Although I have no interest in gambling and am terrible at math, I did like the movie 21 which is about a group of M.I.T. students who use their brilliant math minds to count cards and win an obscene amount of money in Las Vegas between 1994 and 1998. When I watched the 2008 film, I remember thinking that this premise would be absurd and the movie would suck if the story wasn’t true. Almost ten years later, a friend recommended that I read the book that the movie was based on and I thought sure – I bet (see what I did there) the book is going to be even better.
Written by Ben Mezrich, Bringing Down The House: The Inside Story Of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas For Millions (2002), is a New York Times bestseller because it’s fast-paced, action-packed, and real. Although reading a book after seeing the movie is a bit odd (mostly because I feel like it should be the other way around) I still enjoyed reading about the characters I had watched on the big screen. While there were some plot twists I already knew about – i.e. the card players cleverly gave their blackjack chips to strippers to cash in so they wouldn’t get caught with so much money – discovering the creative license taken in the movie was interesting. Also, realizing that the film’s main character, Ben, was named after the author was a fun anecdote.
Even though Mezrich makes it clear that it would be easy to romanticize Las Vegas – the city that was founded by gangsters and became a vacation spot for those seeking lavish indulgence – he also points out how the town’s dangerous underbelly makes it a place for people to avoid. The author is also sure to point out, via a quote from one of the people he interviewed, that this book is not meant to be a how-to guide for any human who thinks they can count cards. These kids were some of the most exceptional minds in the country at that point – in fact, they were certified math geniuses who were organized by a former pro card counter. In short, they were an anomaly.
For me, the most significant feat the book pulled off was appealing to someone who enjoys neither math nor gambling. In addition to the excellent writing, the detailed descriptions of the colorful Vegas characters were entertaining and painted a clear picture of exactly what was going on in those casinos. Also, Mezrich’s ability to immerse himself in Kevin Lewis’s (the main character) life, for better or worse, was clearly equally a journalist’s dream and nightmare. And I’ve been there.
What I learned:
- “Culminating in the construction of the massive Bellagio and Venetian (costing $1.6 million and $1.2 billion respectively), Vegas sported nineteen of the world’s biggest hotels, hosting over thirty million visitors a year, generating five billion dollars in gaming revenue, utilizing sixteen miles of neon tubing…etc.”
- “When you sat down to play blackjack, the casino was providing you with an entertainment service. You paid for that service by losing more than you won. People like Kevin Lewis were getting their entertainment for free – and then some.”
- There were many conversations regarding the legality of card counting: “Card counters did not alter the natural outcome of the game, which is a key component of the Nevada legal definition. Nor did proficient counters employ devices to help them beat the house.”
- “It was a common story, real or urban myth, that the casinos pumped high levels of oxygen into their ventilation systems to keep people awake longer.”
- The book mentions that the most devastating tragedy in Vegas history was a fire that killed 87 people and injured 700 others in 1980. This month Vegas suffered another tragedy that left 58 people dead and 546 injured. Horrible.
- One of the people Mezrich interviewed was surprised he was going to write a book about the card counting team: “You’re going to make a lot of people nervous.”
- Irony factor: M.I.T. spawned both the card counters and the facial-recognition software that eventually got them caught.
- Mezrich asks one of the casino personnel he interviewed: “So the casinos are monitoring everyone who steps through the front doors…But who’s monitoring the casinos?” He didn’t get an answer.
Some of the most interesting lines:
- “[Kevin’s] story was part boast, part confession. For me, it was too good a story to pass up.”
- “If the eighties had made greed acceptable, the nineties had elevated it to an art form.”
- “Kevin felt like he was on the threshold of something he couldn’t define.”
- “[He was] a tough spirit from a good family who just wanted more out of life.”
- “Micky and the crew: well-planned, almost military-styled assaults that soon became routine but never mundane.”
- “The highs and lows in Vegas far outweighed the swells and ebbs at home, and the counting moments that stood out – good and bad – defined that period of Kevin’s life.”
- “One of the best card counters I’ve ever met is African American…And nobody ever suspects him of anything…Their own racism turns around and bites them right in the ass.”
- “There was something else in her voice, something foreboding. I was going to say something but decided to let her get there herself.”
- “We know how Vegas works – it’s all about greasing the right wheels.”
- “I felt like I could get arrested just for watching.”
- “Nobody wins in Las Vegas. Kevin Lewis knows that better than anyone.”
- “Casinos were run by big, faceless corporations.. [and] they didn’t like being made to look like idiots. Especially by kids from M.I.T.”
- “The most important decision a card counter ever has to make is the decision to walk away.”
Read the book first and then watch the movie – the entertainment value is worth it.