Little did we know what a great sense of humor this Harvard-educated storyteller has. Here’s my conversation with him…
Sparky: Congratulations on your movie, 21, which is in the works! How did that come about?
Ben: Basically, it all started with a phone call I received from Kevin Spacey, right out of the blue. This was two weeks before Bringing Down The House came out; I’d done an article for Wired magazine about the book, and Spacey read it. He flew me out to LA, and basically told me he wanted to produce the movie, and maybe star in it as well. We then sold the project to MGM (ironically enough) which then became a part of Sony. So now it’s a Sony/MGM picture starring Kevin Spacey.
Ben: Sadly, Queen Latifah stole my title. Since there was already a BDTH movie, we had to change the name to ‘21‘. I like ‘21‘ too, because it’s got that Risky Business, coming-of-age feel, which captures the energy I tried to put into the book.
Sparky: Will you be in the movie?
Ben: I hope to do a cameo. I will definitely be on set for most of the filming, and am involved in most aspects of the production.
Sparky: How about having a contest for a PokerMoments reader to get to be an extra in the movie?
Ben: Not a bad idea, but you’d have to ask Sony about that. The writer ranks right below the caterer in the heirarchies of Hollywood.
Sparky: Or, have you thought about the central character, Kevin, needing a psychiatrist to talk to about his misgivings, a la Tony Soprano? I just happen to be a psychiatrist as my day job.
Ben: Luckily for Kevin, unlike in the book, in the movie he gets laid; that’s even better than psychiatry.
Sparky: Have you stayed in contact with the people your characters are based on?
Ben: Yes, I’m very good friends with the real Kevin Lewis (his name is Jeff Ma, by the way, he no longer uses the fake name) and the real Andrew Tay.
Sparky: What was it like doing the research for BDTH?
Ben: One of the best experiences of my writing life. I spent every weekend in Vegas for almost a year.
Sparky: Did you learn how to count cards?
Ben: Poorly. I am horrible at math. I know how to do it, but don’t have the patience to do it well.
Sparky: BDTH describes some high living. After all your success with writing, and now the movie, how do you like spending your millions?
Ben: I have to say, there have been some perks. I’ve been to the Playboy Mansion many times, and have partied in some of the coolest placest in the world. I love to travel: especially Tokyo, London, New York, and Vegas. However, I recently got married. So all my millions have since been spent at Bed Bath & Beyond and Home Depot.
Sparky: Both BDTH and Ugly Americans deal with quasi-legal activities, and plenty of indulgent activities – women, drinking and drugs. As a psychiatrist, I’m curious if these topics just make for good writing, or did your research for these books allow you to play out some fantasies?
Ben: Basically, I choose my book topics by where the research will take me. I definitely lived out my fantasies by following the characters from BDTH, Ugly Americans, and Busting Vegas around places like Vegas, Tokyo, Monte Carlo, etc. The truth is, I’m actually a very neurotic, hermit-like individual, scared of my own shadow; but when I set off to write a book, I become someone else. I live the double lives that I write about. I have my own boundaries that I draw; for me, it’s more of a voyeuristic thing than anything else. I don’t want to skydive naked, but I’m perfectly happy watching a naked girl jump out of a plane.
Sparky: What are your own favorite card games? Do you play poker? Online poker?
Ben: I play in a regular poker game with a bunch of MIT kids (including a few members of the MIT blackjack team). I get my ass kicked almost every week. I used to play online poker, but I haven’t in a while. In Vegas, I am addicted to video poker. And of course I love blackjack.
Sparky: You hosted The World Series of Blackjack. Any tips for our gambling readers that you learned from the experts?
Ben: Truthfully, the key to blackjack is money management. Most people sit down at the tabel with too small a bankroll. If you sit down at a ten dollar table, you need at least five hundred bucks on you. And you need to know perfect Basic Strategy. Otherwise, stay away from slot machines and especially the ATMS.
Sparky: Who are your role models for writing? Did you study literature at Harvard?
Ben: I did not study literature. However, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I worship James Ellroy and Ernest Hemingway. I think Michael Crichton is a genius. Sebastian Junger is a brilliant writer and a great guy. Michael Lewis is another favorite.
Sparky: Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite? Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Ben: I think Bringing Down the House is a classic story, and I was very fortunate to know those characters and get their lives onto paper. Ugly Americans, in my opinion, is a really cool book. Japan blows my mind. One of my fiction books, The Carrier, that I wrote under the pen name Holden Scott, was probably my best writing, but nobody read it, and it sold like 500 copies, so there you go.
Sparky: Have you gotten more story-tip offers to reveal the hidden side of other secret, dark worlds?
Ben: I get about ten a week. Some are pretty good, most are scary.
Sparky: You’ve also written under the pseudonym Holden Scott. Why the secrecy?
Ben: Basically, I was under contract for two more books under my real name, so to publish a project I wanted to publish, I needed a fake name. So I chose my fantasy WASP name, which was Holden.
Sparky: One of the other writers for PokerMoments, Suber, is also Jewish, and has written about the connection between Jews and poker. He notes that there are a disproportionate number of Jews who are quite good professional poker plays. Any thoughts as to the connection?
Ben: Well, I think poker is a very social game, and Jews are social by nature. I also thing telling stories is a Jewish hobby; and each hand of poker is essentially a story you tell, in an attempt to get everyone else at the table to believe. I also think there isn’t as much of a stigma against gambling in the Jewish and asian communities, which is why many Jews and asians end up playing cards.
Sparky: Any last thoughts?
Ben: I can’t wait for the movie; I think it’s really going to capture the excitement of the story, and it will be very true to the MIT kids’ experiences. The director, Robert Luketic (Legally Blond) is awesome, and he’s got a really good feel for the project. And Spacey is going to be fantastic as Micky, the professor who trains the team. Anyway, thanks for reading my stuff, and I’ll keep writing more!
(Although I’ll have to ponder the psychiatry/sex competition, you do have to be impressed with someone who can use semicolons in casual conversation; thanks for a great interview, Ben! -Sparky)