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on September 2, 2004
...namely, how much of this tale to believe?

But first, the basics: "Kevin" joins a team of Blackjack players based out of MIT, and extracts some ungodly number of dollars from the casinos over the course of a five-year romp. Then the casinos wise up to the game, and start putting the squeeze on Kevin and his buddies: expulsions, IRS audits, intimidation, and a little rough stuff in back rooms.

Ben Mezrich is a thriller-writer by day, and the prose is a bit too ripely melodramatic--cliff-hanger chapter endings that go nowhere, visual metaphors culled from Raymond Chandler's wastebasket: "the muscles beneath his MIT T-shirt rippled like a plastic trash can left out in a heat wave." (And just when did everyone at MIT get so darned _ripped_? Almost everyone's a stud or a babe, except for the shadowy Asian ringleader with the horrible teeth and bad vision. Must be a different part of campus than I usually see.) But he manages to keep the writing at a good poolside or plane-time level, and you can skim the bits that are obviously padded out to stretch a 150-page story into a 250-page book.

The Blackjack itself seems mostly reasonable. The kids practice the classic "Hi-Lo" count, but with a clever twist. Hi-Lo calls for the player to bet the minimum a lot of the time, then dramatically raise the betting level when the distribution of cards turns favorable. One thing this isn't, is inconspicuous--the casinos are good at spotting this stuff. So the MIT gang fielded two types of players--some always bet low, but kept track of the "count." When it became favorable, these players would give the high-sign to a "Gorilla" or "Big Player," who always bet high, and sat at a hot table until the count went bad again. Then the Big Player would drift off and look for the next signal. Nobody ever altered their betting levels; but the high-rollers just seemed to magically land at one hot table after another.

It sounds like a pretty good scheme...even a bit like some of the tactics Blackjack writer Stanford Wong talks about. I guess it could work.

The trouble is that too much of the story just doesn't seem to wash. My spider-sense started tingling early in the book, when a character grabbed two martinis off a passing cocktail waitress's she was passing them around at a catered party. Now, I'm no Vegas-hound, but I've never known the cocktail service at a casino to work that way. And this happens two or three times over the course of the narrative. It's a small thing, almost trivial...but definitively _wrong._ I don't think a writer who's done his homework will miss something like that.

And now that I was thinkig suspiciously, a whole lot of things started smelling fishy. Let me mention a few:

--The team is continually faced with the challenge of moving as much as $600,000 across the country from Boston to Vegas and back, week after week. They have to employ all kinds of subterfuge to get the cash through airport security--hollow laptops, fake casts, ziplock bags in their underwear. Well, why bother? That money is working capital, not profit--why doesn't it just stay in Nevada, in a string of deposit boxes? They mention using _some_ bank boxes, so why run the risk of looking like drug runners?

--The team is forever staying in comped "high roller" suites in big-name casinos: hot tubs, bottle of champagne waiting on arrival, limos to the airport, the whole nine yards. Uhh, way not to attract attention, guys. You can have a safe room just a few steps off the strip for a hundred bucks or less. In a game where once the casinos know your game, it's over, why would "professionals" take these kinds of outrageous risks just to get a free room?

--In fact, to heck with staying in hotels. With the kind of money this book is talking about, the smart investment would be a house, somewhere in the sleepier suburbs of Clark county. Then you'd never have to worry about making one absolute rookie mistake the MIT team makes--counting cards in the same place you're sleeping. It makes for a dramatic scene with hotel security, but it doesn't make a lick of sense. Heck, even _I_ know enough not to do that.

I could go on, but you get the idea. All of these little oddities and inconsistencies make no sense except for one thing--they all serve to sex up the storyline, make it more exotic, more James Bond...make it sell more books. Hmmm. I know a little bit about the proud traditions of tall tales and practical jokes at MIT and Harvard (the author's alma mater). At the end of the day, I have to think that there's more Vegas razzle-dazzle than journalistic truth in here.

