun. I am not going to explain how to protect yourselves against these common forms of cheating. You can easily research the moves if you don’t already know them. But I am going to warn you of a rather clever home-game scam that is usually done by a single person, and I’ve been hearing about it in several European locations during the last year—twice in the UK, once in Sweden and once even in Finland!
A real laughable albeit serious example of this occurred in a small West Midlands town outside Birmingham. A home game hustler who’d already been caught marking cards several times in his game was nevertheless so well-liked that his fellow players allowed him to continue playing, but with two conditions: the games were never to be played in his house and he was forbidden to bring cards to the games at the other players’ houses. Although they still worried about the hustler’s uncanny ability to find ways of marking cards, they all agreed that with these special rules in place, the hustler would no longer be able to pull off his shams against them. But the hustler, after losing most of his bankroll during a nightmarish two-month span of twice-a-week legitimate games, figured out a surefire way to scam his never unsuspecting chums.
There was a food market in the neighborhood that stayed open till midnight. It was about the only place of commerce that didn’t close by nine o’clock. The hustler knew that playing cards were sold there. One afternoon at five o’clock he went directly to the shelf where the cards were displayed and bought half the supply of Fournier decks. He took the cards home, and using a knife with a very thin blade removed the cellophane wrapping on the boxes, paying special attention to leave the store’s price tags in place and undamaged. He then carefully slid the wrapping off the first box, leaving the cellophane intact. He used a razor blade to cut open the side of the box, leaving the blue sealing stamp in place on the box’s flap. He removed the cards and began skillfully marking their backs with tiny applications of a daub he’d bought online.
Finished marking, he placed the cards back in the box, reglued the open side and very carefully slid the cellophane wrapper over the freshly resealed box. After refolding the wrapper to the exact way it appeared before he’d slit it, he fetched a cloth and laid it over the cellophane. Then he pressed a hot iron lightly against the cloth, sealing the cellophane. Upon final examination of his work, the hustler was satisfied that the deck, still sealed in cellophane and protected by the blue stamp, appeared as though he’d never opened it.
He repeated this process for another nineteen decks. Then he immediately returned to the food market. When the employees weren’t looking, he scooped the remaining decks on the shelf and dropped them into his sack. Then he restocked the shelf with the twenty decks he’d marked at home. Now every deck of playing cards for sale was marked.
That night, the hustler went to one of the other players’ houses for the game. They played $40-$80 hold’em, a pretty steep game for the boonies in the West Midlands. After half an hour of play, he was stuck $600; after an hour $1,500. Growing angrier by the minute and adding a bit of theatrics to his outburst, he’d had enough. Then after a bad beat, he tore up his cards. Upon being scolded by the other players, he apologized and said he wouldn’t do it again. The host of the game fetched a new deck of cards and dealt out the next hand. This time the hustler lost on purpose. When the winner turned over his winning hole cards, the hustler ripped up his cards again, sporting another rehearsed apology.
After scolding the hustler for the second time, the host opened up the third deck of the night. When the hustler ripped those up as well, and got loudly cussed out by everyone, the host realized he didn’t have any decks of cards left. He asked if anyone happened to have brought a spare deck. They desperately searched one another’s eyes. A momentary panic ensued when they realized that no one had any decks on his person. The hustler even apologized, saying he would have brought a few had he not been forbidden by the others to do so. But finally, one of the players besides the hustler remembered that the food market stayed open until midnight. He quickly reminded the rest and they all breathed a sigh of relief.

Of course not trusting the hustler, the host asked the most trusted player of the game, who was also his best friend, to hurry to the market and buy two decks of blue-backed Fournier playing cards. The guy returned in ten minutes flat with the cards. The game continued, and as it was getting late, they decided to finish up with the stakes raised to $100-$200.

Before the clock struck midnight, the hustler had all their money.

The lesson to be learned here? It’s twofold: one, if you’re playing in high-stakes home games, be very vigilant about cheaters, who can be the people you’d least suspect and capable of coming up with ingenious ways to remove you from your money at the home-grown poker table; and two, if ever someone is caught cheating, do not let that person play again in your game. Ever. Remember, there’s no one working for the house to protect you from what goes on at home.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

PokerStars is Number-One Safe Online Poker Room!

In spite of all the recent online poker cheating scandals, PokerStars has remained free of this widespread scandalous activity and in my opinion sits above the rest of the major poker sites as far as anti-cheating is concerned. It has taken over the number-1 ranking of my top-10 safe online poker rooms, and I expect it to hold that position for quite a while. To see current safety ratings, click here.

POKER STARS is at the top of the online poker world. It features a giant player base, a very satisfying game play experience, and a well-run organization that efficiently handles issues of import to players such as customer service, banking, and security. I have not seen any evidence of serious cheating since I've been monitoring this site. Both collusion and bot play have been well below the industry average, and PokerStars has never appeared on my list of unsafe sites. For my complete review of PokerStars, click here.

Collusion, Bots, Super-User Accounts to Cheat

Online Poker Super Account users have been making cheat headlines these days, but where does Super User account cheating rank in the overall realm of online poker cheating? Well, in spite of all the headlines and big-time scams at Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet, super-user account cheating still ranks third. Collusion, just as it is in brick and mortar cardrooms, remains the number-one method of cheating online, followed by Bots and then Super Account users. I do expect the Super-User account incidents to diminish, though I see both Collusion Play and Bots sitting at online poker tables to increase, with the biggest threat being the development of even more intelligent bots.