I recently had a discussion with a colleague of mine that orbited around the Hollywood portrayal of gamblers, and the casino culture in general. Specifically, how wrong the writers get it when determining how advantage play actually goes down in casinos. In general terms, the Hollywood description is romanticized to the point where anyone who actually has had any type of success as a professional gambler merely shakes his head in disbelief. Here I’ll look at a few of the myths that are forwarded by some of the movies, then discuss how things really are. Finally, I’ll explore some of the reasons why these misconceptions are put into the movies.
In 1988, MGM released the feature film Rain Man. The movie focuses on an autistic man played by Dustin Hoffman. A central theme in the film takes place in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace. In the film, card counting is used by Hoffman’s character to win copious amounts of money from the casino in a short period of time. Tom Cruise’s character determines that Hoffman’s character is able to memorize which cards have been played and which cards are yet to be played. The misconception peddled by the movie in this case is that every card must be memorized for card counting to be effective.
It is well known that all of the cards need not be memorized. The only thing that needs to be kept track of is the proportion of high cards to low cards (using the high-low system). When a preponderance of high cards remain, it benefits the player. This is the case for three reasons. First, double downs become more valuable (and a high card is usually desired when a double opportunity happens). Secondly, because naturals occur more often, and because the payout is asymmetric (player gets paid 3-2 when he gets a natural, and player loses only his original wager if the dealer gets a blackjack), this benefits the player. Lastly, the player can alter his strategy, but the dealer is bound by the rules of the game to keep his strategy constant. These three factors give the player a distinct advantage when an excess of high cards remain.
The second movie that gets it wrong is the 2009 comedy The Hangover. Toward the end of the film the three main characters engage in card counting and win a substantial amount of money to pay the ransom to have their friend returned safely. After withdrawing a few thousand dollars from one of their bank accounts they proceed to play. During the play montage they show obvious plays that would never be executed by a professional. Some of the plays are the splitting of 5s and the splitting of tens. There is no situation in a counting game that calls for splitting 5s. The correct play is to double. But to be fair there are situations that call for spitting tens, but no professional ever does that because it draws way to much attention.
The last movie that gets is completely wrong is the movie 21, which is based on the escapades of the MIT blackjack teams. As many things in Hollywood are, it was over-the-top false. Throughout the movie, the players on the team were constant winners. They never lost a session until the point at which they decided to stray from the system. Any player will tell you that this never happens and results aren’t even mathematically relevant until the number hands approaches approximately 10,000. Any results before this number are just noise and players should expect to experience all sorts of ups and downs before this amount of play is reached. That is just the nature of the game.
These three examples of how the movies get it wrong beg the question: Why is this an ongoing theme in Hollywood movies? The likely reason is it provides entertainment value to the movie patron. Another possible reason is that in order for the studios to be granted permission to use these locations, the casinos insist that such misplays be incorporated into the storyline so that viewers are induced to mimic what they see on screen and lose more money. This is more plausible when considering studios like MGM, because they own several casino properties around the globe and its return on investment can be hedged with the bad play promoted in the movie.
The actual reason is probably some composite of these two scenarios as well as some unrealized reasoning. The truth of the matter is the life of a professional advantage player is very tempered and very calculated. Most of the time, APs are focused on playing and trying to blend into the casino environment. The objective is to NOT draw too much attention to yourself, and more specifically to try to fly under the radar of the pit bosses and surveillance. This is a complex task, as the player has to put on a convincing act while maintaining perfect concentration and, more importantly, having complete awareness of what’s going on in terms of being evaluated by casino personal. It’s vital that potential APs realize that what they see in the movies has almost no relationship with what actually happens during real play.