But hey, don't we go to casinos to believe in a fantasy? At fourteen bucks, this is one of the cheaper Las Vegas illusions you can buy.
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This is a fast and explosive read. It's a true story that's so high-powered that the tension never ceases and I was thrust into a roller coaster ride that kept my eyes glued to the pages.
The story is told through the eyes of the author, who met one of the students at a party and was so intrigued by his outrageous tale that he was compelled to put it into a book. This is a story of a group of math whizzes, most of Asian descent, who used the art of card counting, worked as teams, and legally won as much as 4 million dollars during the few years they spent their weekends in the Vegas casinos, living the high life.
They strapped thousands of dollars to their bodies with Velcro to get the cash onto planes, used false names, and were always on the lookout for Las Vegas personnel who would sometimes personally escort them out of the casinos. They also learned about the seediness of the gambling world, greed, the way the Vegas corporations work. Of course they all went through changes. And eventually, it had to come to an end. Some of it is kind of scary too. But mostly, it's about beating the odds and living with a constant adrenaline high.
Well, reading this book is an adrenaline high of it's own. It put me right into the action and kept me there for the whole 257 pages. I loved it. And highly recommend it.
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on November 21, 2002
As a physician I have my fill of non-fiction with an abundance of journals so when I read for relaxation I want a story that keeps me excited, interested and sleepless until it is finished. Bringing Down the House is such a book and reads like a Clancy or Pollock with a little lower body count, but with no less excitement.
Ben Mezrich is superb writer and story teller with the amazing ability to weave the excitement of a Las Vegas casino, the mathmetics of card counting with enjoyable interpersonal dynamics so that this is a consuming story with people you care about. His description of the high roller lifestyle in Vegas takes you to the tables playing sums you watch others wager with the adrenaline rush like you were part of the team. I bought the book in Boston having just missed him at a book signing and had a hardtime finishing the conference. I found myself in the room reading a book I could not put down instead of going out in one of the towns in which the story was set. It was that engrossing.
My Christmas list now contains all of his previous writings as this is an author who knows how to tell a story.
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on April 22, 2010
After reading the book, Bringing Down the House, I was excited and intrigued with the world of card counting and the lives of the card counters. I plan to read more books about the subject. From the book, I got the feeling that Mezrich's goal throughout the book was to captivate and teach people about the world of casinos and card counting. He met one of the characters at a party and was fascinated enough to put the story into a book to enthrall everyone who reads it. I can guarantee to any readers of the book, that they will feel mesmerized by the casino life and more educated about the subject. This book will be a quick read that the reader will not be able to put down. It will interest a wide variety of people, from those who love to gamble and go to casinos all the time to those who have never stepped foot in one in their life. I know this from reading the reviews of the people before me. Many of them said that they gambled before, but a surprisingly large number of them said that they had never gambled in their lives.

