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Overheated prose, engaging story...and a big mystery...
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 tray...like 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.