I’m awesome. I wrote a book. It’s got little to do with movies. Download and read “Thank You, Goodnight” right HERE for free.
Note Bene: If anyone within the sound of my voice is anywhere near Phoenix next week then I cordially invite you to check out the Phoenix Film Festival. Normally a place where I went to see average or above par films the selection has genuinely ripened with age since its inception.
If you’re around you can see early peeks, and films I am amped to go preview before their actual release date in other theaters across the country, for flicks like Quick Stop’s exclusive THE ART OF TRAVEL, SON OF RAMBOW, FORBIDDEN KINGDOM and even a theatrical screening of FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF.
This will be my 4th year attending what I can only describe as an intimate festival and I am looking forward to finding a gem or two in this desert oasis so if you’re around these parts let me know.
Now, on to the column at hand…
I homogeneously suck at math.
It’s not some false sense of modesty I have about my abilities, believe me, but I am terrible enough at adding and subtracting that in order for me to graduate with my English degree I had to complete the bare minimum of math competency, MAT 101, aka College Algebra. I was, and am, plum terrible at realizing anything that has to do with numbers. That said it is movies like 21 that puts me face to face with this eternal truth about myself and I suck wicked bad at these things.
Opening today, 21, based on Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction book ‘Bringing Down The House’, stars Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne and Aaron Yoo and deals with the Hollywood retelling of how a pack of young upstarts started to turn the proverbial tables on the casinos.
Talking with one of the stars of the film, Aaron Yoo (DISTURBIA, ROCKET SCIENCE), I was reminded how nice it was to talk with an actor who became familiar with the material and just interpreted the role in a way that embraced the nature of what these young men and women were out to accomplish. Further, even beyond 21, Aaron has the kind of casual, breezy conversational way about him that I was struck by how verbose he was. Too many times you can get caught with an actor/actress who wants to stay on point and will not waver and will give you short, pointed answers bereft of anything special. Aaron is a giver. He expounded and I was more than happy to let him run with it. In fact, the conversation doesn’t even begin talking about the movie but his thoughts on Moment of Truth was too good to not include here as it leads into talking about the very real story behind this film.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: How are you doing?
AARON YOO: I’m doing well. How are you?
CS: I’m doing alright.
YOO: What’s going on? What are we talking about?
CS: Well, I think we’re going to talk about a couple of things. 21 I guess.
YOO: 21 – what’s that?
CS: It’s a prime number.
YOO: And legal age in drinking. My first arrest.
CS: Really?YOO: Wouldn’t that be a funny coincidence? Probably should have been for all sorts of things but no, I’ve never been arrested. I’ve managed to get away from them. I lived near Runyon Canyon in West Hollywood and there was this eclipse, full lunar eclipse, one night and we jumped the fence into the canyon and went to a high level on the hills in the park and police helicopters were sent in, and they were yelling, “Get the hell out of the park. You are trespassing.” We were people in a park. Made no sense – go chase a car.
CS: Every time I see a car chase on TV it’s usually some dude from LA.
YOO: I remember I was reading about that stuff before I got out here and I felt like obsessed about car chases and how absurd they are. They put these car chases on TV. If you are in a bar it’s on TV so we’re drinking beer and watching the car chase. It’s ridiculous.
CS: Doesn’t anyone get it that there is a 100% failure rate? I almost feel sorry for these ignorant people who try to flee.
YOO: Yeah, they are really stupid or they are the same people who go on that show Moment of Truth. So desperate for attention – certain level of stupidity to get on the show.
CS: I’m embarrassed that I watched it last night.
YOO: I seldom see the show, but I’m obsessed with it.
CS: I feel it is the visual decline of western civilization.
YOO: It is. We have hit rock bottom. Sacrifice your child….but no one should ever see it. The original show, the European show….they said that it got canceled because they asked this woman a question “Would you ever put a hit out on your husband?” and the lie detector went nuts. Come to find out that she hired somebody to kill her husband.
(I laugh)It’s ridiculous.
CS: There needs to be more of that. You just have to spin it in your own mind that these people should make us feel better about our lives.
YOO: At least we are not them.
