A card-counting system that led to millions of dollars in winnings…A chance meeting between two men at a party in Boston...Two whirlwind months in Las Vegas…A best-selling book...An impromptu phone call from Kevin Spacey…The release of a Hollywood motion picture that has "blockbuster" written all over it.
In its abbreviated form, that's the sequence of events that changed the lives of Ben Mezrich and Jeffrey Ma.
Later this week, when the motion picture "21" premieres, Mezrich's and Ma's story will be the world's to see, rather than just read. The movie is "inspired" by Mezrich's best-selling book "Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions." The book is an all-encompassing story about the secret life that Ma once lived as a card-counting extraordinaire. It's a delectable tale, one that features gambling, sex, multiple trips to Las Vegas and money. Lots of money.
But the manner in which this entire scenario came about is just as intriguing as the actual story line of the book and movie. There were plenty of coincidences and surprises along the way as well as a bond that was formed between these two men that will resonate for years to come.
"We're kind of tied together forever by this whole thing," says Mezrich, who, since the release of "Bringing Down the House," has gone on to write three other best-selling non-fiction books that all follow a similar path. "It's changed my career dramatically and it's definitely changed Jeff's life. We'll be linked together forever, in that respect."
But, just like a good book, let's start at the beginning. Because without Jeffrey Ma and the rest of his MIT blackjack team, there is no best-selling book and certainly no movie.To the million or so people who have read "Bringing Down the House," the name Jeff Ma doesn't mean much. But mention Ma's alias in the book – Kevin Lewis – to one of those readers, and you'll be sure to get a rise. Just ask Ma, who gets peppered with questions the minute he is unmasked as the central figure of the book.
"It happens all the time," Ma says with a laugh. "I don't mind it. It doesn't bother me. In fact, it's kind of flattering that so many people want to ask me about it."
The title of the book says it all. While attending MIT, Ma, who used an alias in the book because he wasn't sure what the reaction would be, is recruited to join a blackjack team at the school that is funded by a former professor. The group makes regular visits to Las Vegas and other casinos around the world and uses an intricate card-counting scheme, working together to take the casinos for anywhere between $3 to $5 million over the course of four to five years. But a divide amongst the team develops and, in the end, they are ratted out by a source that is still unknown to this day. Casinos eventually start to bar the team from playing and along the way there are plenty of dicey moments.
"It was a crazy time of my life; it's almost like it wasn't really happening," says Ma, who graduated from MIT in 1994 with a degree in mechanical engineering. "While we were going through the whole thing, it always seemed like it would be a great idea for a book or a movie. But you never think that something like that would ever really happen."
Once Ma decided to retire from the card-counting business, he went on to try and lead a normal life. He worked as the technology lead for a couple of Internet startups and was an options trader on the Chicago Board of Options Exchange. But the concept for a book/movie was still brewing in his mind, and when he met Mezrich, he decided to offer up his idea.It's not that Mezrich was some fledgling writer living paycheck-to-paycheck before he became familiar with Ma and his remarkable story. The New Jersey native and Harvard graduate had already finished a few novels. One of them, "Reaper," was made into a television movie starring soap opera heartthrob Antonio Sabato Jr. Mezrich had also written a stand-alone thriller for the TV show "The X-Files."
"I was having varying success," he says. "But nothing like what came about after 'Bringing Down the House.'"
The character in the book named "Jill," who was a member of the MIT team, was a common friend of Mezrich and Ma. She went to Harvard with Mezrich and introduced the two on a couple of occasions. One night at an Oscars party in Boston, Ma pitched Mezrich with his story.
"I didn't know what to think at first," Mezrich says. "All I knew was that this kid had a lot of money for an MIT student."
"I think he was only marginally interested when I first told him," Ma remembers. "But then we took him to Vegas to show him up close (up) how it all worked and that got his attention pretty quickly."
