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MIT student blogger Chris S. '11

21: The Movie by Chris S. '11

Afterthought: You probably have to had seen the movie to understand this entry fully. =/

21 = Vegas + MIT kids.
Me = born in Vegas (seriously) + going to MIT.

My take on the movie, 21:

Completely NO spoilers:
* Check out reviews here.
* Check out “General Observations” below.

Synopsis: (some spoilers for the first hour of the movie)

Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), an incredibly brilliant student at MIT who is capable of rattling off sales figures faster than a cash register, needs $300,000 to go to Harvard Med School, after attaining 1590 SAT, 44 MCAT, and a 4.0 GPA* at MIT. Moreover, he is bored with his life as an academic superstar and breezing through his courses with little excitement (or success with girls). Impressing his nonlinear equations professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) with his outstanding intellect, Ben was offered a chance to join the clandestine MIT blackjack team. Ben initially declines, but with increasing pressure from Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), a current (and very seductive) team member, Ben caves in and joins the team, declaring that he would “quit after $300,000.” Through a trial by fire at a sketchy Chinatown gambling den, Ben performs brilliantly and is ceremonially welcomed into the team by all of the members – Micky, Jill, kleptomaniac Choi (Aaron Yoo), dazzling Kianna (Liza Lapira), and the hot-headed Fisher (Jacob Pitts). Through “17 weekends” in the City of Sin, Ben discovers the high-rolling life, explores his boundaries with women, and snubs his close friends back at MIT. Although Ben quickly makes enough money to cover his medical tuition and then some more, he must come face to face with the implications of his increasingly souring relationship with Micky Rosa, as well as the bitter reality of law enforcement – reincarnated as the cold card-counter-turned-cop, Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne).

* A lot of people made a big deal about Ben’s supposed “4.0 GPA” at MIT, which would be a B average here (because we work on a 5.0 scale). Although this might viably be a mistake on the movie producer’s part, it’s important to note that basically in terms of applying to grad school (especially med school), they will recalculate your GPA to fit into a 4.0 scale anyway, so I don’t think this is such a big error as people make it out to be.

General Observations:

* The movie is very loosely based on the actual book, Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich. Actually, aside from the basic premise of the characters, the card-counting method, and the fact that they traveled to Vegas and got in trouble with the authorities at the end, most of the side plotlines (and the major plot twist at the very end of the movie) are completely only present in the movie. To be completely honest, I would say that 75% of the movie is not based on the book.

* The movie is not shot on MIT campus at all. Most of the “in-school” scenes are filmed at BU. (see more detail below).

* The movie features THREE MIT alums who had credited parts in the movie. (see below)

Other Observations: (includes spoilers)

* Remember Professor Rosa’s lecture hall (where Ben has his nonlinear equations course)? That’s totally a BU lecture hall. Lecture halls in that format aren’t common at MIT (i.e. long table at each row with built-in swivel chairs). Exceptions: one lecture hall on the second floor of Building 4 and Sloan lecture halls.

* Random hallway with lots of students at one point of the movie – the hallway outside of Tsai Auditorium on BU campus. Shots outside of Ben’s dorm? Towers Dormitory at BU. Also, there are other shots of Bay State Road (one artery of the BU campus).

* “4-145,” the blackjack team room, should be one of the first-floor rooms of Building 4 here at MIT. Although the movie producers got the numbering system right, the numbers of the rooms aren’t stuck on the lower right of the glass panels of the rooms (especially not in Building 4 – they’re affixed to a placard next to the door). Also, we have a lot of recitations in Building 4, and the classrooms are definitely not laid out anything like that classroom in the movie.

* The three MIT alums in the movie: Colin Angle (iRobot co-founder), as Professor Hanes (I’m not entirely sure which professor he was…); Jeffrey Ma (the “real” Ben Campbell), as the dealer that Ben and Fisher kept referring to as “Jeffrey” towards the end of the film; and Henry Houh, as the Chinatown dealer (“winner winner chicken dinner!”).

* Confused about the “three doors problem” that Prof. Rosa threw at Ben? It’s the classic Monty Hall problem that people had made such a big deal in the past (and thus isn’t really that “difficult” anymore).

* I believe the “2.09 competition” that Miles and Ben were so obsessed about is loosely based on the 2.007 competition at MIT. But I can be wrong, since I’m not that mech-E or EECS focused.

* All the subway scenes utilized coach cars from the Red Line (you can actually see the “Swahili Guaranteed!” advertisement from the Boston Language Institute that’s still all over the Red Line in the movie).

