21: Barely legal and beating the house

By
April 7, 2008

With an MIT degree in mechanical engineering and a real-life Ocean’s Eleven experience that allowed him to boast card counting skills, Jeffrey Ma made his success as a businessman and his name in popular media.

In the film 21, director Robert Luketic captured that tense and glamorous, multi-million-dollar period of Ma’s life in a way that aroused fantasies of card counting. But gamblers beware: successful counters are rare and incredibly skilled.

In the 1990’s, Ma was recruited into an MIT blackjack team with an advanced card counting system that took advantage of blackjack’s statistical nature. Led and financed by an MIT math professor, Ma learned and practiced the craft with some of the brightest math students.

Together, the thoroughly trained team, complete with decoy names and backgrounds, took Vegas for millions.

“I think the real reason that I was recruited to join the team was. not just because of my intelligence,” said Ma, in a press release, “but because of my demeanor and my ability to go into a casino and sell myself.”

Exceptional math skills were not central to the success of the team.
Blackjack is “a game of memory,” said Kevin Spacey in his role as the MIT linear equations professor. “And the best part is, it’s beatable.”

Aside from memorizing the cards that were dealt, the budding masterminds practiced basic math-counting and calculating probability.

21, which according to Ma is 75 percent based on his seven year run as a counter, was inspired by Ben Mezrich’s bestseller, Bringing Down the House.

Ma’s experience as the “big player” inspired like characters in the book and film. During his stint, Ma wagered hundreds of thousands of dollars, which he smuggled through airport securities to and from Vegas.

At some of the world’s most sophisticated casinos, Ma would await hand signals once his team members, the spotters, found a hot deck. While the spotters counted and played low-wager bets they would signal Ma by speaking in code to play very high wagers with the odds in his favor.

Although counting cards is not a crime, it is more than frowned upon by casino owners. If caught, the team would be thrust into the seedy world beneath casinos’ glitzy veneer. There, hired muscle use brutal tactics in their interrogations to make sure high-rollers don’t cheat the house.

In an interview with Ma, the Boston-raised, Chinese-American said that although he had a conservative upbringing, the initial reluctant feelings he had about joining the team disappeared when he hit the Vegas strip and came home five figures richer after his first weekend.

“It was exhilarating, said Ma. “We got to leave as winners almost every time.”

In the film, Ben Campbell is the character inspired by Ma. Actor Jim Sturgess portrays Campbell as a shy student who is hesitant to join the team, but does so out of financial necessity.

Campbell initially calls the club a “means to an end,” but soon evolves into an ultra suave party boy who gives into his emotions and loses his fortune, his pretty face, friends and much more.

The moral of the film: “Always account for variable change; you never know what could happen.”

In reality, Ma, who would “go to Vegas and spend thousands and come back home and contemplate whether to spend $20 on a cab,” said his blackjack years gave him elements of his personality.

“My persona developed out of necessity,” said Ma.

In Vegas, the group of 10 to 20 students barely of gambling age handled a multi-million dollar enterprise. Aside from the camaraderie, Ma said blackjack gave him another great gift.

“The blackjack experience gave me more opportunity than any degree could,” said Ma.

His blackjack years came to an end when casino investigators caught on to the team. Later, Ma applied for a job on Wall Street as a stock trader.

After including card counting skills on his resume, “[The interviewer] looked at me and said, ‘you need to expand on that,'” Ma recalled. “I think people enjoyed the fact that I did this.”

Ma, now living in San Francisco, has helped start four companies, including ProTrade. He has said that he never had to take a job he did not like because he had the money to do what he truly enjoyed.

The moral of his story: “There is no one path [to] success.”


21: Barely legal and beating the house was published on April 7, 2008 in Features

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