I have an admission to make: I, Phill Provance, am a die-hard poker fan. SO when the GP crew asked me to check out Hollywood’s most recent portrayal of my favorite pastime, “21,” I was f#$&in’ stoked. There I sat, munching my popcorn, slurping my soda, watching five heroic MIT students take Vegas for all she’s worth. And, I must say, it was probably the best $50 I ever made.
But let’s not get confused here. The real reason I went to see “21” wasn’t to review it on its aesthetic merits. No, the real reason was to determine how realistic its card-counting info was and, for another thing, use it as a jump-off to teach you, my beloved public, a thing or two about counting itself.
Now, to answer the first question: yes, the card counting shown in the movie is accurate. The problem, however, lies in the fact that, main character Ben (Jim Sturgess) explains it a little too fast—presumably to keep up the narrative pace—and unless you wait for the DVD, you might not catch it all or might get the impression that you really do have to be a rocket scientist (or at least a robotics nerd) to make sense of it.
This is true to some extent, insomuch as most successful card counters are able to do the “simple math” of determining probability in their heads, really, REALLY fast. There is hope for those of us not smart enough to go Ivy League, though, because math like anything else can be practiced once it’s understood. And wouldn’t you believe it, card counting’s not nearly as hard to understand, as it seems.
Before we get into it, though, you have to understand that card counting is a science, not a magic wand. It gives the counting player a marginal edge over the casino, but it is never entirely exact. When you watch, “21,” and hear about similar real-life scenarios, it might seem like these wiz kids win every time. Hollywood, of course, tends to dramatize things to make them more exciting. And the real fact of the matter is that counting is merely an educated guess; learning to do so will never make you win all of the time, just most of the time.
The way it works is that a card counter considers the number of cards in a deck (52) or “shoe” (i.e., a chute with multiple decks in it, ranging from 4 decks—108 cards—to 8 decks—216 cards). At the same time, he considers how many high-value cards remain in the deck based on what he can see on the table and what has already been played. Because Blackjack allows you to see the most number of cards of any casino-run game, it’s the best game to count in. And because the game’s betting options can expand the edge a counter has in the long run (See: Section III, “Simple Math”), it is doubly ideal.