* The subway stop that Jill had to get off at during the subway scene with Ben (“this is my stop”) is Quincy Center, on the Red Line. (I don’t know why Jill would have to get off at South Boston…generally, I don’t think MIT people would live at South Boston (it’s around 40 minutes by the T and South Boston has a high crime rate)).

* In all of the Subway shots, the train says that it’s “Express to Davis,” which wouldn’t make too much sense – Davis is the stop before the last stop, Alewife, and it wouldn’t make too much sense for an express train to go there instead of Alewife (does an express train even exist on the T?). Moreover, if Jill gets off at Quincy Center (South Boston while Alewife is the last stop to the north) and the train is going to Davis, it implies that Ben and Jill got on probably at Braintree or Quincy Adams (the southern extremes of the Red Line), which would raise the question of what they were doing there in the first place (again, people don’t usually go to South Boston from MIT).

(Confused? Use this map)

* Many MIT students don’t even connect their dorm phones, even though we do have one for each room (or you should…). We rely mainly on cell phones. Sturgess, then, might not had reached as automatically for the headset to get his “room service.” ;)

* People’s Republik, the bar where Miles, Ben, and Person X (forgot his other friend’s name) were drinking at, does exist and it’s close to MIT, at Central Square.

* The diner that the blackjack team was at (salt, pepper, mustard analogy)? South Street Diner.

* Check out the number of hoodies that the Boston people were wearing. Oh yeah. =D that’s Boston weather for ya.

* Check out the number of MIT gear that the blackjack team was wearing (esp Kianna’s cap – I don’t really know I remember it, but it just stood out – maybe because I don’t really see people wearing MIT hats, just sweaters generally).

* Although Cauchy’s dispute with his student about him “using” the student to achieve his own ends (the “you should get that eye looked at” argument between Ben and Rosa) may or may not be true, it is accurate that Cauchy had often been accused of plagarism on several counts. Controversy with Grassmann.

* The card counting system (“paycheck” = +15, “sweet” = +16, “witch” = +13…etc.) system that the movie uses finds its roots in Ben Mezrich’s original book. It is quite fascinating to see how they came up with that mnemonic to remember the count (the system goes from +1 to +18). I don’t want to repost it here, because I don’t know if it’s copyright infringement – but you should definitely check it out.

* At one point in the first meetings between Rosa and Ben, Ben states that he took orgo (presumably orgo I, 5.12), as a freshman (which many freshmen, including Paul, are doing, actually). Ben says he got an A in the course. If Paul does the same, then he’s as brilliant as Ben is! =p

* Jim Sturgess is British. Try catching him slip out of the American accent that he had to learn to play the part of Ben in the movie. ;) (he does it multiple times, especially with certain words)

Alright, that’s pretty much all I can remember off the top of my head about details from the movie that I thought was interesting.

General Remarks: (no spoilers!)
This movie didn’t open well to critic’s expectations (just check rottentomatoes), and I can see why. Compared to movies like Ocean’s Eleven or Casino Royale, 21 is more like a simple story of a bunch of college kids beating the system, rather than suave men and dashing secret agents coming in to disrupt a drug cartel or a corrupt casino mogul. The movie also plays to the “MIT nerd stereotype” (just check out Miles – he’s supposed to be “the geeky, uber-smart MIT student”), which is definitely not accurate for the majority of the MIT student population. But I just feel that a movie is a movie, and the purpose of a movie is to entertain. 21 does do a decent job at entertaining the audience, and I definitely did not think that this movie was a complete flop (just check out the very last frame of the movie – that scene was priceless). There might be some overexaggeration at times (as much as we would like it, not everyone at MIT is like genius Ben (though Bens do exist at MIT in real life =p), and our professors and students do not spend time trying to “beat the casino” through intelligence on a day to day basis (or maybe, a subset of MIT still does, one that I don’t personally know about =D)). But hey – who cares? MIT gets an awesome aerial pan across the Charles (with the dome and the Green Building in full sight), and Kianna’s gorgeous to boot. Win-win :)

Most Awesome Moment

When buying the tickets:

Me: I would like a Student ticket to 4:15’s 21, please.
Ticket Guy: Sure, I would need your student ID.

