Monday, July 20, 2009

Bringing Down the House (2003)

By Ben Mezrich
257 pages

"Bringing Down the House" tells the tale of the MIT blackjack team's assault on American casinos; Vegas in particular. Names are changed as the author sees fit
. Not that any of these guys will find the casino floor any time soon. Other characters are composites of several real people.

Our main focus is "Kevin Lewis," an engineering major at MIT whose friends recruit him for their blackjack team. Using a method of collaborative card counting, the team play Vegas casinos in shifts, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A self-admitted geek who swims in his free time, Kevin now leads a double life out west. He can accost beautiful women. Hotel bosses shower him with lavish comps. The team break off from their mentor Micky Rosa and recruit more players. The profits are bigger than ever. But the danger goes up. Countless aliases, secret signals to get out of trouble, and even Hollywood makeup isn't enough to save the team from extinction.

You can tell why this book gave us the movie "21." I could barely stop myself from skimming ahead at key tension points. Mezrich knows how to spin his words and keep you reading. Between story beats, the book bounces to present day post-2000, where the author interviews some characters from Kevin Lewis' past.

The only things that drag down the book involve details. Does somebody reading a story about blackjack need the basic rules retold? I know the book was trying to be accessible as a narrative, but it felt unnecessary. Especially considering he neglected to ever mention implicity where MIT was, or what it stood for during the early goings. That may sound silly, but it also feels to me like basic writing. I also didn't like how every member of the blackjack team was given a tiny write-up. They, along with other ancillary characters, didn't need such description. Sure, it gives validity to Mezrich's writing, but this and everything else I describe here caused my enjoyment to slow a little bit.

I found out after I completed the book that the author didn't just change names. Some events were exaggerated. Some things that happened to these alias characters didn't happen to the real people. Was I bothered? Not really. There's a disclaimer in the book that talks about names being changed and composites being used. Perhaps the stories came from other gamblers, and Mezrich assigned them to his MIT characters. Perhaps the stories were urban legend.

"Bringing Down the House" is still a largely true tale, and even as a work of partial fiction (if that is indeed the case), it documents the meteoric high and gritty low involved with trying to take down the big guns in Sin City. Its high drama reads easily, and I recommend it.


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