Bringing Down the House

30 04 2008

Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions

By Ben Mezrich

Summary:

Kevin Lewis was living his father’s dream. Sailing through his coursework at M.I.T. and researching at Boston’s top hospital, he was well on his way to a successful career in medicine. Yet, Kevin needed something more than test tubes and school books. Fittingly, his wish came to him in the form of two M.I.T. dropouts, Jason Fisher and Andre Martinez. While both had excellent minds, Kevin saw their ability wasted in Vegas, living the weekend high life in strip clubs and bars. Yet, even with this extravagant, seemingly jobless, lifestyle, their money never seemed to run out. It was finally in June of 1994 that Kevin was let in on their secret: M.I.T.’s Card-counting Blackjack Team.

Initially questioning the team’s legality and worrying about the approval of his father, Kevin soon succumbed to the glitz and glamour of Vegas and began learning basic strategy in the vacant classrooms of M.I.T. Starting as a workhorse Spotter, Kevin quickly moved up the playing ranks. As his love of the game grew, the card counting became second nature. In next to no time, Kevin knew the lingo and learned to play the part, acing every test thrown at him and joining Fisher and Martinez as one of the team’s Big Players.

In Vegas, Kevin learned to shed his stereotypical M.I.T. appearance and live every man’s dream as the cocky high-roller, winning thousands at the tables each night. He partied with celebrities in penthouse suites and got front-row tickets to the city’s biggest shows. Yet, back in Boston, the second half of his double life suffered. He found it hard to lie to his family and friends, but could not bring himself to tell them about the team. Straying from the path set for him by his father, he found he had less and less to do with Boston, and everything to do with Vegas. From Kevin’s point-of-view, his Boston-life was only holding him back in Sin City.

After graduation, Kevin accepted a lack-luster banking job in Chicago, unwilling to make blackjack his full-time profession. As the team continued to play, Fisher quietly coerced them into an expansion. Three new members were initiated and Kevin, Fisher, and Martinez all got their own working teams. Profits soared and Kevin quit his job, moving back to Boston.

Despite the team’s success, Kevin noticed tensions growing between Fisher and the team’s leader, Micky Rosa. In reality, Micky and the team’s shady investors were the only ones standing in the way of their profit. In addition, it became obvious that Micky had more than one M.I.T. team playing in Vegas. Fisher decided that the team was giving away too much of its hard-earned money and broke away from Micky’s protection.

As Vegas profits continued to rise and Kevin joined a lucrative start-up in Boston, he thought life could not get any better. Then, unexpectedly, hell broke loose in Vegas. The team nearly lost thousands after the MGM Grand Casino was looted on fight night. Then, Kevin and Martinez were banned and nearly “back-roomed” by some of the Strip’s largest casinos. Shaken by this, the team decided to hit a lesser known casino in Chicago. The outcome was no different – the team had officially been blacklisted.

While Kevin feared their streak had ended, Fisher and Martinez would not give up without a fight, investing in the best disguises on the market. However, the gambling world was not to be fooled. The team was banned from yet another casino in Vegas and two riverboats in Louisiana. This streak was topped off by Kevin’s IRS audit and subsequent legal troubles.

Simply put, the team had been sold out to private investigators and Kevin, Fisher, and Martinez soon found their pictures and information on a circulated wanted list. While Kevin wanted out, Fisher and Martinez took their action to the Bahamas. Yet, even out of the country, the counters could not escape. Despite the threats, it took a brutal beating by a private investigator’s Bahamian thugs for Fisher to realize that things had to change.

Back in Boston, the team split. Being professionals, Fisher and Martinez could not settle with people treating card counting as a mere hobby, and took the more serious players onto their side. On the other hand, Kevin wanted to play only because he enjoyed the challenge, and knew that money would never be a problem. In the end, he vowed to never again let blackjack and Vegas run his life.

Review:

Ben Mezrich’s true-to-life thriller, Bringing Down the House, pulses with the energy of Vegas’ most vibrant casinos. It grabs hold of its readers on the first page and dares them to put it down until the last. With his familiar, yet careful, style, Mezrich perfectly captures the attitude of the collegiate blackjack team, and displays Vegas in all its glamour. In this way, he draws the reader into novel, sitting him down next to Kevin as he wins big at the Mirage, and throwing him into the backroom with Martinez and the casino’s oversized thugs. In addition, Mezrich’s underground interviews and own card-counting experience give historical, political, and social background to the action, and give his book a larger-than-life feel. The reader cannot help but crave the cards, and dream of the inconceivable wonders that await him in Vegas. As the Las Vegas Review-Journal said of the book, it “brings to life every gambler’s dream.” The reader can see himself in Kevin and somehow believes that he too can break the bank if given the chance. Simply put, Mezrich’s style and fast-paced plot make Bringing Down the House an addicting read.

Why is this book “dangerous?”:

In 2004, as the number eighteen book on The New York Times’s paperback nonfiction best-seller list, Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House was challenged in one Beaverton, Oregon school district. The parent challenging the book, which her son had individually chosen as supplemental reading, and which the teacher herself had never read, objected to the text’s abundant profanity and frequent references to prostitution and gambling. Specifically, she proposed that Mezrich’s alluring novel would increase “curiosity about gambling and pornography” and give students “ideas on how to smuggle [things] past security.”

While this parent’s fears were certainly warranted, I believe that the book is far more dangerous for other reasons. This begins with the way that it promotes gambling. It clearly displays blackjack as the casino’s weakness, a game that can, and will be beaten. In this way, it gives the “everyman” the false impression that he can break the bank on any given night. While he expects to efficiently turn his fifty dollars into five thousand, he does not realize that counting only succeeds with extreme patience and a large bankroll. This misconception isn’t helped by the book’s recent film adaptation or the “how to” section on card counting that follows the text. As best-selling author Michael Capuzzo said of the novel, “Ben Mezrich takes us where every man dreams of going but precious few ever have – beating the casino.” This makes it clear that card counting and bank breaking are not meant for the greedy “everyman”; they will only ever be his unattainable dream. Simply put, counting is not as easy as Mezrich makes it out to be. Hence, Vegas’ enticing version of the American dream – “get rich quick” – will never be a reality, and the average reader-turned-gambler will only fall flat on his face at the tables. As Damon Zimonowski, a retired casino host, told Mezrich in the novel, “most people who say they can count cards…end up losing more than civilians…and sooner or later, Vegas finds a way to fuck [them] back” (65-67). Clearly, the danger of Bringing Down the House lies in its prostitution of the American dream, every man’s secret hope to strike gold. And it is Mezrich who sells this “dream” short, referring to it as a one of Vegas’ superficial perks, while hiding its true danger behind the glamour of the casino strip.

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