Counting Cards In The Movies
There’s something about casinos that makes them irresistible locations for scenes in Hollywood movies. Of course, the glamorous surroundings are one obvious reason. They create a sort of fantasy land where anything is possible – and what could be more Hollywood than that?
As the films we’re about to discuss demonstrate, scenes in casinos are often pivotal to the plot and the action – as characters in desperate situations suddenly find redemption at the card table just when they need it most. While some of these characters try to tip the odds in their favour, some of them use card counting strategies in games of blackjack, and to a lesser extent poker.
What’s card counting?
For the uninitiated, card counting is a technique in which players look at which cards have been dealt, and then use deduction to predict what remains in a deck. These observations dictate their betting strategy, and can even lead them to pull out of the game entirely until the odds of winning become a little more favourable.
What players are looking for are situations when 10s or picture cards are more likely to be dealt – meaning they stand a greater chance of winning the game.
The person most widely acknowledged to have been the originator of card counting was the mathematician Edward Thorp, who published a book in 1962 that is still the bible of many blackjack players today. Titled ‘Beat the Dealer’, it followed on from a principle that forms part of every successful player’s armoury: Basic Strategy, which had been devised a few years earlier by four military men whose legendary status in the game has earned them the title “The Four Horsemen”.
Basic Strategy consists of a series of tables which show whether it’s statistically better to stick or twist in a player’s attempts to get as close as possible to reaching 21. This knowledge could automatically put a player at an advantage but, by adding card counting into the mix, it can further increase their chances of winning.
Although it’s come as a result of some very clever people working out the process, experts claim that you don’t need any real intellectual genius to succeed at card counting, just a great deal of dedication and practice. However, in some Hollywood films, these players appear to have some kind of special, innate ability that makes them successful at the technique.
The 2008 film ‘21’ is a prime example of this. It pits a team of highly gifted students from Harvard against Las Vegas casinos in order to use their huge brainpower to come out on top.
The main element of the plot concerns a medical student at the university who is drawn into the card-counting group because he needs to pay his fees. Card counting seems like the only possible way of doing this, despite his misgivings about doing it in such a morally dubious way.
Naturally, there are many twists and turns along the way, as well as a number of casino scenes and, although it’s not always clearly explained how the card counting is working, it’s clear that it is. Being part of a group of also shows just how this form of card counting can work in real life. In this, the team are divided into players and spotters. It’s the latter’s job to discreetly observe tables where card counting shows that those highly-prized tens and picture cards could be in the decks and then indicate to the players that it’s time to move in.
What makes ‘21’ even more interesting is that it’s loosely based on a true story about a group of MIT and Harvard students who used the technique with some success from 1979 right up until the early noughties.
Ten years before ‘21’ was released, the quadruple Oscar-winning ‘Rain Man’, starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, was one of the very first films to introduce the cinema-viewing public to card counting. Perhaps more realistically, it revolved around Hoffman’s character, Raymond, having a phenomenal ability to remember things thanks to his autistic thought processes.
In the film, he plays the brother of the Tom Cruise character, Charlie Babbitt, who has spent much of his life in a mental health facility until they are reunited after their father’s death when Raymond inherits all his father’s fortune. Failing to get his hands on any of Raymond’s new-found wealth, Cruise takes him on a road trip to Las Vegas where he’s determined to harness his brother’s incredible memory to win a fortune in the casino. Again, the details of just how the card counting’s working in the game are sketchy but we do see the chips steadily mounting up on the table.
One realistic feature we also get to see is the casino’s unhappiness at the practice being used so successfully. Because, although card counting isn’t illegal, it is frowned upon by casinos that suspect it’s taking place, as Ben Affleck discovered to his cost back in 2014.
In this 2009 tale of an epic stag weekend spent in Las Vegas, three characters – played by Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zack Galifianakis – need to urgently win $80,000 dollars to repay a gangster whose money they’ve lost.
Finding a paperback called ‘The World’s Greatest Blackjack Book’ in their trashed hotel room, they set off to the casino to card count their way to victory. The scene’s a clear parody of the ‘Rain Man’ version almost shot for shot – but played for laughs with complicated mathematical formulas materialising out of thin air around characters’ heads as they play.
In terms of teaching you about card counting, forget it – but if you want to watch a great comedy parody then this is the one to pick.
Of course, there are many more movies where card counting plays a part – ‘Stacy’s Nights’, ‘Breaking Vegas’ and ‘The Hot Shoe’ to name but three – and they’re all equally entertaining watches that demonstrate how card counting can help gamblers beat the casino.
But to learn how to card-count for real, you’ll have look somewhere else other than the movies.
Occasional writer and fan of video games and scifi TV shows!