Friday, March 28, 2008

You could knock me over with a feather with this news

This story is about a girl I grew up with, on the swim team and at the country club. She was always very nice, very intelligent and very classy. I could not be more shocked at this story if it was about me. I am so impressed to learn ol Jane had some rebel in her!

Former resident portrayed in new Hollywood film


BOSTON ’ Jane Willis was once considered a conservative and quiet young girl while growing up in Mt. Vernon.

But in the 1990s this bright, promising Harvard math student beat the odds in Las Vegas casinos counting cards and raking in the dough. Now, the story of Willis and her MIT blackjack team is opening in theaters across the nation this weekend.

Willis, the daughter of former Mt. Vernon orthodontist Dr. Alan Willis and wife Sandra, was a spotter on the team and is being played by Kate Bosworth in the movie.

The new movie is based on the book, ’Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions’ by Ben Mezrich, a Harvard classmate of Willis. It is the story of six MIT ’mathletes’ recruited by a math professor to join a secret club of card counters, who rake in the money at blackjack during weekend trips to Vegas. In an interview with the Register-News via e-mail and by phone, Willis said there was a history of blackjack playing at MIT and Cambridge for a couple of decades before she joined the team.

’We took the game to a new level,’ she said, ’adding new techniques including spotting.’ She explained many people who count cards at a blackjack table are solo players. Using a team of players as Willis and her cohorts did, minimized the likelihood that casino owners would notice what was going on.

’Because the spotter,’ she continued,’ is the one who plays the minimum bet and then when the cards turn to the player’s favor, the spotter switches out with the big player who takes advantage of more higher cards because the spotter found that table for them.’

Willis said she was first attracted to the MIT blackjack team for a chance to use her math skills in ’an exciting and fast-paced environment,’ but sometimes there were times she was afraid of getting caught, even though counting cards isn’t illegal.

She said ’21’ describes a classic coming-of-age story. ’(It’s about) good, smart kids who face choices and have to decide what is important,’ she said.

’Ultimately, most of us stopped counting cards and moved on to other professional endeavors.’

Willis left Mt. Vernon in 1984 for Exeter, a boarding school in New Hampshire. Prior to that, she attended J. L. Buford and Casey Junior High schools. And though she has not visited Mt. Vernon in recent years, she has ’many fond memories’ of growing up in the King City and of community members who have had an impact on her life.

’Although I hesitate to name names for fear of leaving someone out, Mr. Larry Stonecipher at Casey Junior High was a very influential math teacher ’ he taught me algebra. And Mr. Marty Cox at Casey Junior High ran the scholar bowl team. Being on scholar bowl taught me to be quick on my feet. Some other Mt. Vernon natives were a big help to me growing up: Carol Hicks and Nancy Jackson taught me to play the piano and violin. Libby Jackson gave me cheerleading lessons. Kathleen Shoemaker (of Carl's for Men and Women) helped me pick out clothes during those awkward teen years. And Dr. Kathy Seibert was my swim team coach.’

’Jane is an incredibly gifted person. She always was,’ said Shoemaker. ’I remember her as a little girl riding her tricycle in the neighborhood.’

She said after viewing clips of the movie, she realized just how ’bright’ Willis was. Shoemaker said though Willis was always ’conservative and quiet,’ she knew Willis would go on to do something big.

’It’s very exciting that someone I know would be able to do this and go to Vegas with the big boys,’ she said.

Willis also consulted on the movie, and recently attended the premiere, both of which she described as a ’once-in-a-lifetime experience.’ She described Bosworth as a poised young woman.

’She and I enjoyed meeting each other,’ she said. ’She asked many questions. For example, she was showing me the hand signals they were using in the movie and we were comparing notes.’

Though she said she didn’t know what effect the movie will have on her career, she said card counting has had a ’definite positive effect’ on it.

’Being a trial lawyer and counting cards are similar activities,’ she said. ’Both take perseverance and hard work, attention to detail and taking calculated risks at the right moments. And both are not as glamorous as they sound.’

Willis is a partner at the firm of Ropes & Gray, LLP, in Boston. Her parents, who only recently learned of their daughter’s former adventures, retired to Florida in 2007. ’They’re really enjoying it,’ Willis said of her story.


Amy B said...

OMG - How strange that you knew her!!!! I'm reading one of those books now - of course not the right one for the movie (apparantly the guy wrote 2 books on the same topic - and I of course, bought the "other" one) - it's still good though and I will still go see the movie...

Kim said...

That is Pretty Freakin Cool. I love those guys. Took their god given talent to screw those that screw for a living. You go Girl!

Paige said...

I think it is a hoot! Jane was always such a good girl--her mother was more than a little controlling, so how Jane could have been anything but, I do not know. Her dad was my orthodontist too. Both her parents are very very nice people, but more than a little obsessed with their only child. I am so glad to see she got some rebellion in!

She left here to go to Exeter (oddly, she is not the only MtV person I grew up with to go there, even though it is one of the top private schools in the country), and never lived here again. Now her parents have moved to FL. According to Mom who I just called with this news, there is a rift between them all now---

Holly said...

hey I remember hearing about them on the Discovery Channel. It was a fascinating episode!

very cool that you knew her!

Anonymous said...

I guess this means: "I knew her when"

Interesting to say the least.


theCloth said...

Very Interesting. This is a warm and fuzzy post.

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Photo of the Whenever I feel like changing it


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