YOO: Rational. But yeah, it sort of speaks to the movie. That sort of thing. If someone gave you an opportunity. Class? Oh, “f” that. Here’s a ticket on the Vegas express, go be a pimp for 3 days and then come back to class…
CS: That launches me into asking you why these students are so special. Why were they so successful? Anyone with a math kind of brain could have figured it out. What made them so different?
YOO: Part of it isn’t just math.
They kept joking – I heard a rumor there was some concern from casino owners that those who see the movie would learn how to card count and whatnot. But you can pick up an actual book fully explaining how to card count – we just simplify it. The actual rules are still the same but we use a very stripped down version of a plus and minus system. They don’t get that complex but they are very hard to – if you’ve ever tried to count through a deck at the speed that a casino dealer is going to deal cards out to you it’s extremely hard. I’ve tried – it’s very hard to play and, at the same time, to maintain anonymity. I met someone who works as a producer in LA who has friends who still run a 12 million dollar team. They get 10 to 12 million dollars and, with recommendations, they train people for 6 weeks, like 20 people and do a three day test. If you screw up once in three days you are off. So you just wasted several weeks of your life. But when they end up with the 6 or 8 people that make it and it takes about 4 to 6 months before they are burned out through facial recognition software.
But in those 4 to 6 months they return a minimum of 50 percent – sometimes 100 percent. The crazy thing is these guys are being paid like bankers, like investment bankers. They get a base salary and a percentage. They are making money that people make on Wall Street. It’s just a little bit more glamorous. And when they are done they can go to some strip club or open a bottle of Cristal champagne poolside out at the Wynn. That’s really the major difference.
It seems like maybe it’s a combination of simple mathematical intelligence like a way – a gamblers demeanor – poker face – there’s a thing when you know the deck is hot through the roof, blazing hot, and we have this thing when we were shooting…just to kill time…there’s a thing in the movie where they associate numbers with words. Like a plus 8 is pool (like 8 ball) or a plus 12 count would be eggs (like a dozen eggs) so we used to try and come up with – there’s a little snippet that we knew would not make it into a Sony Pictures film but what the heck, we got to shoot it anyway, we were just messing around. This little bit – we have a new one and Jacob’s character says something to the effect of “What’s that?” and we said “statutory” and when he asks for clarification we said plus 17.
But it is just one of the things you do.
The reality is these guys go for a week and barely sleep. They fly in Friday after classes and start gambling Friday night, you hit the tables at prime time, 11 PM -Midnight and go all the way through to 10 the next morning – cash out, get some sleep, wake up, eat some food, and do it again. In some ways it an unhealthy lifestyle, but by the time you are home you are jetting home late Sunday night thousands of dollars up and really, really short on sleep. But what you’re doing is sitting at these tables for 12 hours sometimes.
Someone asked me if I was a good poker player and I told them truthfully that I’m good for 4 hours but then I don’t have the patience to be a really good poker player. Maybe it is something you learn. But I start taking risks after 4 hours just out of boredom and that is when you get canned. You throw into the pot that you shouldn’t be into that sort of thing. Just like in blackjack. It requires a lot of concentration and patience because, truthfully, for a deck to get hot like a true count of plus 6 or more you get so many shoes – even four or five people playing different tables you might get one hot shoe an hour if you are lucky or even two. And you play that in 10 minutes and make a lot of money. You go back in the bar and wait again. You stumble off, you bide your time. You have to keep alert and if you are a counter at a table for 12 hours. You switch tables and switch rooms. You don’t want to make it look like you are sitting at a table for 12 hours. You might even go to a different casino but it takes a lot of decisions. You have to be competitive too. You have to want to win. It becomes a need to make more money this weekend than you did last weekend.
I don’t care how grueling it becomes. We’re going to come out on top.
CS: Did you think that when you started to explore these characters, was it based on greed or was it based on something else underneath it?
YOO: Having met some of the guys and having my own understanding of some of these things, if you are just greedy, there are faster and easier ways to make money.
