REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: 21 bringing down the house

Jeff Ma ’94: MIT alum and inspiration for the film

On a windy Tuesday night this past week, the Lecture Series Committee ran a presentation centered around one of the most prominent references to MIT in pop culture. In the dimly light room 26-100 stood Jeff Ma ’94, the inspiration for the main character of the movie being screened: 21. Next to him was Ben Mezrich, renowned author of Bringing Down the House, which piqued Kevin Spacey’s interest in a story of MIT nerds taking down Las Vegas’ casinos (Spacey played an MIT lecturer who coached the team).

As previews for upcoming movies played, a couple students moved to the back to get autographs and photos with Ma and Mezrich. Soon, the movie began: 21, a 2008 drama, followed the story of the MIT Blackjack Team that won big in Las Vegas’ casinos by counting cards.

Exactly two hours and three minutes later, the lights came back on, and a round of applause introduced Ma, dressed in jeans and a shirt from his startup tenXer, and Mezrich, looking more formal in a white shirt and brown pants.

“There were two things that I had to tell my dad before he came into the theater,” said Ma. “First, that he was dead in the film” — in the movie, Jim Sturgess’ character’s dad passed away early in his childhood — “and second, I was white [and not Asian].” This comment elicited a number of laughs from the audience.

In many ways, Ma was the quintessential West Campus MIT grad. A Course 2 (Mechanical Engineering) major with a passion for watching sports (see the most recent track of his sports-centered startups), Ma cracked a couple of jokes and seemed casual about the whole affair, all the while working subtly to promote his own startup ventures.

When asked about his best night in Vegas, Ma responded with humor: “You’re talking about poker, right?”

On his current work at tenXer, a startup marketed as a “personal productivity hub,” Ma said, “I’m now working in startups, and if there are any Course 6 majors out there, my new venture tenXer is accepting summer interns!”

Throughout the discussion, Ma and Mezrich disagreed on how much the Hollywood version deviated from Ma’s life.

“I think about 95 percent of my story was true to Ma’s life,” said Mezrich in a reserved tone. “It was 75 percent,” replied Ma curtly, “and I should know because it was my life.” Mezrich just smiled back.

Towards the end, some of the crowd started asking more probing questions, one of which was particularly telling: “Would you have done it again?”

Ma heartily replied, “Hell yes!”