21A 31 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes is not impressive. It seems the critics didn’t like it.

But I was interested in the story of the MIT Blackjack Team as told in the movie ’21’. Although I’ve never gambled much, I’ve been intrigued by casinos and table games and odds and risk ever since my first trip to Las Vegas 8 years ago. Everything about a busy casino floor – etiquette, dealers, betting chips, the eye-in-the-sky, high-rollers, and the exchange of hundreds of thousands of dollars for the chance of increasing it – is infectious.

Pull up to the grand front entrance and they’ll park your car for you. Flash a twenty at the check-in clerk and you might get upgraded to a suite. Ask the concierge for anything. Order any food you can think of, 24 hours a day. Throw a dice and win or lose a fortune. Even the slot machines are interesting: observe how they are arranged for the disorienting effect as you walk through the labyrinth of the casino floor, how alcohol is served to the players ‘on the house’ for the enhanced effect (extra time on the floor = extra money for the casinos), how the sounds made by the slot machines are all matched up in the same musical key to provide a more agreeable atmosphere.

Blackjack is one of the few games in which the casino can be legally beaten by a skilled player. Why, then, do casinos still offer blackjack? The answer is that they’re betting you can’t beat them (literally). And actually, that’s a pretty good bet. The MIT Blackjack Team “…was a group of students and ex-students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Business School, Harvard University, and other leading colleges who utilized card-counting techniques and more sophisticated strategies to beat casinos at blackjack.” And that’s the point: it takes these kind of techniques and a very quick and mathematically-talented mind to pull it off.

A few weeks ago, I spent a weekend at a resort and casino in Nevada which served as my introduction to the game of blackjack. On the first night after dinner I went back to my room, switched on my trusty Apple laptop and found some blackjack tutorial videos on YouTube. Of course, card counting was out of my league, but I’d heard that you could win at blackjack consistently by playing a ‘perfect’ game. Half an hour later, we were on the floor, and found the lowest ‘table minimum’ we could, with $2 chips. (I’m cheap.) In the end, I played for maybe 25 minutes. I brought $16 to the table and left with $16, though a winning streak had me up to about $40 at one point. Hey, at least I didn’t lose it all.

On the other hand, the MIT Blackjack Team took millions of dollars from Vegas and Atlantic City casinos over a period of over 20 years. Card counting isn’t illegal, though if casinos guess that that’s what you’re doing, they’ll throw you out (or, as the movie portrayed but may be part of creative licence, take you into their basement to beat you the hell up).

Penn Jillette (comedian, magician, fellow libertarian, fellow ‘skeptic’, video blogger, Vegas resident) made a great point on his video blog after watching ’21’ with a friend of his who was part of the original MIT Blackjack Team. After saying that he doesn’t understand “paying another man’s game” and doesn’t get the claims that they were somehow “sticking it to the man” by card counting, Penn said that he thinks the upshot of this movie will be that millions of people who go to see the film will try blackjack, maybe try card counting (without the intellectual credentials to make it work for them), maybe visit Las Vegas for themselves, and lose spectacularly. The film, therefore, is one big advertisement for blackjack and casinos and Vegas, and the casinos will win back many times what they lost to the MIT Blackjack Team, which of course is what they’re best at.

The movie is technically not great (it suffers from a slow start, a lack of energy in parts and a slightly predictable script). But I’d recommend ’21’: it’s a great story, if somewhat embellished, and despite its flaws it does excite, and it does a great job of portraying the glamour of the world of Vegas high-stakes chance.

As for me, I’m not smart enough to pull off card counting, so I’ll have to settle for losing spectacularly. At least I’ll have fun doing it.