The revenge of the nerds — card counters take Vegas

2008-05-25 00:00

BLACKJACK (or 21) is a simple card game, the world’s most popular, the game people play in casinos. The player who gets closest to a score of 21 wins, otherwise the dealer does. The house always wins eventually, but it is possible to beat the odds by remembering what cards have already come up, if you have a system of keeping track that can evade detection.

Ben Campbell is a bright kid who has always wanted to attend Harvard Medical School. He’s been accepted, but how will he pay for it? His mother is a waitress and he has no father. What he does have is a really sharp brain.

So sharp that he catches the eye of a maths professor (Kevin Spacey) with a sideline in cards.

The prof runs a team who beat the Vegas odds for him. So the nerd who doesn’t know how to get a girl is lured into the group, which has two girls and two other boys. Some count the cards, others play for high stakes and everybody wins, especially the professor, who takes the control of a teacher to new levels.

Ben thinks he will make the money for medical school and get out, but even if they aren’t gambling, the casino rush gets to him — playing a rich kid who always gets the girl makes him feel invincible. So Ben loses track of who he is — the nerd building a robot car with his geeky friends, the sweet son — and is drawn deep into the card game, where trust is everything.

Even if you can’t completely follow how their system works, Ben’s arc from good boy to something a lot more complex is watchable. Apart from Spacey and Laurence Fishburne as a casino security “consultant”, the actors are new faces and Jim Sturgess as Ben is appealing.

The film is based on a true story of how a group of East Coast students did take the Vegas casinos for a lot of money. Real life was probably somewhat less strewn with twists and reverses than this story, but I was diverted.

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