Mezrich spent the next two months traveling with Ma to Las Vegas and, naturally, he was blown away. He strapped money to his body and nervously passed through airport security. He partied with high rollers, stayed in the most lavish suites the city has to offer and he won his fair share of money at the blackjack tables. In essence, he was living the life of Jeff Ma.
Mezrich spent approximately the next three months writing the book. At one point he remained in Vegas for nearly a month, staying at a different casino each night just to get a feel for the different aspects of each one. Simon & Schuster agreed to publish it and Mezrich was hopeful the book would do well.
A few months before the book was published, Mezrich wrote a synopsis of the story for Wired magazine. Somehow Kevin Spacey stumbled upon the article and was immediately intrigued. Mezrich was at home one afternoon when his phone rang and on the other end was Spacey.
"I didn't believe that it was him," Mezrich recalls with a laugh. "I talked to him for about five minutes, but I never really actually believed it was him. I just figured it was the MIT kids pulling a prank.
"I kind of laughed and took his number and told him I'd call him back. When I got off the phone I Googled him and was able to track down his assistant at the time, Dana Brunetti (who ended up co-producing "21" with Spacey and Michael De Luca). He told me that, yes, Kevin was trying to track me down and he was very interested in talking about buying the movie rights."
Suddenly, Mezrich had a good feeling about his new book. Getting a phone call from an Oscar-winning actor who wants to woo you with a movie deal when your project is still in manuscript form is a decent sign that good things would follow. And they did. "Bringing Down the House" spent 57 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has sold one million copies while being translated into 19 languages.
"We had no idea it would be such a big hit; I think the first printing was for about 12,000 copies," says Mezrich. "The whole gambling thing wasn't huge at the time. This was certainly well before gambling became so main stream and all the online stuff became so big. You didn't see poker on TV all the time."
But before the book even made it to the shelves, Mezrich flew out to Los Angeles to meet with Spacey to see what he had to offer. His first night on the West Coast, Mezrich was a guest of Spacey's at the Playboy Mansion.
"He kind of had me sold right there and then," laughs Mezrich.
The movie: "21"
This Friday, five years after that fateful phone call from Kevin Spacey, "21" will makes its premiere when it opens the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas. The film, which is a Columbia Pictures production, is scheduled to be released in U.S. theaters on March 28. In addition to Spacey, the film also stars Laurence Fishburne, Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess.
Both Mezrich and Ma had their fair share of input as the movie was written and filmed. They both spent time on the set and Ma has a cameo in the film as a blackjack dealer.
Ma spent a lot of time with Sturgess, the actor who portrays him in the movie, while the director, Robert Luketic of "Legally Blonde" fame, hung out with Mezrich for two weeks before the movie began filming some of its scenes in Boston.
As he stood on the set of "21," Ma got the same feeling he got when he first read "Bringing Down the House."
"It was surreal," says Ma. "It's really a unique experience. You still don't believe it's really happening and then you sit down and read the book or, in this case, watch the movie being produced and it just blows you away."
In February, Ma was got a chance to see the movie at a private screening where he sat right next to Fishburne, who plays the head of a casino's security team.
"It's a fun movie to watch," Ma says. "There's been a little piece of Hollywood thrown into the mix, but that's OK. Any time you take a seven-year span of my life and condense it into 300 pages and then you take those 300 pages and condense it into two hours, you're going to have to change a fair amount.
"But there are some scenes in the movie that are so eerily reminiscent of what we did and what we went through, it gave me goose bumps. They did a fantastic job of capturing the different moments at the tables and the amount of tension we were feeling. It's pretty amazing."
Mezrich is also thrilled with the finished product.
"In my mind, getting Kevin Spacey involved from the beginning pretty much ensured that it was going to turn out great," Mezrich says. "He's a phenomenal guy. He's a genius. He really was a pleasure to work with throughout the entire process.
"I definitely feel very fortunate because not a lot of authors get to be involved with something like this. It's been a pretty amazing experience."