[hands over MIT ID]

Ticket Guy: [pause] So YOU’RE one of THOSE guys!
Me: =p

Prefrosh: Come to MIT and be “one of those guys!” We rawk. =D

50 responses to “21: The Movie”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Oh, my friend, you are a bit confused about the Red Line here. Quincy Center is not South Boston nor is it that far from MIT. I work at MIT and commute in from the South Shore. If I get on the T at Quincy Center, it’s about 25 minutes or so(assuming the T doesn’t get delayed-admittedly not a great assumption) to Kendall.
    I have known a couple of professors who lived in Quincy although, as you note, it’s less likely that MIT students would live in the area. South Boston’s rents are cheaper than Cambridge- Quincy not so much- which might be why some would live there. I’m also a grad student at BU so I’ll have to check out the movie- lots to recognize from both schools. I seem to remember stumbling over some large pieces of movie equipment on the sidewalk between Mem Drive and Killian Court a year or so ago- getting the iconic shots of the Dome. You really can’t beat Boston for variety- so, all present and future MIT students,have a great time at CPW!

  2. Marissa '12 says:

    I have yet to see this movie, but the book was awesome, so I definitely will at some point.

    I’m wondering if I found another factual error though: how could Ben have got an A in orgo as a freshman when freshman are on Pass/No Record?

  3. Tanmay '12 says:

    Ahhh… 21’s not released in my country and perhaps won’t release in the near future. I’ll have to wait at least another 124 days before I get to see it. *stares hard at the screen*

    “So YOU’RE one of THOSE guys!” — I like that. grin

  4. Lauren '12 says:

    Oh man!! Anonymous beat me to it – haha was going to say that Quincy Center is in Quincy, not in Boston – that part made me really excited, seeing as I am from Quincy and all grin. But you’re right, it doesn’t really make sense that he would be going to Quincy Adams or Braintree. Also, I think Alewife trains DO run express to Davis sometimes. I think usually during rush hour trains will occasionally randomly announce “This train will run express to ________”, which could be Davis, especially if it’s from Kendall or Central or something. This just means that the train won’t stop between X stop and Davis, which means that people who want to go to the stops between, for example, Kendall/Central and Davis have to get off and wait for the next train, which can be annoying. But that only makes sense for an Alewife train, not a Braintree train. Mmm I spend too much time on the T! XD

  5. Snively says:

    Nice entry, very well done. Although, about the lecture halls, there are actually quite a few lecture halls in that format on campus.

  6. Judy H. says:

    I saw the movie yesterday, but I think the book is still much better.

    the movie was a bit too long… more than 2hrs…phewww

  7. Anonymous says:

    Lauren ’12- I agree about the T and their ‘express’ trains. They usually occur when I have to be at work at MIT and, at Park St, they announce that the train is going express to Harvard. Then 90 million (I may be off by a million or two here) people have to cram onto the next train and no one is too happy about it. The joys of commuting! Good luck at MIT next year!

  8. milena '11 says:

    I was actually wondering if they’d shot it here. Seems like a lot of things were a bit off, but I think non-MIT people won’t be able to tell the difference. Although it might be funny to see tourists trying to find those rooms on campus and realizing they’re not the ones in the movie.

  9. milena '11 says:

    I was actually wondering if they’d shot it here. Seems like a lot of things were a bit off, but I think non-MIT people won’t be able to tell the difference. Although it might be funny to see tourists trying to find those rooms on campus and realizing they’re not the ones in the movie.

  10. Zach '10 says:


    Great post! my one comment is directed toward clarifying the course 2 part of the movie smile. the 2.09 competition would be most analogous to 2.12, Introduction to Robotics. 2.007 is indeed a robot competiton, BUT: 1) its an individual event 2) the robots are remote controlled, not programmed and 3) the materials and task are very limited. The robots in the movie seem too complicated, plus they all do their own thing, to be 2.007 bots. however, 2.12 is a team based competition, and the robots are programmed to be autonomous (although I think that course 2 and course 6 students team up and the 2s build while the 6ers program)

    so basically, 2.09 is probably based off of 2.12

    heres an example of things the class does

  11. Meghan says:

    Chris– I was born in Vegas too.. and now I’m going to MIT! We have something in common smile

  12. Anyone notice when Ben first meets the crew in 4-145, the cards switch several times (originally there are 5 face down, next there are 4 face up and there’s no longer a card in front of the professor.) That bothered me just a tad.

  13. My son (accepted EA) and I went to see the movie Friday night; he had an MIT T-shirt on. As we sat down, an older man turned around, looked at him, and handed him something. It was his 1958 “Brass Rat”! IMO, this moment was better than movie.