You can, if you just want money, you actually will make money faster by jumping on currency markets or even playing stocks or hedge funds. You can make really extreme investments with other people’s money that will make you a lot of more money a lot faster. There is just a dangerous thrill to this. Especially when these guys were playing before big corporations were buying up – like two thirds or three quarters of casinos are the MGM Grand. Back in the day before there were public traded companies owning all of these things, it was dangerous. It’s a competitive thing.
No one is going to beat the crap out of you for making a killing in the stock market.
But in the casinos, truly, like the amount of money these people take from the casinos – I had a friend who used to apprentice with Siegfried and Roy and the two weeks that those guys were not working, the casino grossed 2 million less a night when the show was dark because fewer people were coming in and gambling. They make so much money, these places, that what they were taking from them, as much as it was, which is all the card counters in the world are taking from the casinos, is a drop in the pond.
It’s just a competitive thing. “You are not pulling one over on us.” It’s bulls locking horns in each direction. The card counters go in there with like I don’t care how many cameras you have, I don’t care how many employees you have watching (there’s a security booth, a pit boss, a dealer) – and it’s like, “I’m going to beat you.” And then you have the casinos basically saying, “No, I’m smarter than you and there’s no way you are going to pull this off.” The kind of person who would do something like this is the kind of person who is missing something and it’s not money. A lot of the kids who go to MIT come from a lot of money. And what they are missing is – the character that I play, Choi, he is trying to find himself by everything that he is not supposed to be.
The person who values the things, how can I put this - he’s the kind of person who doesn’t care how much money you win or what that money is getting you or what that winning of it is doing for you. The game itself is the kind of thing he feeds off of most and I think that most of the people that did this fed off the winnings more than the actual monetary increments of what they were getting.
The majority of the money went back to the investors. So, for them, it’s like if you play basketball you know what your stat line is. It’s not that they don’t know what their scoring average is to the 10th of a point or a hundredth, but at the end of the day you care if you win but a part of you takes a lot of pride in the fact that this is what my scoring average is. So for these guys, yeah, I have to return all this money but part of it was I made X amount of dollars more this weekend than last weekend. That’s all they care about. It’s more money, especially at the age of 19 or 20 that they know what to do with but its more of a top dog kind of thing. So like people like my character, Choi, I think it was the bad ass factor of it. The fact is that you are going to cards because that’s the life you are supposed to have and you have this brain that is good at doing this plus you’re desperate for doing something dangerous.
CS: Did they get their fill at the end? These kids didn’t grow up and continue to be this way so how did everyone cycle out?
YOO: You think they grew up to be normal people?
That’s the weird thing. I bet you – I feel like all these guys probably thought I’ll do this for a few years and once I get my fill I’ll go to my normal life and normal job and then I’ll have those four years of craziness from when I was in college. But from what I know about where they are, what they are like…
Think about it – like you said, there are lot of people who have the brains to handle this…it takes a lot of dedication and takes a lot of other things…you might think you can at least handle the math of it. But, for example, when I was in high school and they wanted to find pole vaulters, they took the entire team and said take this pole and run full speed and then jump. Immediately 95 percent of the kids left. At least you have an option.
There is a scene in the movie where Jim’s character, Ben, gets led by Jacob Pitt’s character, Fisher, to team practice with him for the first time and the door opens and the room is dimly lit and it looks like a conspiracy of sorts. The vast majority of people would say “You people are nuts” and leave but that’s the whole point of it. What you want is people to come into a casino with hundreds of thousands of dollars and have the balls to play with the threat of either A – losing all the money or B – getting caught. You want the person who is crazy enough to say, “Oh, you want me to go to Vegas and gamble with hundreds, thousands, millions of dollars and doing something that is semi legal though not illegal but they will try to kill you for it if they catch you?” You want that person who would say, “Yeah, I don’t care about that, let’s just do it.” And those kinds of people those people don’t leave a normal life.
I think a couple of them have.
I think the girl that Jill is based off of…she’s a pretty stable one – job and everything. But I know a lot of those guys still go back to Vegas all the time. Even if they have normal jobs. Some of them don’t. Like the guy my character is based on is such a sketch ball – they love him but it’s like “We can’t get a hold of him. We think he’s in Boston. Maybe he tried to start another team but it’s like we started that way and it’s always going to be that way. ” Some of them did start another team but there is something at the end of the day something is missing.
