Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich

(Free Press)

You know that person in your life who's very very smart? The one you offhandedly tell friends, when describing her/him, is really super smart, one of the smartest people you've ever met? Okay, think of that person now. And think of that person looking dumb next to someone else. Make any sense?

Alright, now read Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich.

Here's the premise: MIT, that school so famous for its pedigree and skill level and humblingly high expectations (and results), has any number of smart people. It's like the joke: what do you call the person graduating at the bottom of his class from the worst medical school? Doctor. What do you call anyone at MIT? Genius.

So just imagine what happens when a bunch of hyper smart geniuses start playing blackjack. It's the only game in a casino where there's really a chance to beat the game, as it has a past—if an ace is dealt in the first hand, there's one less ace to be played later. While there's skill and trickery to make a game like five card stud or Texas no-limit hold'em beatable, they're more contingent on who you're playing against, more contingent on psychology.

But not blackjack. It's just math, at heart, and for years—Mezrich refuses to state, unequivocally, how long this has all taken place—Vegas clubs have been getting stung by card counters. Think Rainman here. Now think of card counting being taken up a couple thousands notches: think of a whole team of MIT kids joining together to beat the dealer, the house, the system. A flawless Rainsystem.

Bringing Down the House is Ben Mezrich's account of Kevin Lewis and his initiation into, flourishing in, and eventual retreat from the MIT Blackjack Team. While the book claims to deal with the "Six MIT students who took Vegas for millions" (check the cover), the story revolves around Lewis, his life, his family, his conflicts, his millions.

It's an impossibly good story, at heart. Lewis, an MIT undergrad, has two friends who seem to never work, disappear for long weekends only to come back tan, and always have money to burn. He pries one night and they take him to Atlantic City to introduce him to the system. Of course he's hooked—thousands of dollars are at stake, and he's treated like a celebrity the whole time he's there.

Mezrich does a great job of keeping right with Lewis and his story. Mezrich is a thriller-novel writer, so his sense of pacing and storytelling are really superb—nuance gone, replaced by adrenaline rush after crash after rush, etc... So we stay with Lewis, are as floored by the instant money he makes at the beginning, and are curious as he learns the incredibly sophisticated techniques and languages of card counting with a team. There's almost no way not to like the guy, if only because he starts out so earnestly.

And the team is full of equally fascinating people. They're all, essentially, geeks—MIT, remember. Mezrich plays off the fact, showing all of them to be infinitely refined in terms of blackjack and the acting they do in the casinos, balanced against their relative nerdiness outside the casino. What comes of the dichotomy, though, is the almost cliched world weariness that seeps into each of them, as their high roller lifestyle bulges too big to be quarantined inside the glitz of Vegas.

There's a dark threat throughout the book, the threat of the team getting caught. Counting isn't technically illegal, but since casinos only work by taking money from people, the fine line between cheating and counting is blurred. The specter of private investigators mounts through the whole book, until it's a double story about not only how smart these smart kids can get, but how quickly they can elude the pit bosses and security enforcement officials in the casinos.

It's a frenzied book—you'll read it as quickly as you can, if only because you'll run out of fingernails to chew off. There are some absolutely rotten aspects, sure, Mezrich's underlying racism one of the harder ones to get past. And the story itself eventually becomes one big chase, so that all the finesse and beauty of the team and its system is lost in the swirl of turmoil and anxiety as the heat is turned up, degree after degree, until the boiling point is hit. That aside, it's a hell of a book, addictive and rushing and classically American: you can do anything, and Vegas will always be the place to try it.

- Weston Cutter


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