Since coming public with his identity, Ma, now 35, has worked the speaking engagement circuit where he "explores how to use quantitative analysis to improve business decision-making and the bottom line," according to his publicity agency.The San Francisco-based company was created in 2005 and dubs itself as "a fast-growing challenger in sports media." It features two networks: ProTrade, which is a form of fantasy sports where users buy and sell athletes in a manner much like the stock market based on their performance, and SocialSports, a social networking application on Facebook that "allows fans to share their sports passion by declaring their allegiance to their favorite teams."
Ma, who is also in the process of developing a series of blackjack videos that teach the basics of counting cards, is single and still travels to Las Vegas about eight to 12 times a year. His face is still well known by the casinos so he is barred from playing blackjack. But he enjoys the craps tables and wagering on college basketball and the NFL. He's also a pretty decent poker player, as Mezrich can attest to. In February when Ma was back on the East Coast, he won a poker tournament that was organized as part of Mezrich's birthday weekend.
"I still love to gamble; that hasn't changed," says Ma, who also recently launched the Web site, www.kevinlewisblackjack.com. "It's just that I can't play blackjack anymore."
Can the game still be beaten?
"Absolutely," he says without hesitation. "It's more difficult these days and not necessarily because of the book, but because of how much my team and the other MIT teams hit the casinos. But with the right mix of smarts and patience it can still be beaten for sure."
As for Mezrich, it turns out that "21" won't be his last foray into the movie business. Spacey has also bought the rights to two of Mezrich's other books: "Rigged: The True Story of an Ivy League Kid Who Changed the World of Oil, From Wall Street to Dubai" and "Ugly Americans: The True Story of the Ivy League Cowboys Who Raided the Asian Markets for Millions." Mezrich will act as the executive producer for "Rigged."
In addition, Mezrich's other best-selling blackjack book, "Busting Vegas: The MIT Whiz Kid Who Brought Casinos to Their Knees" about another blackjack team that played right around the same time or before Ma's group, is also under agreement to head to the big screen.
All three of those books required the same kind of up-close and intimate research that Mezrich conducted with Ma for "Bringing Down the House."
"When I research my books, I become part of the person I'm writing about," he says. "I think people like the books because they read like a thriller, but they also happen to be a true story. I also think they are about a lifestyle that we'd all like to live. There are casinos, money and Las Vegas. The kind of life that's just one big party.
"Guys don't want to read about relationships or dating tips. They want to read about Vegas."
Mezrich, who got married last year, lives in Boston, but is constantly traveling. He makes frequent trips to Europe and Asia and, yes, he's still a regular in Vegas, usually landing on the Strip at least once a month. He always gets a kick out of people who think he's a master gambler because of his books.
"I think doing all of that research helped me realize what it takes to be a better player, but I wouldn't say I'm better because of my books," he says.
Apparently, a certain group of poker players at a casino in early February would disagree with that statement.
Mezrich, who plays in a weekly poker game with some MIT kids and likes to occasionally play online, was sitting at a low-stakes Texas Hold'em table a few weeks back when he got the benefit of some good hole cards and managed to make all the right moves. He ended up cleaning out the table and winning $1,000. But then word somehow leaked that he was the author of "those MIT blackjack books."
"Everybody refused to play with me again," says the 39-year-old with a chuckle. "It was really amazing that they actually all thought that I was some kind of card shark. I just got up and left. It just wasn't worth trying to explain how ridiculous it really was for them to think that."
Mezrich recently finished a "futuristic" fiction novel about the Avian Flu. But he says his "bread and butter" are the non-fiction books where he actually lives the part of his protagonist.
In fact, he's working on another one right now.
"It's a secret so I can't say exactly what it's about," he says coyly. "But I will say this: It's got a Las Vegas theme."
Now there's a novel concept: Las Vegas, Ben Mezrich and a book. Somewhere, Kevin Spacey is smiling.