Count her out

Jane Willis has kept her card-counting a secret for years. But with Kate Bosworth portraying her in the new film '21,' she's ready to talk about her blackjack-playing exploits of the past.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Shanahan
Globe Staff / March 25, 2008

Jane Willis was always a standout student. Her reputation as a math whiz was well known at Phillips Exeter and Harvard, where she graduated in 1991 with a lofty recommendation from Lawrence Summers.

But no one suspected how Willis was using those skills, and she wasn't about to tell. Even as a partner at a high-powered Boston law firm, she has kept her curious back story to herself.

"Sounds weird to say, but it just never came up," Willis says, sipping a draft beer in a hotel bar not far from her office at One International Place.

She might still be mum if not for "21," the new movie about MIT's celebrated blackjack team. Willis, it turns out, was a member of the card-counting cadre that beat the casinos and, later, inspired the best-selling book "Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions." In the film, which opens Friday, Kate Bosworth's character is based on Willis.

"Knowing Jane, I'm surprised she's talking," says Ben Mezrich, the author of "Bringing Down the House." "But, hey, Hollywood's making a big movie and you're played by Kate Bosworth. Why not?"

Hollywood hoopla aside, Willis consented to an interview, reluctantly, because her blackjack days are behind her. It's been a decade since she was a practicing card shark, and she's proud of her tenure on the team.

"We didn't do anything dishonest or fraudulent. We were good kids," she says. "It's totally legal to use your brain."

Willis, 38, who grew up in Mount Vernon, Ill., had never played blackjack when she joined the team in the early 1990s. Then a student at Harvard Law School, Willis and her boyfriend were both "math geeks." They were also friends with Jeff Ma, an MIT student who was one of the ringleaders of the school's clandestine blackjack club.

"Jeff would occasionally have an expensive bottle of wine or champagne, and it didn't make a whole lot of sense. Then he told us about Vegas," Willis says. "I think it dawned on him that we could play blackjack and also give the team, which was mostly Asian and male, a little diversity."

Like the book, the movie, which stars Jim Sturgess and Kevin Spacey, is a blend of fact and fiction. Willis, for example, attended Harvard, not MIT, and her role on the team was neither as prominent nor as profitable as the movie might suggest. But in one important respect, she says, "21" tells the truth: Beating the casino is a blast.

"Counting cards is a grind," Willis says. "But it's incredibly exhilarating to do. Walking into a Las Vegas casino and knowing that you're going to play a pit for 12 hours and you have an edge - that's a very exciting feeling."

Willis and her boyfriend, who later married and then divorced, began practicing with the team after-hours in a classroom at MIT. They quickly became proficient at counting cards, the act of tracking the ratio of high cards - 10s, face cards, and aces - to low cards in the deck. In blackjack, a deck with more high cards than low cards remaining improves a player's probability of winning.

In addition to being a skilled player, Willis had the advantage of being a woman. Security at Caesars Palace, the MGM Grand, and other Las Vegas casinos was always on the lookout for card counters but rarely suspected female patrons.

"I could almost count out loud and not get caught," she says.

Each member of the team had a role. Willis was the "spotter," which meant she counted cards until the deck was "hot," or loaded with high cards. She would then signal to Ma - the "guerrilla big player" - who'd sit down and start wagering.

"Jane was as smart, if not smarter, than anyone on the team," says Ma, who estimates he won more than $1 million playing blackjack. "But she only traveled [with the team] about once a month, and she was always very discreet."

Willis won't say how much money she made, but it wasn't a fortune. Spotters were paid a percentage of the team's take, and might return from a profitable weekend in Vegas with $3,000. Willis says she never missed the opening of a new casino, such as the Monte Carlo, or a marquee boxing match.

"That's when there was a lot action going around," says Willis, who saw countless celebrities at the blackjack tables. "After the Tyson-Holyfield fight, shots were fired and there was pandemonium in the casino. Security cameras caught [NBA star] Dominique Wilkins picking up chips off the floor."

Aside from a few close friends, Willis told almost no one about her involvement with the team. She worried that her parents might misunderstand and that her prospects to make partner at Ropes & Gray, where she specializes in antitrust law, might be damaged.

"When she told me years later, I was, like, 'Huh, that's fascinating,' " says Denise Casper, chief legal counsel for Middlesex County District Attorney Gerry Leone and a friend of Willis's for 15 years. "Looking back, I had no idea."

It wasn't until 2004 - six years after she played her last hand - that Willis's parents found out.

Sandra and Alan Willis recall the moment vividly. They were having dinner with their daughter and a few friends at Turner Fisheries when one of Willis's former law school classmates made a crack about her card-counting past.

"I looked at Jane and said, 'Well, we'll have to hear more about that,' " says Sandra Willis, who admits she was stunned. "This is one aspect of Jane. It just happens to be an amusing and adventurous aspect."

It's made even more adventurous in the movie. For dramatic purposes, Hollywood has spiced up her story with a frantic chase, phony IDs and disguises, and a brief love scene between Ma and Willis, who were never a couple.

Mathematically at least, the movie is accurate. While visiting the set last year, Willis listened in as Sturgess and another actor read a pivotal classroom scene involving the "Monty Hall problem," a well-known probability puzzle named for the host of "Let's Make a Deal."

"[Sturgess] didn't understand it because the answer was wrong in the script," Willis says. "I got nervous because I knew if math people saw it, the movie would have no credibility. I wrote down what the answer should be, and Kate [Bosworth] said, 'Change it. Jane knows what she's doing.' "

Willis no longer counts cards, but she still loves Las Vegas and visits at least once a year. In 2005 she got remarried in a Catholic church that's located behind the Tropicana and across from Mandalay Bay. Her favorite performer is Danny Gans, and she's become a connoisseur of Sin City swimming pools.

"The Mirage has a lovely rainforest with lots of vegetation, the Mandalay pool has real sand, and the MGM has a lazy river," she says. "Las Vegas is a liberating place. Everybody's dollar is the same there. Yes, the casinos are taking your money, but they're doing it indiscriminately."

A few weeks ago, Willis and her husband, Rich Davey, attended the star-studded Las Vegas premiere of "21." They enjoyed the movie and afterward strolled through the casinos, occasionally pausing to play a little blackjack.

"I'd say there was a little rust on Jane's skills," says Davey. "She was more interested in craps, but unfortunately there's no way to count dice."

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