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Blackjack Insider Newsletter, January, #37

BOOK REVIEW - BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE

BY LV PRO

Bringing Down the House is the true story of the infamous MIT blackjack team as told through the eyes of former team member Kevin Lewis. Although thatís not his real name, he becomes the protagonist of this gripping tale after meeting author Ben Mezrich at a Super Bowl party in 1999. The story opens with a situation unusual for most of us, but routine for the blackjack team.

Mezrich is at Bostonís Logan airport waiting for a flight to Las Vegas. He is sweating over the prospect of having to carry $250,000 in team cash aboard the plane. He agrees to this at Kevinís request to experience what itís like when team members travel to Las Vegas. As he sits and waits to board the plane, the fear of arrest and confiscation whirl through his mind causing some real suspense. Fortunately he makes it aboard without incident.

Kevin appears to be the typical straight Aís, MIT prodigy. Geeky and shy with women, he is an amiable and aimless MIT grad when he first meets Mezrich. What the author discovers is that Kevin has been leading a double life. For the last six years he and his card counting teammates have been winning huge sums of cash from casinos while enjoying every possible comp and freebie they use to keep their high rolling customers coming back for more. Kevin agrees to tell his story to Mezrich. His reasons for wanting to reveal the tale turn out to be part boast, part confession.

Kevinís blackjack adventure begins when he is recruited by two of his card counting friends. After he watches them count cards, track shuffles, and steer an ace into a hand during an Atlantic City casino weekend, he decides to attend a team orientation meeting where he meets a former math instructor who goes by the alias Mickey Rosa. Mickey is a legendary figure at MIT; exceptional even at a school like this where math geniuses ooze out of the woodwork. He shows Kevin how to beat blackjack by counting cards and then explains the workings of the MIT team including its secret investors and million-dollar bankroll. After a bit of soul searching, Kevin agrees to join.

The book takes us through the world of high stakes gambling and advantage play Ė from the huge wins, scary barrings, and luxurious lifestyle to the clandestine team meetings, strategies, tactics and casino comportment (such as the teammates pretending not to know each other while in the casinos).

Since the publication of this book and others like Ustonís The Big Player, casino managers have absorbed their lessons and are getting smarter. Now they know more about what to look for, especially the Big Player scheme where teammates are seated at various blackjack tables and flat bet the minimum, then wait for a hot shoe and call in the big bettor. This may have been a viable advantage tactic during the Uston and MIT teamís heyday but it has become much more difficult to put that kind of play down today. Casino people absolutely hate blackjack teams. The big Las Vegas Strip casinos watch for this technique with a vengeance. Nowadays they have methods that give them more ways to match and identify card counting team members.

The same goes for shuffle tracking. As time goes on, it has gotten harder to find viable opportunities like the MIT team used. The reason Ė the casinos have wised up after suffering major losses to these skilled teams. The standard shoe shuffling procedure today is much more complicated than it was a year or even six months ago. This is due not so much to books like Mezerichís, which barely scratch the surface on shuffle tracking, but mainly to the wealth of information on the subject thatís available on the internet.

Thankfully, card counting is still a viable winning strategy but, just like most things, when the cat gets smarter, the mice have to forge another step ahead. Itís evident that some of these advantage techniques are less feasible today than they were in the Ď90ís when the MIT team used them. This reviewer truly doubts that any team today could extract four million dollars from the casinos over the same period of time. The cat is out of the bag.

After six novels, this is Mezrichís first foray into nonfiction. He interjects himself into the story at several points which is a bit disconcerting as the narrative switches from third person to first person and back again. At times the prose has an unfinished feel to it as if it was just one of the not-quite-finished final drafts that they just decided to go ahead and publish. Also the book is a bit over-dramatized but, minor criticisms aside, the story itself is compelling. Itís just the sort of high roller fantasy many of us dream about. Comped shows and fights, gourmet dinners, champagne limo service, and airfare reimbursement is just the icing. The "cake" is being able to win over 4 million dollars playing blackjack in the very casinos that furnish these freebies. Not just that Ė the feeling of omnipotence when you know youíre an odds-on favorite to win money every time you sit down at a table must be heady indeed. Youíre the smartest guy in the world and you win thousands of dollars every time. No wonder MIT team members have to forcibly stop themselves from swaggering across the casino floor. They are the kings of Las Vegas Ė as long as they can keep their math skills a secret. Whether theyíre successful at this or not is the main conflict of the story and I wonít ruin the ending by disclosing it here. Youíll just have to read it for yourselves.

If you enjoy reading gambling stories, this one is a corker. Despite the exaggerations, it rings true and the events happened relatively recently. As a card counter, this reviewer devoured the book in a few short days and wished it were longer, less dramatized, and with more details on the teamís playing techniques. All in all, this book is a good read and I definitely recommend it to blackjack players who want to learn how card counting teams operate.

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LV Pro is a serious recreational player who started with basic strategy in 1996 and learned the Silver Fox count by the end of 1998. He has been counting since early 1999, starting with a $2K bankroll and slowly building it to $10K. His trip reports to Las Vegas often appear in the Blackjack Insider newsletter.

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