“21” and the Art of Card Counting

The film 21 illustrates a significant overlap between art and crime. Inspired by the true story of card counters at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the gifted MIT student, Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), uses creativity and performance art to scam the gambling system in Las Vegas, and earn hundreds of thousands in winnings. From a poor, working-class background, Ben needs this money to pay the $300,000 tuition for the four to five years of schooling at Harvard School of Medicine, in hopes to one day become a doctor. In class we discussed con artists and the art of deception as an expedient for criminal behavior. Con artists—short for confidence artists—play roles in order to cover up their true unscrupulous intentions and gain a person’s confidence long enough to cheat them of their money. Depending on the con, the artist will look however he needs to look or act however he needs to act in order to most effectively deceive. He or she may sport a suit for a banking or investment con or a post extremely edited photos for an Internet con. A con artist is also very charming and can even make someone believe that he or she is an old friend from years ago. By this definition, Ben in 21 is a con artist, for he and his MIT blackjack teammates—Choi, Fisher, Jill, and Kianna—take on false identities in order to scam the casino system of their money. Card counting is not illegal and not technically cheating, yet it aligns with criminal behavior in the sense that it is cunning, secretive, and non-conformist. Additionally, Ben had only planned to make enough money pay his tuition at Harvard, then back out. Yet as Jill predicted, Ben becomes corrupted by greed, a selfish desire that fuels criminal activity. The artistry of card counting comes into play (no pun intended) regarding their creative and theatrical act when disguised as different characters within the casino, using secret vocabulary and body language that they use to communicate amongst one another. When they walk into the casino, each student teammate is playing a role, allowing them to seem like different people in different casinos. Ben plays the part of Vladamir Stagnitsky, whose dad is the diplomat with the Russian consulate. The other teammates take on different roles with the use of wigs and accents, and they each act as though they do not know each other. The team is split into two groups: “Spotters” play the minimum bet and keep track of the count. They send secret signals to the “big players”, who place large bets whenever the count at the table is promising. These signals are both verbal, such as the word “sweet” signaling +16, and nonverbal, such as casually crossing ones arms as a signal to the other teammates. The players had “created a whole new language” narrates Ben in the film. The sole purpose behind this creative act is to not get caught card counting. Casinos employ methods to detect and combat casino undesirables such as counters. As a private business, casinos use professional security operations to bar people from entering the premises. They have even been known to cut fingers off and burn people with cigarettes. In 21, security chief Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) beats and tortures the players until they own up to counting. Although card counting is not illegal, it is evident that the act is deceptive enough and unwanted enough to warrant such harsh consequences from the casino business. 21 is a film I highly suggest seeing because it captures the impressive creativity involved in card counting deception, while simultaneously creating suspense and excitement through its criminal nature.

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