Those who saw the hit movie “21” with Kevin Spacey, or read the related book, “Bringing Down the House,” by Ben Mezrich, are familiar with the team of college students and the professor who regularly used mathematics to beat casinos and make a killing playing blackjack.
A real group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students was the inspiration for that book and movie.
Its leader, played by Jim Sturgess as the character Ben in the movie, is a real-life San Franciscan, Jeffrey Ma. Ma has written a new book, “The House Advantage,” that takes the math and statistical principals applied to winning at blackjack and applied them to business.
Some of his advice: Embrace data; past performance can sometimes predict results; think like a scientist; know what you’re doing. Just as a player uses a strict card-counting method to get an advantage in blackjack, you must be disciplined in business. Be flexible; play for the long term.
While he makes points about applying blackjack strategy to business, he weaves in numerous entertaining examples of his casino adventures to make a point — a friend who disregarded all the rules thinking he could beat a roulette wheel, and another incidence of escaping from some casino heavyweights after winning a bundle in Shreveport, La.
Beyond the anecdotes, Ma has included an appendix with a handy “basic strategy chart” for playing blackjack and an informative set of footnotes.
Ma grew up on the East Coast and loved it. As he transitioned from his college days in casinos into a businessman, he found the investors in his sports marketing business were on the West Coast. Though he missed the seasons, “After one year was up, I fell in love with San Francisco.”
On Sturgess playing Ma in the movie: “I didn’t have a lot of say in it. It’s not like I am Lance Armstrong telling the Lance Armstrong story. I cared most about having an actor play me who cared about who I was.”
When Ma and Sturgess shared a moment failing to light some illicit Cuban cigars — “from that moment on, we became good friends.”
Another Ma tip: Should you join a players club, which lets the casino track what a player is doing?
“It depends on what your goal is,” he said. “At the end of the day, if they think of you as a card counter, they’re going to track you down.”
If you want the comps, he says, use the card.
By Jeffrey Ma, Palgrave Macmillan, Hardcover, $26
Ma’s basic blackjack tips