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Bringing Down the House (B. Mezrich)

2004-09-19 3 min read Books marco

Geeks applying maths to lead a luxurious life in Vegas? Who could resist a book like that? “The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Miilions” sounds like too good to be true. And since you are probably used to my review spoilers by now, I will confess it isn’t.
Ben Mezrich tells the story as the first-person reporter who finds out about this group and has the unique chance to report about it. The writing is compelling, never too technical, always quite realistic, which makes the tension and suspense very believable.
Turns out the six M.I.T. students in the title are part of a group of players at the college that learned how to exploit a weakness in blackjack, the only winnable game in Vegas. They become “card counters”, that is they offset low cards with high cards and keep track of a running score. If a particular deck is particularly positiive (more low cards have been played than high cards), then game theory shows the player is likely to win against the house.This was very well known in player circles, and card counting had become a profession for a short while. Of course, once the casinos got wind of the trick, they prevented professional players from ever playing again. But of course, the weakness of the game persisted, and Vegas and the counters became embroiled in a technology war.
A team of players could easily outperform a single player, because some players could simply sit and wait at tables until the count became high. Once there was a positive signal, a different player (a Gorilla) could be called in. The gorilla would always play against a good deck, hence bet a lot. So there wouldn’t be the fluctuation in betting that gave the older pros away.
Well, we are talking about riding a multi-million dollar game. Mezrich does a really good job at portraying the kids – young, overachieving college students from one of the most prestigious universities in the world. The game has everything they could ask for: it requires smarts, it yields lots of cheap money, it involves weekends of wild parties, and of course it is a fun adventure, stacked against the odds of a mobster mentality that in the end wins the game.
Mezrich doesn’t really take sides in the story. While we sympathize with the kids, we experience them as real humans. They disagree, they betray each other, they fall out with each other and reconcile. The forces of evil are not as bad as they seem at first. The encounter with casino executives never resembles an execution, and on multiple occasions the kids are let go with their wins, with the simple admonition never to come back.
In the end, the casinos win the technology war. The six students that could have to retire and give up gambling, have to find themselves in the normalcy of a life that seems so unreal after the surreal life in Vegas and other joints around the country.
Well done. It is a book of research and portrayal, one that makes Vegas look better than it should. In the end, knowing about blackjack the way I do now, even I feel inclined to play a gamble at the blackjack table.