Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

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Blackjack, strippers and sheer decadence

As suave and entertaining as the Las Vegas illusions which the book’s pages violate and reveal, Ben Mezrich’s “Bringing Down the House” delivers vicarious revenge for anyone who has ever dropped a buck in a casino and left cursing the stacked odds.

Between 1994 and 1998, a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students, the school’s unofficial blackjack team, lived double lives crunching numbers in Cambridge’s libraries during the week and crunching a different sort of numbers in Vegas on the weekends.

The team, comprised of mainly Asian MIT students and run by a former professor with a similar ethnic background, used an intricate system of team card counting to reverse Sin City’s notoriously house-favoring odds, ripping off casinos for millions of dollars. But it was more than just a gambling scheme — it was a full-blown act nearly as intricate as a Penn and Teller show, with team members living large in MGM high roller suites, throwing thousands of dollars at strippers and splashing scotch on their shirts before hitting the tables, all in an attempt to blend in with other patrons of the high stakes tables.

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Mezrich, who was brought in to document the team’s wild story after their fall from grace in 1998, performs a rather deft juggling act as he strives to sufficiently develop nine characters, three of whom have prominence in the story, while still making the city of Las Vegas the central figure.

“Bringing Down the House” is a marvelous juxtaposition of Vegas’ glamorous façade and seedy underbelly. Mezrich goes to great lengths to describe the fawning nature of casino management when dealing with high rollers, and then the brutal, sometimes physical behavior of the same characters when they discover their high stakes patrons to be card counters. The author also tells tales of the strippers and hookers who put the “sin” in “Sin City” and then reveals their deep-seeded anger and discontent through after-the-fact interviews.

But “Bringing Down the House” is also a classic tale of humanity and the greed it entails. Even among the tight-knit MIT blackjack team there is rancor, resentment and a bloodless coup d’état. Friends who jest over sushi and lower their guards over cigars become radically different beasts when $50,000 bets are on blackjack tables and private investigators are hot on their trail.

Mezrich’s writing style is breezy, with short paragraphs and few tangents. His chapters, rarely more than nine pages in length, make for easy reads and have several dividing marks (denoted by a heart, spade, club and diamond, of course), making it easy for the reader to segue in and out of “Bringing Down the House” at their leisure.

The last chapter of the book is an essay by one of the primary members of the team, recalling, and reminiscing over, his long weekends in the desert city and the million-dollar scam he helped pull off. But the essay is penned using a nom de plume, as the author still lives in fear of the MGM Grand’s roaring lion and its carnivorous instinct to get even.

And there is plenty to get even for, considering that “Bringing Down the House” violates the Sin City’s cardinal rule by not letting what happens in Las Vegas, stay in Las Vegas.

Grade: A

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