CS: This opportunity didn’t start it, they already had it in them.
YOO: Yeah. It’s something they’re parents didn’t give them. It’s something their life growing up didn’t give them. Somebody said the same thing about actors in this town recently and they said everyone who comes here to LA chasing a one in a million dream – we are all missing something. It’s a little bit insane.
It’s a good point, actually. And I think these people really are missing something. I think they are the kind of person – I always look at it as a competitive thing. Someone like Michael Jordan, competitive as he is, is missing something. Probably still is. The hunger comes from somewhere. It’s not that you can’t be fed – it’s that you can’t get enough.
CS: Do you think this plan satisfied them? For the people who have written a book about it and come back the other side did it top them off like a fuel tank? Almost as if, “That’s what I needed to move forward.”
YOO: No, man. I know a couple of them and they – the fact that they can’t go back to those blackjack tables – you can see it in their eyes. They would rather be still playing. The cool thing is the guy that Jim’s character is based on, Ben, they still let him in the casino but they just don’t let him anywhere near the blackjack tables. He’s a high roller and he’ll just run thousands of dollars at a crap table but he would rather be at a blackjack table. It’s like all those things of like, “I used to be the best at this and now I can’t do it anymore.” Can you imagine that? It must just be crazy.
CS: Did these people operate on a different mental level? Like Aspergers syndrome – are they completely normal? Are their brains hardwired in a different way?
YOO: They are normal people – highly intelligent, but totally normal. It’s funny - you see a visible change when they walk into a casino. They are very charming, amiable people but you walk them into a casino and they are in their element. Something goes off and you see a spark in their eyes. They own the place. It’s really fascinating to see that. It’s one of the things we were playing with in the movie – little things like wardrobe and stuff like that – I’m pretty sure from what I read and my experiences when they were in Boston, they lived in pajamas. They didn’t brush their hair, they didn’t shower. They were late to class – just chilling. They were just normal kids walking the halls and, the characters we play, don’t stand out but you can see that we have a secret – the first time we roll into the Hard Rock – it’s on. That sort of thing. Not everyone but I think a lot of people get that in different ways. I have friends who are brilliant amazing magnetic actors and awkward in real life but on a stage they are amazing. They are just in their element.
CS: Do they need to be around it?
YOO: Do they need to be around it? I guess. It’s weird to say but someone’s mother said that every job has details and when you find one that you don’t mind the details and actually enjoy them, then that’s what you are supposed to be doing.
Everyone has a place where they are at home. Maybe because they need it or crave it or would you deny them that in a way? Maybe they are in their element when they are at a casino playing the house. They are the reason the casinos have facial recognition software. The shuffle machines – in the early 90’s when they were raiding the casinos, they didn’t have any of this stuff. Especially stuff like facial recognition software which was really high end military security technology and way beyond what casinos wanted to spend for security, especially with the amount of cameras and all that stuff. There wasn’t just one team and 6 guys. At MIT I’m told, there was 80 something people. There were a dozen team. They were in and out raiding. It was big business.
A lot of these casinos are old school. Like you’re not going to pull one over. It’s very easy to stop card counting. It’s sort of a game you play. If you are a card counter, hell, if you get a single deck dealer shuffle, but you can’t, but if you can get a four to 8 deck shoe dealer shuffle you can count that.
CS: Is it moot now to try and count cards, then?
YOO: Truly it is… the guy I was talking to about the team they set up with a 10 to 12 million dollar buy-in, they get new people, they pay them and they run them…they take them to river boat casinos to the Caribbean and Asia where there is less policing and technology is not as good and will run them and run them until they get recognized and once they get burnt they let them go but they all made a lot of money.