  14. Mgccl says:

    is there a lot of math involved in the movie?
    if no then I do rather watch kungfu fighting with no real plot xD

  15. David ('13?) says:

    “* Jim Sturgess is British. Try catching him slip out of the American accent that he had to learn to play the part of Ben in the movie. wink (he does it multiple times, especially with certain words)”

    When Sturgess says “Hahvahd,” is that more of a Bostonian or British accent? I had a couple good laughs over that word.

  16. Noelle says:

    After the bad reviews I was a bit skeptical, though still planning to see it. Now it doesn’t seem to bad at all, I guess I’ll have to see for myself.

  17. Anonymous says:

    PS was the best part of this entry. =D

  18. Paul Hoops says:

    I’ve programmed out a Monty Hall simulator in Scratch. Check it out at

  19. Paul Hoops says:

    Sorry, the above hyperlink failed. Chris, if you see this, remove the period from the end of it. Copy and paste it into your browser and delete the period.

  20. HA! I want an MIT ID to go to the movie with! Not having one at the mo’, perhaps fabrication…? Nah, no more hype about MIT students as criminals! wink

  21. mtm says:

    I was so tempted to wear my MIT shirt when I saw this movie, but didn’t want any potential staring. There weren’t that many people in the theater at that time anyways. I went in the afternoon.

  22. Judy H. says:

    I had my MIT shirt on, the one with MIT spelled in functions, and people in the theater were like. O___o MIT PERSOOOONNNNNN! Explain that stuff on the classroom chalkboard in the movie.

    good thing I knew a bit about nonlinear equations raspberry

  23. Paul says:

    @Chris: Way to put the pressure on me for 5.12, man. Time shall tell! :D

    @Omar: That was one of my favorite lines as well, the whole theater laughed at that.

    @Mgccl: Nope, not really. There’s a little talk about Newton and Cauchy, but the basic “math” involved in counting boils down to just adding and subtracting. (The probability theory behind blackjack is more complicated, but – Hollywood being what it is – that doesn’t make it into the movie.)

    @Paul Hoops: Awesome simulation – my only complaint is that you don’t unambiguously define the behavior of the host! wink

    @Judy: Nice!

  24. Sam says:

    The People’s Republik is in the movie? Okay, I’m ready to give it four stars right there, without even seeing it.

  25. Eirik says:

    Nice entry! But hey, a bit early, isn’t it? wink

  26. Anonymous says:

    muahaha, the ticket guy part is funny

  27. Isshak says:

    “Ben says he got an A in the course. If Paul does the same, then he’s as brilliant as Ben is! =p “
    Hear that Paul ? Chris is challenging you ! Now you have to get an A ^^

    “One of those guys” lol that is such a cool ad sentence. “MIT, one of those guys.”

  28. Isshak says:

    And the Monty Hall problem is such a classic ! We saw it last year when studying probabilities, and it’s my favorite math problem. (I remember the student not switching, and another one switching, and the one not switching getting a goat action figure!)

  29. Omar '12 says:

    I thought it was very entertaining. I laughed a whole lot and especially liked the quote “I have to go be social now.”

  30. Chris '12 says:

    Yea, out here in Texas, I wore my MIT shirt to the movies, and attracted A LOT of attention because of it. People came up to me asking “do you know those people?”, “Did that really happen?”, “Have you done that?”. Southern Hospitality= strangers are not afraid to bombard you with questions.

  31. Steph says:

    I went and saw 21 opening night and was entertained. I caught some flaws but it was an overall great film.

    lol @ “one of those guys”

  32. nakoruru says:

    I used to live in Porter Square on the Red Line, and yes… express trains do exist. Annoyed the hell out of me when I would try to get from Central Square or Harvard Square to Porter, and discover train after train just pass me by on their express route.

    We are, we are, we are, we are, we are the Engineers
    We can, we can, we can, we can, demolish forty beers
    Drink rum, drink rum, drink rum all day, and come along with us
    ‘Cause we don’t give a damn for any old man who don’t give a damn for us!

  33. nakoruru says:

    @marissa: Actually, back in those days (back when the actual MIT Black Jack team was still around), BOTH freshman semesters were Pass/No Record (rather than just being the first semester)…. if I am remembering correctly.

    It was, however, possible to waive your pass/no record privilege and go for a grade instead for the term. I knew a former classmate who took about 96 units each semester his freshman year (rather than the typical 48 – 54 units). In order to take so many classes and exceed the freshman credit limit, he had to waive his pass/no record privilege. Anyways, he got a 5.0 GPA (the bum!) Hence, why this guy who joined MIT as an class of 1997 undergrad ended up graduating in 1995.