In response to a few of the negative reviews, I read through many of them and have a few major disagreements to point out. First, J. Danielson, you talked about how you went to MIT and that Mezrich got a few of the details wrong about the school. To tell you the truth, when people read this book they won't remember the little details of graduating with honors or not, they'll remember the intense casino scenes. This brings me to the next topic of yours that I disagreed with. You talked about how you have been banned from a casino before and that they don't rough you up the way Mezrich made it seem like in his book. Well, there are more than a few casinos and what actions they take when kicking someone out will probably vary between them. Now, to Critical Reader, you say that you did research on Wikipedia after reading the book and found that some of the facts that Mezrich talked about were false. If you want to accuse someone of using false facts, you might want to try a reliable source next time. Finally, to the "crimsonwildcat," in your review, you accuse Mezrich of having what comes off as false conversations with the people in the book. If you haven't met any of these people, then I don't think you can really tell if it was false or not. However, I must agree with the negative reviews when you say that some parts of the book got repetitive. That was definitely a weakness, but Mezrich had many more high points, like expressing the tension between characters and showing the excitement of Las Vegas and a card counter's life.
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on February 14, 2004
Author Ben Mezrich is on the streak of a lifetime, with his top-selling, wildly flawed, heavily fictionalized "history" of a well-known blackjack team getting made into a movie by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Pretty impressive. MGM, after all, as Mezrich notes in a recent interview, is "the same company that owns most of the large casinos in Vegas." (See the February, 2004 Kuro5hin interview at [...]) The only problem with this observation, like many of the major and minor details in Mezrich's book, is that it isn't true. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the movie company, and MGM Mirage, the casino company, are totally separate corporations, just as Mezrich's Las Vegas and the real Nevada town are totally different. Mezrich may be the only gambling writer in America who doesn't know these elementary facts.
For four years I've supported myself and my family by counting cards in American casinos and winning at blackjack. It is a tense, weird, exhilirating life, and I would love for more of my friends to understand it. This book doesn't help. Not only is the grade-school prose tedious. Not only are the technical blackjack details, on those few occasions when Mezrich summons the pluck to try tackling them, incorrect or misleading. The dramatic structure gropes and falls flat. The journalism is scandalously lazy and erroneous. Above all, the spirit, the eclat that card counters muster to wage our little war against casinoland is missing. Mezrich doesn't get it and can't report it. He hasn't been there and he doesn't know, his scanty experimental plays with MIT alums notwithstanding. If you want to know what gamblers are like and how we live, skip this drivel.
Look instead at legendary hustler Amarillo Slim's new memoir, Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People. Look at Jesse May's insuperable poker novel, Shut Up and Deal, which more than any other book depicts the dark heart of the professional player. If it's blackjack history and the activities of the major teams you're into, read Ken Uston. If you want to understand the technical aspects of the game, get Don Schlesinger, Arnold Snyder, Peter Griffin, and, for old time's sake, Ed Thorpe. If you want to learn how a notorious high-stakes counter makes his way in the world, read Ian Andersen's Burning the Tables in Las Vegas. There's so much good gambling writing out there, with so much real-life experience underlying it, that wasting time and money on Mezrich is a sucker's bet.
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on September 27, 2002
I highly recommend this book as a very entertaining read. I was in my local book retailer and decided to see if there were any new counting books in the gaming section. I've learned several counting methods and have read a lot about team play. This book jumped out at me, because I'd heard rumblings about an MIT team that had gone public.
I read the book in one day. I turned my brother loose on it, and he read it in one day. He handed it off to my wife, and she read it in one day. As you can see, it's not a book that bogs you down much. It doesn't get too technical in regards to the strategy or counting methods they used. If you've read and learned the methods ahead of time, it makes more sense, but even if you haven't, it explains enough to move you along.
The author also throws in excitement in the form of the players' run-ins with the casino's, who are not happy to be counted on and taken for thousands at a time. There are also conflicts within the team that make for good reading.
This book is by no means a how-to book... it's more of a how-we-did-it book. If you want to emulate their success, good luck. Facial recognition has made it so that no one can do this to the extent that they did. You can make money playing blackjack.. but don't order that Ferrari just yet.
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on March 7, 2008
I'm an MIT alumnus and was friends with some blackjack team players at various times between 1979 and the present. Whenever Mezrich writes about something where I have personal knowledge, he seems to be fabricating information. This applies even to simple stuff, e.g., he talks about people "graduating from MIT with honors", something that is possible at Harvard, where he studied (one hopes he did not study journalism or factual research there), but not possible at MIT. He talks about some of his characters being MIT engineering majors and being elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society, whose own Web site states clearly that "To be eligible for election, students must have pursued a broad program of study in the liberal arts and sciences" (i.e., engineers are not eligible).

