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How Accurate is The Last Casino’s Retelling of MIT Card Counters?

The Last Casino is the Canadian telling of the group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students turned Blackjack players from 1979 through the 1990s. Released in 2004, the movie is directed by Pierre Gill and stars Charles Martin Smith, Katharine Isabelle, Kris Lemche, Julian Richings, and Albert Chung. While it didn’t receive as much attention as its American counterpart, 21, The Last Casino was highlighted for its Canadian involvement, having been directed and produced in Canada.

Comparatively, the film was praised for its more down-to-earth depiction of a plot inspired by true events, with a comedic streak punctuating a more honest portrayal of the real-life card-counting team formed by University students. But just how accurate is The Last Casino in its representation of the MIT card counters and casino culture? For actual gamblers who know their stuff, we’ll take a look at whether or not The Last Casino is a bust. 

Like in the Movies

Throughout the film, the focus is placed more on the characters than the mathematics behind their operation. This is the case in 21 as well, and John Chang says that part is, at least, true to form.  “What I found most accurate in 21 was the portrayal of feelings. The feeling of being introduced to the team, the hard work training (can you say Rocky?), the exhaustion after playing all night, the rags to riches to rags feelings when we’d go from MIT student to high roller and back again, and the sick feeling of losing, are all spot on,” he writes in a blog post.

Some of those more technical details get lost in the background of The Last Casino, but the movie does a compellingly good job preserving some aspects of the real-life story. 

Card Counting Geniuses 

Counting cards might seem like an impressive feat from the outside, but the reality is that almost anyone with the math skills can learn to count cards. Even though many of the people recruited to the Blackjack Team were MIT and Harvard students and graduates, the real advantage they had was organization, time, and money. While Elyse’s character, portrayed by Katharine Isabelle, is recruited from her job as a waitress, nearly illustrating this idea, it’s because of her “genius” memorization talent. Many of the actual card counters were undergraduates recruited through flyers posted around college campuses. So this is one detail the film exaggerates just a little.

Becoming High Rollers

Casino movies often glamourize the art of gambling, inflating the numbers and going all-in on a single round of play. For players that actually count cards, it takes a lot of time to turn a little bit of money into a lot of money. The MIT team was able to create a fortune over a series of years, and The Last Casino doesn’t do too bad of a job holding back those exaggerations when it comes to player winnings.

Casino Muscle and the Law

In the film 21, Micky Rosa is roughed up as a warning by a casino that doesn’t like what the card counters are doing. In other casino films, techniques like card counting are portrayed as taboo or even under the scrutiny of the law. In reality, no one on the Blackjack Team was ever physically assaulted for counting cards and card counting isn’t illegal. Casinos can, however, ban whoever they feel like for whatever reason and if they suspect players of using techniques to gain an advantage, they may ask them to leave. This did happen to the MIT Blackjack Team, as shown in The Last Casino, with a more realistic scene where the casino allows them to cash in their chips and escort them out.

Online casinos have adapted to more traditional techniques bettors might use to get ahead, making it nearly impossible for card counters to do what they do at the digital table. In-person dealers don’t have the same capabilities as online ones and can’t use the same auto-shuffling, card burning, and shoe penetration methods as can be done in live blackjack online.

Bad Source Material

Both The Last Casino and 21 are based on a book written by Ben Mezrich in 2003 titled Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, and while the book was released as a non-fiction account of the Blackjack card counting story, it was revealed in 2008 that many of the details were exaggerated. Some parts of the book were entirely invented and even major plot points surfaced as fabricated by Mezrich.

John Chang, a member of the MIT Blackjack Team and one of the inspirations for the character Micky Rosa, said of the book, “I don’t even know if you want to call the things in their exaggerations, because they’re so exaggerated they’re basically untrue.” For two films that follow the plot of a highly criticized and sensationalized book, The Last Casino does its best to bring an entertaining but level-headed story about the MIT Blackjack Team to life.

 

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