Quint interviews actual card counter Jeff Ma about his life as depicted in 21!!
Published at: March 22, 2008, 3:32 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. This interview was a it of a surprise for me. I showed up for Jim Sturgess and Robert Luketic and had no idea Jeff Ma, the guy Sturgess’ character is based on, was going to be available.
It’s not a long interview, but we talk quite a bit about counting cards, having a film made about your experiences and just how involved he really was in the film. Enjoy!
Quint: So how are you?
Jeff Ma: I’m good, very good. How about yourself?
Quint: I’m doing well; the craziness of SXSW is just starting, so we’re just beginning.
Jeff Ma: Cool.
Quint: Have you ever done the film festival thing before?
Jeff Ma: No, I really have never done it. I’m very new to the whole Hollywood world, so this is pretty exciting for me and a little surreal. I’ve been doing interviews all do and I’ve enjoyed it. Have you seen the movie?
Quint: I have.
Jeff Ma: Did you like it?
Jeff Ma: It’s fun, right?
Quint: The aspect that I really liked about it was how they showed the counting process and how they made it easily accessible, like that scene where Jim sat down and he was looking at each card as they were coming out and he heard the numbers.
Jeff Ma: You know, I think they did a really good job at doing that and that part was very true to life. Any card counter that watched that would fell like “Wow, they did a real good job explaining something that is pretty difficult to explain well” and to think that they have got to do that in a sort of mainstream movie and not have half of the audience fall asleep… They did a good job.
Quint: So how involved where you in the filming?
Jeff Ma: I was pretty involved in the beginning, just in terms of when they created the general concept and then the first screenplay that they had written, Peter Steinfeld that wrote it, spent a lot of time with us and with me to get a sense of what we were like and that was really cool to be a part of that and then as the screenplay sort of evolved, I was less and less involved and then… You know, I’m not a movie maker and I don’t really know what that takes, I’m just someone that had a fun thing happen to them and did a fun thing and so I try to help out along the way as much as possible, but tried to stay out of the way.
Quint: What about when they were shooting? Where you there?
Jeff Ma: I was on set a bunch of times and I have a cameo in the movie.
Quint: Oh yeah?
Jeff Ma: Yeah, I’m a dealer. You know the scene where they knock the table over? I’m the dealer in that scene.
Quint: When Jim comes in and knows you because he’s been playing there so much, right?
Jeff Ma: Yeah, that’s me.
Quint: I remember that.
Jeff Ma: So that was a lot of fun and it took two days to film that, so I was on set for the two days and it was pretty fun. I was on set a bunch of other times, but nothing… It’s not like I was sitting in the director’s chair making adjustments. I was just there and if Robert [Luketic] had a question or if one of the actors said “Hey, how do we do this or say this?” That’s all I was there for.
Quint: That’s cool. Jim [Sturgess] was saying that he ended up playing a lot of blackjack because you couldn’t, so he was filling in when they were playing for leisure afterwards.
Jeff Ma: Yeah. I remember the first night I was there I kind of screwed around a little bit with some of the producers, Dana [Brunetti] and Mike De Luca, and play a little bit and then the next day I came on a set to film my scene and one of the casino people walked up and said “We heard you were playing blackjack last night” and I said “Oh yeah…” He said “You’re the guy that this movie is about, right?” and I said “Yeah.” He was like “You can’t play blackjack here.” I was playing like 25 dollars a hand, so it’s not like it was a big deal…
Quint: So are you pretty much banned from every casino now?
Jeff Ma: Yeah, I definitely can’t play… Well not banned from the casinos, but I can’t play blackjack in most casinos so…
Quint: But craps and poker…
Jeff Ma: Yeah I can screw around; I just can’t play blackjack.
Quint: Do you miss it?
Jeff Ma: You know what’s really funny? Have you seen SUPERBAD?
Quint: Yeah I have.
Jeff Ma: You know that whole line when they look at each other and they say “WE don’t miss each other.” Every time my friends and I say anything about “miss,” I also want to say “I don’t miss blackjack,” but no, I really don’t miss Black Jack. I mean the first time in a long time that I missed Black Jack was when I was screening this movie on Monday, up in Boston, and Jim was sitting next to me and I turned to Jim in the middle of the movie and I said “God, this is actually making me want to play blackjack again…” I really love the end of the movie, like how just having him come back in that office and sit down with the guy… I love that end of it.
Quint: How close was it to real life?
Jeff Ma: The story line has changed drastically, like my dad is alive and I wasn’t… I think that for a while it was weird to me, but then I realized it’s not really a movie about me. It’s not like an autobiographical documentary about my life. It’s a cool movie about stuff that we did and a lot of the stuff that we did is very on point and true in the movie, but the storyline has changed quite a bit.
Quint: Were there any instances that were bang on exactly what it was like either in learning counting or the execution of it or the feeling of being in the moment?
