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.


Damien

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.

a former dice and 21 dealer

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!

angryman

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.

AlexW

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.

Dutch

How much did these characters earn? That's really the bottom line isn't it? Did they earn millions, enough to retire? or was it just a few thousands?

nap70

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.

injaku

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.

Matt

I read the book a few years ago and found it highly interesting- the fact that educated kids would divert some (or all) attention from their studies to see how they could profit at blackjack. Found it to be a nice, underground kind of story.

Then, I had the misfortune to read his second book (Busting Vegas), which was so full of pomp and blather as to be unbelievable. It's obvious that Mezrich wanted to continue to be a writer, so was probably grasping at straws to write something as compelling as his first book, while the iron was hot. Further reviews for his succeeding work seems to indicate he's continued down that path. It's a shame too, because it casts a ton of doubt on the veracity of his original book.

Andrew S.

As to how casinos can be "fooled" by card counters--keep in mind that they make a lot of money from people who *try* to count cards and do it badly. For that matter, if you play the "basic strategy" correctly at the $5 or $10 table, you'll lose money so slowly that the casino can't make a profit on you (especially if you drink their booze)--but they keep the blackjack tables open, because a lot of players *don't* play the basic strategy correctly. Even aside from the boneheaded players who split tens, there are all the people who try to play the basic strategy, but can't quite bring themselves to, say, split those 8s when the dealer is showing a 9, or hit a 15 when the dealer is showing a 7--and if you cop out on those painful plays, the odds slide way in the house's favor.

So it's in the casino's interest to let people *try* to count cards. Even the people who win at it are no big problem, if their winnings are small enough--they count as marketing for the casino, showing that you can beat the house if you play it right (which very few people will ever do). The counters won't affect the bottom line unless they play very well and for high stakes--and *those* guys you can politely chuck out.

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Austin Murphy

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

frankenduf

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

Rick

I don't think most people go to Casino's because of the chance to win money. They go for the entertainment aspect. Admittedly, the chance winning is what makes it fun, but it could be done with with some other objective of less monetary value and would still be quite popular.

The fact that you can put so much on the line constantly and at the end of the day leave only 100 bucks down is what makes it more fun entertainment than spending that 100 bucks elsewhere.

The fact that you might even some money is something is a cherry on top.

Liren

I read the book few years back while taking a statistic class in college. While card counting might not be cheating but team play is. Even though I don't gamble I loved my first trip to Vegas. Since I relocated here towards the end of last year, Vegas is no longer a thrill. I still enjoyed watching all the excitement on the big screen. It brought back memories of how I used to feel about all the glitz. Great book, great movie and great story.

David

@frankenduf Casinos don't cheat, they have no need to. Casinos exist to take the arbitrage between humans crappy risk assessment and reality. Assess risk better and you, too can win money in casinos. I do.

But then I only play poker. There I pay the casino a fee to take arbitrage from YOUR crappy risk assessment. :)

Dean

Card counting wasn't really about cheating the casinos, it was about playing smarter and giving yourself an edge based around limitations on dealer behavior. Dealers don't count cards and are require to make certain bets (ie hit on 16 even if you sat on 15). It's only a fun look at the past though, because the use of multiple decks and fewer hands between shuffles has almost eliminated the advantage.

FinanceGuy

Mezrich's second book "Ugly Americans" wasn't even close to non-fiction. I know some Wall St people who were in Tokyo at that time the book took place and they said that the protagonist was a composite character and some of the stories (motorcycle collision caused by Yakuza thugs) never happened to anyone. Furthermore, the payout by the protagonist's employer was unbelievable and at best, a great exaggeration. Reader beware...

Manuel

I have not already seen the movie, because is not on theatres in Spain until Friday. I hope I will enjoy it.

Reading this interview I realise I have to read the book too, and I will do it!

Thomas B.

I had read your adaptation on Wired, and really enjoyed it. I think the group from MIT have a really fascinating story, and I'm anxious to read the book. The ads for the film seemed to insult my intelligence, though. When we put compelling nonfiction through the blender of artificial tension and melodrama, I worry we're telling our audiences they have no reason to take any interest in the world as it stands.

Maybe hyperdramatization in Hollywood is an inevitable result of the way we finance big, risky projects like films. Maybe digital video technology, an elimination of the DVD gap, or less dependence on the guild system would democratize the industry, help it break away from formulaic storytelling.

martin g

I'm sure the casino industry is tickled pink by the popularity of this movie, in fact I wouldn't be surprised if they provided some subsidy to the production. Casinos will make money from the publicity and the further glamorization of gambling.

The real dirty little secret of the casino industry is taxes. Many casino patrons (slot, keno players) are hit at the end of the year with 1099's that they didn't expect (or forgot about). If they didn't keep an accurate record of all their losses they will owe the IRS about 28% of their winnings that the casino has reported to the government. On the other hand, winnings from the table games are not reported. It is left to the patron to report their balance of winnings to the IRS. I wonder if the MIT students reported and paid the required taxes on their winnings. I doubt it. I've never heard of anybody who has, voluntarily.

The "secret" is that the IRS has an understanding with the casino industry not to require reporting of table game winnings as such. They are required to report large transactions at the cashiers window for purposes of identifying money laundering operations. These reports are not supposed to be for tax reporting purposes and are not sent (directly) to the IRS.

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ddma

American pop culture is a bore. This film is a bore. People really have low standards in the U.S.