Games of chance – be it poker, roulette, blackjack, or other casino games – can be useful narrative devices for movies. They allow the director of the film to instill a sense of tension, risk, and suspense in the audience. Sometimes, these games are essential to the plot, such as the poker game in casino royale, whereas other times it might be useful as a standalone scene or to introduce a character trait, such as the poker game in The Sting.
As arguably the world’s most popular casino game, blackjack is often shown in the movies. But do they portray it accurately? Sure, sometimes. But more often than not, they give a misleading idea of what it is to play the card game. That’s not a criticism per se, as movies often give a false impression of everything from firing a gun to how people converse. But it’s interesting to point out what they get right and what they get wrong about the game of blackjack.
Movies generally exaggerate casinos
To start, we can say that in general movies tend to give the wrong impression about the atmosphere in casinos generally. The burly pit boss is not watching your every move, and there is not a nefarious casino owner. Again, this is a device to build tension or convey jeopardy. The evil casino boss steeped in crime is a throwback to the earliest days of Vegas (as seen in The Godfather). Moreover, casinos are generally less raucous than is shown on screen. You’re not going to get thrown out for winning a few hands, but you will be asked to leave if you are too drunk.
As for blackjack, the best place to start is with Barry Levinson’s Rain Man. It wasn’t the first movie to show blackjack, but it was one of the most memorable for showcasing the game. The premise was that Charlie Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman) was an autistic savant, and he went to the casino at the behest of his brother (Tom Cruise), winning a fortune through counting cards. From this, three misconceptions arose. First, counting cards was hugely difficult; it isn’t (see below). Second, that counting cards is somehow illegal; it isn’t. And, importantly, being good at counting cards guarantees success; it doesn’t.
Card counting as being within the capacity of geniuses only has popped up again and again, including (very briefly) in The Hangover. It’s a skill that can be learned relatively easily. All you need is a system to track high cards and low cards, which you can do as easily as creating one for learning phone numbers. You may want to learn all you can about blackjack online first, but we are talking about something that can be picked up in a matter of days. Of course, in saying that, someone can be good at card counting, whereas some can have limited skills.
Card counting can be easily learned with practice
But that leads to our second question – how effective is it? Card counting can give you an advantage, as blackjack is a game of statistics, but it is only marginal. Blackjack is an “attritional game”, meaning players will look to win six games out of 10, building up profit over time, days and weeks perhaps. Casino movies tend to show card counters winning a fortune over a matter of hours. Card counting is designed to turn the house edge – extremely low for blackjack – slightly in your favor. It’s not illegal, or even frowned upon. It’s simply an astute tactic.
As we mentioned, blackjack is attritional. The idea is that you win more hands than you lose over a session. We have seen many films – License to Kill being the biggest culprit – portraying it as a zero-sum game, where it builds up to an all-or-nothing scenario. Eagle-eyed card sharps have pointed out that there is an unrealistic number of low cards in the games. An expert did the math, suggesting that the cards dealt to Bond (the majority being 8 or above) would have a 1 in 138,255 chance of appearing in a real game. As an aside, License to Kill is also guilty of providing us with a portrayal of the omnipotent casino boss.
How about a realistic depiction of blackjack on screen? Perhaps the one that gets it right is the underrated gem, Swingers. Blackjack only plays a minor role in the movie, but it serves to develop character traits in Mike (Jon Favreau) and Trent (Vince Vaughan). The former is nervous and intimidated at the table, whereas the latter urges Mike to be aggressive. The game provides a microcosm for insight into these two characters.
As for how the blackjack game plays out in Swingers, it feels realistic – aside from the grumpy croupier. Trent encourages Mike to double down on 11 (sound advice), and Trent’s reluctance to place the extra bet of $200 resonates with real viewers – it’s a lot of money. Trent ends up losing, and it deftly shows that fairytales are unlikely to happen at casinos. Blackjack is about cold hard numbers, and they don’t always do what you think.
Blackjack appears in many movies, and, as we said, it and other casino games can offer the director an easy way to build tension and drama, or even develop characters. Sometimes its depiction is preposterous (The Cooler), or it might throwback to a casino industry no longer exists (Martin Scorseses’ Casino). But we can find some truth in blackjack movies, including 21, which tells the real-life story of the MIT Blackjack team. But whether you win or lose, remember that it rarely plays out the way you see in the movies.