Jeff Ma never has to worry about working a day in his life. Why? Because for six years, Ma was an original of the MIT blackjack team, whose card counting skills took millions of dollars from Vegas. Eventually, Jeff Ma and his team became the subject of a bestselling book, “Bringing Down the House,” which has now been made into the hit film, “21.”

Brian Merlos
Ma plays a dealer in “21,” a film about his exploits as a blackjack player at MIT. (Courtesy of Columbia)

Ma came from a traditional Chinese family, was taught to focus on education and earning a living and had resigned himself to a lifetime of hard work when he was drafted to be a part of an MIT blackjack team specializing in counting cards.

At first, the idea didn’t sit well with him.

“I was definitely reluctant to get involved, primarily because it didn’t seem like something that was on the up-and-up in most respects,” he said. “It took me a while to get comfortable with the notion.”

Despite his initial reluctance, he soon eased into his role as the high roller of the team, betting and winning big at casinos in Vegas and in various other parts of the country. Unfortunately it couldn’t, and didn’t, last forever.

“Essentially what happened is that over the course of time, they got clued into what we were doing,” he said. “They started recognizing the same people always together, always gambling at the same tables. Once they knew that, the jig was kinda up.”

But was it all as glamorous as it appears in “21?” According to Ma, what is shown is somewhat different than what actually occurred, though the true heart of the story remains.

“It’s beyond surreal when you see people on the screen acting out scenes that really happened to you and really occurred,” Ma said. “There’s just no way to describe how crazy that is.”

Ma has no regrets, and in fact, believes that if not for his experiences as being part of the blackjack team, his chance at success would have been slim.

“There would be a lot of people who would look at what I was doing and think it was crazy and that I wasn’t using my MIT education,” he said. “In reality, the experience has put me in a better place to succeed than anything else I’ve done with my life.”

Though the glitz and glamour of the high-roller lifestyle may be over, Ma continues on with his life. He is now the owner of a fantasy sports company called ProTrade, but he will never forget the excitement of the lifestyle he once led.

“Not many people get to go to Vegas and leave winners and we got to do that every time we went. I thoroughly enjoyed it and don’t think it’s something that will ever be rivaled in my life,” he said.

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