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November 24, 2014

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ODDS ’N’ ENDS:

Melodramatic, but with a seal of approval

Jeff Haney isn’t surprised ‘21’ overdramatizes the MIT card-counting tale, but finds original guys kind of liked it

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Tiffany Brown

Mike Aponte, left, and Dave Irvine were members of the MIT team that made card-counting history in Las Vegas.

Card Counting

The film "21" reveals the true story of six MIT students who learn the art of card counting. But you don't have to have a photograhic memory to become a card counter, just discipline and a lot of practice. Sun writer Jeff Haney shows the basic concept behind the MIT crew's card counting scheme.

Beyond the Sun

  • IMDB: 21

Fans of “Mr. Show with Bob and David,” the brilliant sketch-comedy program, will recall an episode that skewered the way Hollywood “adopts” true stories only to pervert them beyond recognition.

In the episode, a movie titled “Why Me? The Bob Lamonta Story” is honored for its portrayal of Bob Lamonta, who was raised by mentally challenged parents and won three Olympic gold medals before dying young.

At the awards ceremony, Lamonta himself shows up, explaining the movie was all true ... except for a few minor embellishments: His parents were not mentally challenged, he never competed in the Olympics, and he’s still alive.

That’s pretty much what I had been expecting from the movie “21,” especially after listening in on gossip and speculation from blackjack insiders for more than a year, since it was announced that Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth and Laurence Fishburne would star.

Blackjack purists pointed out Ben Mezrich’s “Bringing Down the House,” the best-selling book that spawned the movie, had already sensationalized the MIT card-counting team’s real-life exploits. Surely the movie would further sensationalize the story. Would any recognizable remnants of authentic events survive?

Given the inauspicious buildup, I expected members of the actual MIT card-counting team to trash “21,” which opens today.

Instead, Dave Irvine and Mike Aponte — who risked, and won, big money in Las Vegas with the MIT team in the 1990s — had generally favorable impressions of “21” after a screening at New York University.

“I thought it was very good,” Irvine said. “I thought it captured the scene pretty well. It did a good job capturing the lifestyle of these kids, who were typical students during the week, and how they had to adjust to becoming Vegas high rollers on the weekend.

“I didn’t know what to expect going in, but I felt pleasantly surprised. Maybe that means I had low expectations going in, I don’t know. I was entertained, that’s for sure.”

Aponte’s reaction was also positive, if less enthusiastic. He was OK with the celluloid version of the team’s adventures, as long as he kept telling himself it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.

“Well, it was interesting,” Aponte said. “I knew beforehand it was a movie version and that it was only ‘inspired by’ these true stories. I kind of had mixed feelings about it. Overall, I’d say they did an exciting Hollywood version of the story.

“Obviously it’s not going to capture the real, true story. It’s not going to tell you exactly what happened, and I don’t think that’s the intent.”

Irvine and Aponte liked Jim Sturgess, perhaps best-known for warbling Beatles songs in “Across the Universe,” in the role of the main character, Ben Campbell. Sturgess did a nice job showing how tempting the trappings of a high roller’s lifestyle can be, they said.

“But my least favorite part was when they get roughed up,” Aponte said. “That was over the top a little bit.”

Neither Irvine nor Aponte had any role in the production of the film.

The movie’s impact figures to keep Irvine and Aponte busy for a while as they attend speaking engagements and promote their latest venture, an Internet-based card-counting training system called BlackjackVT.

“It’s not just teaching, but giving people the ability to progress and learn new skills one by one,” Aponte said. “That’s the thing with card counting: It’s a pretty straightforward system, but the big key is practicing enough to get good at it. Most people aren’t motivated enough to practice it on their own, but we think BlackjackVT will really keep people engaged.”

That illustrates an inherent weakness in making a movie about counting cards. Mastering the technique requires study and discipline — admirable traits, but boring to watch on the big screen.

Hence the movie’s dramatic flourishes.

The best advice for “21” viewers might come from a Beatles song that didn’t make the cut for the “Across the Universe” soundtrack: Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. (Especially turn off your mind.) I mean, you can still enjoy “Rounders” even if you know the Russian mob is not actually in the habit of allowing its enemies to settle debts via a poker game, right?

In the gambling-movie oeuvre, “21” may not be as sublime as “California Split” or as gritty as “The Gambler.”

But it’s no “Why Me? The Bob Lamonta Story” either.

“It is not intended to be a documentary,” Irvine said. “It’s an entertaining Hollywood movie.”

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