Thursday, February 11, 2021

Book 271: Bringing Down The House


"Contrary to what many novices believed, the goal of blackjack was not to get the best hand possible; it was to beat the dealer’s hand."

Dates read: October 25-28, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

Despite the fact that I've lived in Nevada since 2012, I can count on one hand the number of times I've gambled. Why? Well, I live here. I know how it works. Casinos aren't profitable because you make money. They're profitable because they make money. You may make money here or there, but on the aggregate, the house wins. That's how the system is designed to work.

But there are always people trying to find an edge, and sometimes they succeed (at least for a while). Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House tells the story of a group of people who did just that. Math nerds! In the 90s, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a professor developed a method for team-based blackjack play, and recruited students to take his style of card-counting to Las Vegas. Card counting technically isn't illegal, but casinos can and will boot players who engage in it from playing on their floors. So while the teams are winning big, they're ever-watchful for security and the consequences that might come.

Mezrich fictionalizes all of his characters, including the one through whom he tells the story, calling him Kevin Lewis. A senior on track to graduate with an engineering degree and a steady girlfriend, he's intrigued when two of his friends tell him about the blackjack team they're on and take him along for a weekend at the casinos with them. There's the glamour and flash, but there's also the appealing intellectual challenge of the whole thing. He gets drawn into their world, going through their recruiting process to officially join the team, becoming at first a supporting player and then a main figure on the team. He grows distant from his previous life, breaking up with his girlfriend and having less and less he can talk about with his family, just marking time back home between his trips to Las Vegas with his team.

But they've caught the eye of the powers that be, and they can feel the pressure ramping up. Asked to leave from more and more casino floors, they try disguises, have third parties like strippers cash out their chips once they've been busted and banned, and when even those measures fail, seek alternate gaming venues. Riverboats. Reservations. Even overseas, leading to an incident in which team members are roughed up by the locals. Trust fractures between the members, and eventually there's nowhere else to go.

This makes a solid airplane read (which is where I read most of it myself). Kevin is easy to like...he doesn't get in as deep as some of the other players, which makes him seem grounded and more identifiable. There's a kind of fantasy element to it, the idea that you could learn a straightforward (albeit difficult to master) skill that could make you enormous sums of money, have a regular life as a normal person but live it up in VIP style on the weekends. The tension keeps up nicely and the plot moves along quickly. The book doesn't ask you to do too much in the way of critical thinking.

And maybe it's hoping you won't, because it came out afterwards that many of the more salacious aspects of the book were completely made up. The dramatic try-out in an underground gaming parlor, the strippers cashing out chips, even the physical assault...members of the team on which the book is based have come forward to say those are all lies. Which undermines the impact of the book, and completely discredits Mezrich as an author. And on Mezrich's authoring, this book is no great shakes in terms of prose quality. Everyone besides Kevin comes across as a narrow stock character, and the whole thing is written in a "this happened, and then that happened, and then the next thing happened" way that doesn't allow the material (however exaggerated it might be) to really shine the way it could have. It's entertaining enough, if you take it with an enormous grain of salt. It's far from unmissable, though, and if you're not interested in reading the source material for the movie 21 or in stories about Las Vegas/gambling, it probably won't do much for you.

One year ago, I was reading: The Lives of Tudor Women

Two years ago, I was reading: Forest Dark

Three years ago, I was reading: Wonder Boys

Four years ago, I was reading: Zealot

Five years ago, I was reading: Ahab's Wife

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