Cheating, Casinos, and Accuracy: A Q&A With the Author of Bringing Down the House

Ben Mezrich

Ben Mezrich‘s book Bringing Down the House — a nonfiction account of six M.I.T. card-counters who made millions in Las Vegas — has sold more than a million copies and was translated into 18 languages.

But the changes made in the recent movie adaptation, 21, have (besides helping to bring in $23.7 million in the movie’s debut weekend) raised questions about the line between fact and fiction in Mezrich’s written account.

Mezrich has agreed to answer our questions about the movie, his book, and casino culture.

Q: When you wrote Bringing Down The House, how much of a priority was keeping your account true to real life?

A: When I sat down to write B.D.T.H., my goal was to keep the book as true to the real story as possible, while doing my best to conceal the characters’ identities (at their request). The M.I.T. blackjack team that I wrote about played over the course of a number of years, in a variety of situations; to get deep into the real story, I interviewed many players, casino operatives, private eyes, etc.

In my narrative nonfiction, my goal is to tell the story in a dramatic, thrilling style — to tell the true story in a way that’s very readable, and hopefully fun.

Q: Some of the characters in the book who were Asian were changed to white in the movie. How do you feel about this?

A: That whole issue has been blown way out of proportion on the Web.

In reality, the main character was Jeff Ma, who was Chinese. He asked me to change his identity so he was not recognizable. Jeff was also a consultant on the film 21, was on set for much of the shoot, and was thrilled with the casting of Jim Sturgess to play him.

As for the rest of the team I wrote about, half were white, two were Asian, and one was of mixed race. The makeup of the characters in the book and the movie reflects this.

Q: What changes in the movie are you most happy with and why? Were you unhappy with any changes?

A: I thought 21 stayed true to the feel and excitement of the book. I really enjoyed the movie, though, of course, it strays from the narrative I wrote.

I think Kevin Spacey is awesome in the movie, and I think Vegas and certainly blackjack never looked so good.

Q: What is fueling America’s casino craze?

A:Vegas is fun, plain and simple. It’s an escape, something every 21-year-old kid dreams about — which wasn’t true 10 years ago.

I think you have to separate out gambling and Vegas; even though Vegas is built on gambling, I think what most people dream about when they dream about Vegas isn’t the gambling, but the fantasy aspect of it all.

As for the casino craze — I’m actually a little frightened by the idea of casinos all over the country. Though of course it’s happening because it’s an easy fix for short-term economic problems.

Q: What makes a movie like 21 appealing to its target audience and were you aiming at the same audience when you wrote the book?

A: 21 tells an amazing story; it’s also a glossy fantasy aimed at anyone who’s ever dreamed about beating Vegas and winning millions.

I think the book aimed for the same thing — the idea that a bunch of super-smart kids could take on something so huge and supposedly unbeatable. It’s David vs. Goliath, Robin Hood, etc. But it also happens to be real.

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  1. frankenduf says:

    I’ve always been curious about the concept of ‘cheating’ a casino- the goal of any casino is to steal your money- first the bills, then the quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies (a context overlooked by this blog’s lobbying to eradicate the penny- the casinos would be against it)- so under the ethical principal of reciprocity, it’s not wrong to ‘cheat’ a casino- it’s more like a tug-of-war for the cash- I’ve seen numerous times where people are overpaid at the blackjack table, and give the money back to the dealer!- I can’t help but smile at the ethical naivete- a casino ain’t no church

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  2. Austin Murphy says:

    There was something about the camera work in that movie that really annoyed me.

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  3. injaku says:

    This wasn’t very informative. He avoided the truly interesting questions. One assumes since he has a vested interest or just knows films aren’t books. This isn’t so much a compliant as an observation. Will have to get my book vs film else where.

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  4. nap70 says:

    I thought the book was non-fiction. I read it about halfway. At that point I realized Mezrich was watching a lot of Melrose Place when he made most of it up. Mezrich says “The idea that the story is true is more important than being able to prove that it’s true.” That’s certainly true for his part. It’s the selling point that got him book and movie deals. But for the reader, it’s disappointing.

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  5. AlexW says:

    I never really understood how counting cards worked. I suppose I understand the concept, I just don’t understand how Casinos can be so easily duped by this.

    While Blackjack is all and well, I have noticed that Freakonomics has a track record of having attractive site-editors.

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  6. angryman says:

    So he distorts the facts to protect players identities – then he identifies them explicitly by name?

    Personally, I’d be a lot more interested in a factual telling of the story rather than a glamourised, generalised one. I’m a big fiction fan too, but in this case, I suspect the truth is more interesting than the screenplay.

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  7. Damien says:

    Casino’s aren’t easily duped by card counting any longer. They prevent it from being effective by limiting bet sizes, using continual auto-shufflers, and the like. When MIT did it, it took really brilliant kids using all kinds of identity tricks to be successful, and even they were eventually tracked down and stopped. And that was before new technology.

    My understanding is that “professional” gamblers don’t actually make their money purely playing the house-edge games. A lot of their value comes from comps, specials, and other incentives they can then sell or otherwise obtain value from. Quick example, if you play $50 per hand you can expect to only lose $100-$150 over 100 hands (playing correctly). If you get a complimentary room and buffet ticket, those could have cash value greater than $200. By seeking out good comps you can do OK.

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  8. a former dice and 21 dealer says:

    frankenduf (#1) is way off the mark. The casinos’ goal is not to steal their customers’ money; their goal is to have customers playing games of chance for long periods of time. If nobody ever won in a casino, nobody would go more than once. The odds are against the player on every game unless the player is cheating or (in the case of 21) counting cards. Gamblers were ahead all the time–they just didn’t know when to leave.

    As a former Caesars employee, our goal was to keep players playing and coming back to our tables, not those down the street.

    By the way, the best “play” in the casino is……………..the change machine!

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