The people made a lot of money, the investors made a lot of money. Then they will wait a while a year and then create a new team. Back in the day, these kids would try and do it for several years. Card counters would make a career out of it. I don’t think you can make a living at it. It’s too difficult. The book I was reading about how to do it explained it in full detail. That guy avoids Vegas – the guy that wrote that book he doesn’t play in Vegas but there are places in the world you can go and it won’t be as difficult for you to play. Also, that system he was using was incredibly complex just to master that system. It can make you a lot of money but it takes a lot of brut brain power to wrap your head around just to master that stuff. I mean there are charts about player advantage percentages and all that stuff. We’d be rehearsing and I’d try to throw some of that stuff in and they said I was reading way to much of that book.
It’s difficult to make a career out of this anymore.
If you try to card count by yourself it’s almost impossible to do it successfully. The odds of getting caught are so high. The pattern you have to bet is so obvious. You bet when the count is high in your favor and you play the minimum or close to when it’s not. Any pit boss with half a brain can catch that. What made these guys so great is that they were able to separate the two things. Logically a simple thing but no one had thought about it before 1979 and….so I don’t know. I know people do still make money doing it. There are teams still out there. They don’t want you to think that but the funny thing is, what I’m curious to know is whether people think they can still do this after seeing the movie. There are teams still out there; it’s a lot in strictly an objective sense relative to how many people go to the casinos and gamble a tiny minute fraction of a percent is what people are touting but it takes a lot of work and dedication.
And counting is not illegal and people do it in different degrees.
There are professional blackjack players who are truly counting, even if they say they are not. You have a feeling and general sense of how many face cards have come up and how many low cards have come up, so you can know when the deck is generally in your favor. You can pay a little more attention and know when it’s in your favor and if they think they can catch you doing that they have no legal recourse but they can bar you from the premises. Back in the early 80’s 90’s there was still a big mafia presence in Vegas and there might be still but certainly not to the extent where you hear about people getting backroomed. But they did back then – people got backroomed. And that’s part of it too. It’s all happy-go-lucky, they can’t do anything to you but that thug can take you in the back and knock all your teeth out.
YOO: And if you go to these other places, they may not have face recognition software and may not be quite as savvy but if they catch you there are still places where they will backroom you. People go to Native American casinos and do this sort of thing because in general the casinos are not as high tech or savvy as the ones in Vegas. I know there are triad owned underground casinos in different cities around the world. And if you have the balls to go to one of those places and card count, you should get a prize.
CS: They just don’t have any fear? Or do they think they are better – no fear at all?
YOO: I don’t think people that people that do this sort of thing are commando crazy or whatever, I think that fearlessness comes from willful ignorance. If you want something so badly you sort of like in your own head you don’t mind the risk. I don’t think these guys are cliff jumpers and have no sense of self preservation but they want to win so badly they don’t think about the consequences. I think there is something in the movie about that that as well. Especially if you are 19 years old and somebody offers you that and you are hungry enough for it, you don’t even think about….”Yeah, yeah, yeah, we might get caught and blah blah blah we might get caught” and whatever …. until you get caught you never think you are going to get caught.
If you read Ben’s book or talk to them you can play two or three years and after a while you get the sense invincibility which is dangerous because then you start to takes risks that you shouldn’t. They guy that Jim’s character, Ben, is based on—we were at the Hard Rock and there’s a scene at the Hard Rock and he goes, “Yeah this is the..” What’s the name of the high roller room? “The Lotus Lounge.” The high stakes room at the Hard Rock, and we were in there doing a scene and he says this is the first place I got burnt out of. Way back in the day when it opened he was playing craps and he had lost 80 grand and was spending his own money and a little bit drunk and they didn’t know what they were doing really, they just opened, they could stretch their own rules because they were taking the Hard Rock to the bank they were still figuring out what they were doing – Anyway, he was drunk and walks into the high stakes room and says “I’m going to win my money back” and he sits at the table and knew the count was high, not even caring, and sits at this table and puts $2,000 which was the limit on every available circle and let it go for a few minutes and was raiding this table.
That is, until someone walked up and said, excuse me sir, you have to leave. So he got blacklisted out of the Hard Rock. Just stupidity. He was a little bit drunk and shouldn’t have been playing but he wasn’t being subtle about it. That’s just it….getting a little careless. Maybe you do need a Laurence Fishburne around every once in a while keeping your head on straight.
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