Jane Willis was always a standout student. Her reputation as a math whiz was well known at Phillips Exeter and Harvard, where she graduated in 1991 with a lofty recommendation from Lawrence Summers.
But no one suspected how Willis was using those skills, and she wasn’t about to tell. Even as a partner at a high-powered Boston law firm, she has kept her curious back story to herself.
“Sounds weird to say, but it just never came up,” Willis says, sipping a draft beer in a hotel bar not far from her office at One International Place.
She likes beer? Ick. Why not some fine wine or top-shelf liquor? But Jane Willis is not your ordinary Biglaw partner:
She might still be mum if not for 21, the new movie about MIT’s celebrated blackjack team. Willis, it turns out, was a member of the card-counting cadre that beat the casinos and, later, inspired the best-selling book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. In the film, which opens Friday, Kate Bosworth’s character is based on Willis.
How cool is that? We like the casting of Bosworth; there’s definitely a resemblance (see photos; Willis is on the left).
More after the jump.
Now a high-powered commercial and antitrust litigatrix, Jane Willis harbors fond memories of her card-playing days:
It’s been a decade since she was a practicing card shark, and she’s proud of her tenure on the team.
“We didn’t do anything dishonest or fraudulent. We were good kids,” she says. “It’s totally legal to use your brain.”
Indeed — and that’s what clients pay Willis the big bucks for today. She has oodles of accolades under the belt of her pantsuit, including recognition from Chambers USA, Best Lawyers, Super Lawyers, and Top 50 Women Lawyers.
Willis, 38, who grew up in Mount Vernon, Ill., had never played blackjack when she joined the team in the early 1990s. Then a student at Harvard Law School, Willis and her boyfriend were both “math geeks.” They were also friends with Jeff Ma, an MIT student who was one of the ringleaders of the school’s clandestine blackjack club.
“Jeff would occasionally have an expensive bottle of wine or champagne, and it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Then he told us about Vegas,” Willis says. “I think it dawned on him that we could play blackjack and also give the team, which was mostly Asian and male, a little diversity.”
…. Willis had the advantage of being a woman. Security at Caesars Palace, the MGM Grand, and other Las Vegas casinos was always on the lookout for card counters but rarely suspected female patrons.
“I could almost count out loud and not get caught,” she says.