Mezrich and his publisher get many facts wrong that they could have easily checked with Google and Wikipedia. It makes a reader wonder about the stuff that cannot be independently verified...
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on December 30, 2003
I enjoyed the book. It's an easy read. The story is engaging. But I question its veracity.
If you want to read a gambling story that predates this book, search for localroger's "A Casino Odyssey" at He tells a strikingly similar tale. Stikingly similar. If nothing else, the Web publication of localroger's story -- a year before Bringing Down the House came out -- makes me wonder just how much this author has in common with Jayson Blair.
I read through all reviews (160 at this writing). I seem to be the first MIT alum to speak up (although "A reader from Cambridge, MA" is probably also familiar with the school.) I was there in the early 80's. There were rumors about undergraduates who earned their tuition counting cards at blackjack tables. I never met one. I did, however, know some of the authors of a bona fide MIT "hack" book: The Unix Hater's Handbook. "Hacking" (loosely translated as a "prank") is a core and longstanding tradition at MIT. Bringing Down the House smells like another hack to me, but I can't be sure.
On one hand, several reviewers have pointed out what appear to be exaggerations and inconsistencies. On the other hand, The Tech, official source of MIT news archived on the Web, published an article titled "Card Counting Gig Nets Students Millions," which essentially confirms the author's claims. It includes quotes purportedly from the people potrayed in the book. On the other hand, The Tech itself is not immune from being hacked. On the other hand, I got confirmation from another alum that Micky Rosa is for real. OK, enough with the hands.
There are other elements that leave me with questions. One detail that any MIT alum would include in his account is that MIT students aren't called geeks. We're nerds. N-e-r-d nerd. I realize the author isn't an alum, but he shouldn't have missed that -- he doesn't use the word "nerd" ONCE in the whole book. I was also surprised that googling for '"kevin lewis" MIT' doesn't turn up his real name. Are any of the portrayed characters traceable?
To maximize my satisfaction of this tale, I would like to have more assurance that it is true. A fiction writer claiming to write his first non-fiction book simply isn't good enough these days. (Thank you, New York Times, for showing me how stupid publishers can be and for utterly destroying my confidence in writers of all sorts. :-)
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on October 30, 2003
Bringing Down the House is probably the most entertaining book I have read in a long time. I actually found it difficult to put down. When I should have been sleeping I instead continued reading saying to myself "this is the last chapter then i'm going to bed".
I've always had a great interest in gambling and have read many books on card counting as well as heard a little about what this team did in Vegas. When I saw the title I knew I had to give this one a read. I have fairly decent understanding of the many mainstream concepts of blackjack strategy and what this team did was purely brilliant and outside of the common beliefs that Vegas and many pro gamblers (the ones who write books about it) want you to believe. An example, casinos would love to make you think that its impossible to count or beat a 6 deck shoe. In reality this is completely untrue. 1 deck might be easy to count, but you generally only get 1 or 2 rounds of play out of it so when the numbers run to your favor you only have one hand to take advantage of it. When the shoe runs positive, the cards can go several rounds before they flatten out. There are of course many other factors involved such as how deep into the stack the dealer puts the shuffle card, etc.
To any gambling enthusiast this is a must read. To anyone who is neutral on gambling, it is a story that is easy to follow and very intriguing. If you hate gambling and everything it stands for, you might not like it.
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on October 2, 2002
This is a great story. I bought the book on Amazon for my brother after reading an excerpt in Wired Magazine and, after dipping into the first chapter, I felt compelled to stay up most of the night to read it straight through, before shipping it off the next day. The basics of the story -- a bunch of smart kids outwit the big bad casinos and walk away with lots of money (before the inevitable occurs) -- have a pretty much universal appeal. Whether or not all of this stuff actually happened as it's portrayed here: Who cares? The explanations of blackjack strategy are lucid and, unlike most of what you read about this kind of stuff, actually pass the mathematical sniff test. But the real fun is in the execution of the strategy: how this group of kids in their twenties worked in teams, 'casing' the blackjack pits to identify situations were the odds were in their favor, and then swooped in for the kill. And out again. All the while adopting various roles and 'personalities' to take advantage of casinos' own techniques to profile bettors (and 'cheaters') to beat the big houses at their own game. The story is well plotted, fast paced, and would make a fine movie.
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