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.


amdd

Neither the book nor the movie was very accurate. I was at MIT at the time and knew people who were on the team. But I had NO IDEA what they were really doing until years later. It was a well kept secret. Some of them chose to pay taxes, some didn't.

What the movie completely missed is the story of how Las Vegas had to invest big bucks in new technology to prevent these kids (and others, there was more than one MIT team) from being able to do this. It wasn't about facial recognition software, as the movie implies, it was about 6-deck shoes and automatic card shufflers.

Now the dealer works from a six deck shoe (hard to keep track of the count) while another is being continually shuffled, out of sight, behind the table. This was invented purely b/c of the MIT kids!

What these kids could do that was so amazing was not just keep track of the count, but follow packs of "hot" cards through the dealer's hand-shuffling process, so they could estimate pretty accurately when the count was going to change. The movie completely missed this part of the story.

Last time I was in Vegas the Paris casino was offering one-deck blackjack...something that hadn't been offered in decades b/c it's so easy to count. But now with the shuffler, it can be played again, as the players (and the dealers...there's always a potential for them to be on the take) can't influence or keep track of the shuffle.

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TJ

I love the fact that Hollywood script writers had a genius kid from MIT hiding 300K in cash in his flimsy dorm ceiling. Apparently in Cambridge securing a safety deposit box is tricky.

Richard Marcus

As the most well-known professional casino cheater in the world, I can tell everyone that card counting is still very effective when the team play concept is correctly implemented at the blackjack tables, but even more importantly when it is applied AWAY from the blackjack tables. The actual card counting is a very small part of it, anyone can count the cards. What gets the money are the subtleties such as proper camouflaging the counting play by setting up the casino beforehand on craps, roulette and baccarat tables, and knowing proper cash-out procedures after your team has made the money. For more on this, read my card counting page
http://richardmarcusbooks.com/blackjack-card-counting-classes.php
and my latest blog entries on the subject.

COOPERCAT

WITH WELL OVER 20 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE AT BLACK JACK, AND MY BEST TAKE WAS $5,000 WITH A $100. BANKROLL. FROM EVERY TYPE OF SHOE EVER THOUGHT OF, ALONG WITH SHUFFLERS, SINGLE DECK TO MULTIPLE DECK. VEGAS, RENO, ATLANTIC CITY,I HAVE EVEN PLAYED WITH MILLIONAIRE WALES AT $100. TABLES AND EVERY INDIAN CASINO IN 8 STATES. I WANTED TO SHARE MY EXPERIENCES HERE.
1ST OF ALL IF YOU BET THE SAME AMOUNT EVERY HAND ... YOU LOSE!
2ND IF YOU PLAY INCONSISTANTLY .... YOU LOSE!
3RD PLAY WITH MONEY YOU CAN'T AFFORD TO LOSE .. YOU LOSE!
4TH PLAY WITH FEAR AND BEING SCARED... YOU LOSE!
5TH PLAY WITH OTHERS DOING THE 1ST 4 ABOVE ... YOU LOSE!
6TH DON'T WESS WITH A 20 IN YOUR HAND ....EVER (SPLIT, DOUBLE ECT.)
7TH BESIDES WHAT THE BOOK SAYS ONLY SPLIT ACES AGAINST A 5 OR A 6. THAT'S RIGHT DRAW THOSE BAD BOYS JUST LIKE THE HOUSE DOES AGAINST YOU AND STOP AT 17 OR BETTER.
8TH LOSE 6 HANDS IN ROW ... LEAVE THE TABLE
9TH WIN 6 HANDS IN A ROW....TIP THE DEALER
HERE'S THE THING.
THE ODDS ARE YOU PLAY 10 HANDS.
YOU SHOULD LOSE 6 AND WIN 4 (TIES COUNT AS A WIN)
YOU MUST GET THE RYTHYM TO BET HIGHER ON THE WINNING HANDS AND LOWER ON THE LOSERS.

BUT ENJOY YOURSELF ... AFTER ALL IT'S JUST A GAME!

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jacob

i'd pay $5 just so that only interesting useful or factual comments were posted. opinions presented as facts are the worst type of post on a blog ;)

KenC

Didn't see the movie, didn't read the book. However, in the early 80s, pre-PC, I was writing my senior thesis in Economics on Portfolio Theory, and using the mainframe to write a program to calculate the efficient frontier. I had no programming background, so I started with writing a blackjack program to teach myself some of the basics. Using the mainframe, I could run 10s of thousands of simulations to test all sorts of scenarios.

So, I guess, the MIT kids were not the only students thinking about how to win at blackjack while in school.

I only infrequently went to Atlantic City with my frat brothers. I always doubled my small stack, and went home happy. In fact, when I took the obligatory bike tour thru Europe, after graduating, playing blackjack at the Monte Carlo casino helped pay for an extra month there!

Jake

I'm curious about the race issue.

In the book, he spent several pages talking about how they relied on the Asian players because the casinos would not question a young Asian player who had a lot of money.

So I wonder why he's saying it wasn't a big deal.

JP

#23 amdd - At the end of the book there is a section that Jeff Ma wrote about card counting. He states that it is more profitable to have the six decks because there's a longer chance to take advantage of a good deck. The thing you have to do is adjust your bet based on not only the count but the amount of decks left in play, so a +15 count with 5 decks left is a lot worse than a +15 count with 2 decks left.

I would be surprised if the book strayed from reality significantly. There wasn't really that much drama in the book (although it was an interesting read).

I didn't like the movie at all. It completely deviated from the book, it was poorly done, and it was full of cliches. Stuff like what TJ mentions in #20 was commonplace. Another typical scene depicted the team practicing counting in the classroom. Not a single member of the team gets the count right, and then the guy who is supposed to be Jeff Ma, who hasn't joined the team yet and hasn't been taught the system yet, somehow knows the count even though no one even knows he's in the room. I had high hopes for 21 but it was the most disappointed I had been with a movie that I can remember.

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Owinok

I read the book and thought that it was nice to see how the students applied mathematical and statistical probability theories to beat casinos in Vegas. what surprised me was the response with bullying and threats of violence. I wonder whether the movie's script was subjected to a test by the algorithms from Epagogix.