When Rain Man was released in 1988, the film immediately received praise from the public and from critics, going on to gross more than any other film that year. Even those who never watched the movie inevitably learned something new. Some were intrigued by Dustin Hoffman’s character’s ability to count cards in blackjack. Others wanted to learn more about the life of savants.
Thirty years after the film’s release, some critics have looked back at Rain Man, written by Barry Morrow, and wondered if the film’s initial praise was too kind. Once again, some focused on the film’s treatment of Hoffman’s character, named Raymond, who is an autistic savant. They wondered if the character helped shed light on the condition or misrepresented autism.
However, most of Rain Man’s misgivings relate to the world of card counting. In the film, Raymond can count cards on up to six decks at the same time. Though some teams continue to operate anonymously and under the radar today, the emphasis on card-counting has lessened in recent years.
One factor is that many casinos have moved online. The evolution of blackjack has taken many forms in the past twenty years — today, even three-seat and premium blackjack are available online for gamers. In a virtual setting, it’s impossible to count cards.
Another factor that’s lessened the popularity of card counting is how doggedly casinos pursue teams. Though the practice isn’t illegal, casinos aren’t obliged to let card counters work the tables and turn a profit. Despite this, Raymond manages to earn an $80,000 payout at the end of the film, leaving many to wonder what’s real in the film and what missed the mark.
Kim Peek Didn’t Count Cards
In creating Raymond’s character, Dustin Hoffman drew inspiration from real-life savant, Kim Peek. Peek, who passed away in 2009, was an advocate for autistic savants around the world. He could read both pages of an opened book, figure out which day of the week someone was born on based on their birthdate, and provide seamless driving directions like a walking GPS.
And, after reading a book on blackjack and card counting, Peek could also count cards — but that doesn’t mean he did it. Despite inspiring Hoffman’s character, Peek personally felt that card counting was unethical. In fact, when screenwriter Barry Marrow invited Peek into a casino to see if he could count cards, he refused.
As mentioned above, Raymond manages to count a six-deck shoe in order to hit it big at the blackjack tables in Vegas at the end of the film. In doing so, he saves his brother, Charlie (played by Tom Cruise) from destitution.
But counting cards to earn money isn’t that easy. Even the world’s leanest teams, such as the MIT Blackjack Team (covered in the film 21), only took home around $160 per night. Card counting teams beat casinos through calculated, multi-person efforts — but even that can take a while. Raymond, no matter how gifted, wouldn’t likely be able to accomplish an $80,000 payout from card counting in his first sitting.
Counting Cards on a Whim
As mentioned above, real-life savant Peek was able to learn how to count cards by reading a single book on the topic. However, in the film, Raymond receives little to no instruction on counting cards. Though he has subitizing abilities (ability to keep track of numbers), applying that knowledge to the realm of blackjack isn’t a one-off.
Those with minds made for statistical and mathematic thinking need more than a bit of practice if they hope to succeed at card counting. Other pivotal factors for success relate to teamwork; most card counting teams have different positions and roles. In Rain Man, Raymond functions like a one-man card counting team.
It’s believable that a savant with subitizing talents could pick up on blackjack and card counting in a short period of time, but Hoffman’s character does it on a whim in the film. Charlie more or less turns the car around, heads back to Vegas, and sets up his brother at a blackjack table. Hours later, the pair take home tens of thousands in winnings.