  34. yukiko says:

    I saw 21 saturday with all my friends and loved it!

  35. Anonymous says:

    I waaaaaaaant to see this movie! Why must my town be so small?!

  36. Paul says:

    @Paul Hoops: Sorry! The Monty Hall problem changes drastically depending on the behavior of the host. The “classic” version of the problem (the one in the movie and your simulation) only works if the host knows what is behind each door in advance, and if the host only ever opens a door with a goat.

    Most of the time the problem is asked, the host’s behavior isn’t explicitly, unambiguously defined – this is part of what causes the confusion surrounding the problem. As my winking smilie hopefully indicated, I was actually trying to make a bit of a joke with you, sorry if I wasn’t very clear. ^_^

  37. Paul Hoops says:

    @ Paul
    OK. I understand, now. Thank’s for the redefinition.

  38. Greg says:

    Quincy Center station is not in South Boston. It’s in Quincy, MA. That’s like saying Cambridge is North Boston. Quincy is not known for its high crime rate

  39. Greg says:

    And also, was Ben Campbell completely ineligible for financial aid (loans) ? Did he forgot to fill out his FAFSA or something? There are ways to get money for education that do not involve scholarships or Vegas.

  40. Paul Hoops says:

    @ Paul,
    Whoa, there, MIT. I’m not one of you (yet). Those are some big fancy words for a high school junior. Could you simplify your above comment for me?

  41. Anonymous says:

    regarding the scenario at the ticket booth:

    you mean to say that you didn’t reply with a snide remark and offer a “friendly” game of blackjack after his shift was over?


  42. keshav p says:

    @ marissa:

    First semester is on a Pass/no record system.

    Second semester is on a A/B/C/no record system.

  43. Rachel'12 says:

    Haha, I was wondering why they used Monty Hall, it’s way too classic, but I guess it makes sense if the setting was in the early 90s?

    Yeah, the stereotyping was kind of inevitable raspberry

  44. daniel k says:

    I went to go see this movie the first day and I almost cried because I’m rejected.

  45. 21 is a pretty awesome movie. I would have liked it though if they took more time to actually go into how to count cards in blackjack.

  46. Kay Bass says:

    Thank you SO much for posting all of this. I saw the movie yesterday, and could not figure out the Monty Hall thing for the life of me — so I got on-line to see if I could find out anything about it — and lo and behold — went to the link you provided, and now I get it. There is still something I don’t understand, though. Was the entire movie, the story he was telling the interviewer for the scholarship? Or did he go back for another interview. I thought that the reason he did the thing in the first place, was because he didn’t think he would get the scholarship. And since he told his mother he got it, I thought the story happened AFTER the first interview. But my friend said that the movie was the story he was telling at the original interview. Also, at the begining, he was talking about his robot project, which I wouldn’t think he would have done, since he was taken off of it. Thanks!

  47. kay Bass says:

    Greg, I had exactly the same thought as far as financial aid, since as a mother, I have filled out my share of FAFSA’s. I even whispered this to my friend, during the movie. My ex-husband went to medical school, and, believe me, paying cash for it, or getting a full scholarship, never entered our minds at the time!! I gave the book to my son a few years ago, but have not read it. Was this guy really a person? Did he ever get into med school? did he get the scholarship? Or is all of that the part that is made up… I just really liked this movie a lot! I get so sick of car chases and things getting blown up — I think that the chase scene in the casino was about as exciting as any in cars leaping over hills and under trucks!!

  48. John says:

    My brother (MIT’95,’97, Course 2) and I just saw the movie and thought it was pretty entertaining – much better than what Rotten Tomatoes gives it.

    Some comments/errors:
    – Harvard Medical School is about 50k/year including room (maybe 60k including other expenses) – so 240k max a year. But no one pre-pays medical school for all 4 years…
    – Some members of the original MIT Blackjack Team gave a talk at Next House last weekend at Campus Preview Weekend – hopefully somebody videotaped it…

  49. Henry says:

    Great post Chris. If you are looking for “Professor Hanes” or Colin Angle ’89 next time you see this movie, he is the one that presents the robotics competition award. iRobot provided the robot for the movie (as you note, Colin is the co-founder of iRobot). If you look carefully in the awards presentation scene, you will see a sign with “iRobot” on it, like they were the sponsors. iRobot, to those unfamiliar with it, makes the Roomba vacuum cleaner as well as many much more sophisticated robots.