Jeff Ma: There were a bunch of things. One is like the transformation that Jim goes through from being a nerdy MIT guy to all of a sudden being able to land Kate Bosworth as his girlfriend… That was something that definitely happened to me through the blackjack experience, where I became much more confident in what I was doing. The first scene where they fly into Vegas and he looks out the window and sees the lights and everything like that, that was a feeling I certainly remember. That one scene where he is lying in bed and he calls and tries to get room service and he’s in his dorm room, not a hotel… Those kinds of things just happened all of the time, because of the craziness and sort of duality of our lives.
Quint: What about the big departures? I mean obviously they changed the race of your character.
Jeff Ma: You know what? I don’t know if… For me it wasn’t a big deal, because for about three years people had been asking me who I wanted to play me in a movie and I never was saying like “John Cho” or “Chow Yun-Fat” or “Jackie Chan…” I really wasn’t and I mean if I asked you who you would want to play you in a movie, you wouldn’t be thinking “I want the most similar person,” but you would be thinking ”Who’s cool?” or who do you think would personify your personality or who is a good actor or who is talented, so as much as I think people like to look at it at face value like that, the reality is if you ask anyone who they wanted to play you, it wouldn’t necessarily be “Who’s the most ethnically tied to me?”
I could ask three people who they want to play them and at the end I’ll ask them “So what ethnicity are you?” and they wouldn’t even know probably.
When Jim came to me for the first time, he took a lot of time to get to know me and throughout the process he really has and I don’t think many actors would do that, so I think I will always be happy about him as a decision and the cool thing too is that he’s not a huge name yet, so if he becomes a huge name, hopefully a lot of it will be because of this movie and for that reason we will sort of be forever linked together. You know what I mean? It’s like let’s imagine that Tom Cruise from RISKY BUSINESS was a real character, how cool would it be that Tom Cruise got his start from the movie that was about you?
Quint: It seems like he kind of emotionally got…
Jeff Ma: Jim?
Quint: Yeah, Jim, emotionally got the character.
Jeff Ma: Yeah, I really think he did. I think he did a great job. I think he is a great actor, so…
Quint: He’s very likeable. He’s very much the type of person you would see in the movie and just want to hang with. I have a younger brother who is in high school now and all of his friends saw ACROSS THE UNIVERSE and they all worship the ground he walks on.
Jeff Ma: And he is a great guy, too, you know? He is just that great in terms of his thing.
Quint: Cool, so what is next for you? What do you do for your day job?
Jeff Ma: I started a company with sports media and it centers around fantasy, but also some other aspects of sports media. We have a video out up on the website now called “doubleclayTV” where we teach people how to card count in similar ways to what we did in the movie.
Quint: That’s cool.
Jeff Ma: Yeah, it’s fun.
Quint: Now counting cards for… Do you think anybody can learn, like on a smaller level?
Jeff Ma: I think so. I don’t want to say anybody, but I think a lot of people can and then it’s just a matter of practicing and getting good at it.
Quint: Does it make a big difference going from a single deck counting to a few of them?
Jeff Ma: No. There are a lot of reasons that it matters, but they are probably not the reasons you would think, so yeah there are a lot of ways that… Card counting is not harder with more decks, but it’s more valuable to play the single deck, but often at single deck games they change the rules and it makes it harder to win.
Quint: OK, so all of the gambling places have gotten wise.
Jeff Ma: Yeah and that was well before the book or the movie ever came out. They just kind of got wise and just thought “Hey this is a good opportunity to tell our story.”
Quint: So what’s in the future then?
Jeff Ma: I don’t know. I’m kind of just going to see what happens with all of this. Right now I don’t have some master plan or agenda other than just sitting back. I really just want to see how it all turns out and have fun with it. I mean I do speaking engagements now that are fun. I get paid to go speak to corporations about my life and that’s a blast and meet some great people there and hopefully the movie does well and there are more opportunities for me down the road.
Quint: Are you still traveling with the film?
Jeff Ma: Yeah, I’m traveling to Chicago and then to Vegas next week for the big premiere.
Quint: That’s cool. Where in Vegas?
Jeff Ma: Planet Hollywood and it should be a lot of fun.
Quint: That’d be cool. I’ve never been to the theater at Planet Hollywood. Been to the Palms theaters before, but I’ve never been inside the Planet Hollywood Casino.
Jeff Ma: Well, they actually bring in the equipment and I have heard it’s pretty amazing, so I’m excited. I think twelve hundred people can fight in there or something.
Quint: Really? That’s cool.
Jeff Ma: Yeah, it should be a lot of fun. I’m excited for it. My parents are coming out for it. My sister and things like that, but people like us… When do we ever have a chance to go to a movie premiere?
Quint: Especially one where you are the center of attention.
Jeff Ma: You know to be honest; I don’t think my sister even cares about that. I think she just wants to come to a movie premiere.
Quint: To meet the famous people and see the photographers…
Jeff Ma: Yeah, see the whole red carpet thing.
Quint: Cool, well I think that’s about all I’ve got man.
Jeff Ma: Great.
Quint: Thanks a lot for sitting and talking to me.