Robin Hood meets the Rat Pack when the best and the brightest of M.I.T.’s math students and engineers take up blackjack under the guidance of an eccentric mastermind. Their small blackjack club develops from an experiment in counting cards on M.I.T.’s campus into a ring of card savants with a system for playing large and winning big. In less than two years they take some of the world’s most sophisticated casinos for more than three million dollars. But their success also brings with it the formidable ire of casino owners and launches them into the seedy underworld of corporate Vegas with its private investigators and other violent heavies.
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It was ten minutes past three in the morning, and Kevin Lewis looked like he was about to pass out. There were three empty martini glasses on the table in front of him, and he was leaning forward on both elbows, his gaze focused on his cards. The dealer was still feigning patience, in deference to the pile of purple chips in front of the martini glasses. But the other players were beginning to get restless. They wanted the kid to make his bet already or pack it in, grab the ratty duffel bag under his chair, and head back to Boston. Hell, hadn't he won enough? What was a college senior going to do with thirty thousand dollars?
The dealer, sensing the mood at the table, finally tapped the blackjack shoe. "It's up to you, Kevin. You've had a hell of a run. Are you in for another round?"
Kevin tried to hide his trembling hands. Truth be told, his name wasn't really Kevin. And he wasn't even slightly drunk. The red splotches on his cheeks had been painted on in his hotel room. And though thirty thousand dollars in chips was enough to make his hands shake, it wasn't something that would impress the people who really knew him. They'd be much more interested in the ratty duffel bag beneath his chair.
Kevin breathed deeply, calming himself. He'd done this a hundred times, and there was no reason to think that tonight would be any different.
He reached for three five-hundred-dollar chips, then glanced around, pretending to look for the cocktail waitress. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his Spotter. Red-haired, pretty, wearing a low-cut blouse and too much makeup. Nobody would have guessed she was a former MIT mechanical-engineering major and an honors student at Harvard Business School. She was close enough to see the table but far enough away not to draw any suspicion. Kevin caught her gaze, then waited for her signal. A bent right arm would tell him to double his bet. Both arms folded and he'd push most of his chips into the betting circle. Arms flat at her sides and he'd drop down to the lowest possible bet.
But she didn't do any of these things. Instead, she ran her right hand through her hair.
Kevin stared at her, making sure he had read her right. Then he quickly started to gather his chips.
"That's it for me," he said to the table, slurring his words. "Should have skipped that last martini."
Inside, he was on fire. He glanced at his Spotter again. Her hand was still deep in her red hair. Christ. In six months, Kevin had never seen a Spotter do that before. The signal had nothing to do with the deck, nothing to do with the precise running count that had won him thirty thousand dollars in under an hour.
A hand in the hair meant only one thing. Get out. Get moving. Now.
Kevin slung the duffel bag over his shoulder and jammed the purple chips into his pockets.
The dealer was watching him carefully. "You sure you don't want me to color up?"
Maybe the man sensed that something wasn't right. Kevin was about to toss him a tip when he caught sight of the suits. Three of them, coming around the nearest craps table. Big, burly men with narrow eyes. No time for niceties.
"That's okay," Kevin said, backing away from the table. "I like the way they jiggle around in my pants."
He turned and darted through the casino. He knew they were watching him from above the Eyes in the Sky. But he doubted they would make a scene. They were just trying to protect their money. Still, he didn't want to take any chances. If the suits caught up to him well, everyone had heard the stories. Back rooms. Intimidation tactics. Sometimes even violence. No matter how many makeovers the town got, deep down, this was still Vegas.
Tonight Kevin was lucky. He made it outside without incident, blending into the ever-present flow of tourists on the brightly lit Strip. A minute later, he was sitting on a bench at a neon-drenched cabstand across the street. The duffel bag was on his lap.
The redhead from inside dropped onto the bench next to him, lighting herself a cigarette. Her hands were shaking. "That was too fucking close. They came straight out of the elevators. They must have been upstairs watching the whole time."
Kevin nodded. He was breathing hard. His chest was soaked in sweat. There was no better feeling in the world.
"Think we should quit for the night?" the girl asked.
Kevin smiled at her.
"Let's try the Stardust. My face is still good there."
He put both hands on the duffel bag, feeling the stacks of bills inside. A little over one million dollars, all in hundreds: Kevin's bankroll, partially financed by the shadowy investors who recruited him six months before. They had trained him in mock casinos set up in ratty apartments, abandoned warehouses, even MIT classrooms. Then they had set him loose on the neon Strip.
Most of his friends were back at school taking tests, drinking beer, arguing about the Red Sox. He was in Las Vegas, living the high life on a million dollars of someone else's money. Sooner or later, it might all come crashing down. But Kevin didn't really care.
He hadn't invented the System. He was just one of the lucky few smart enough pull it off...
Copyright © 2002 by Ben Mezrich
Reading Group Guide
Bringing Down the House Ben Mezrich
Blackjack is beatable so we beat it.
We beat the hell out of it.
Author Ben Mezrich takes readers into the inner circle of the M.I.T. blackjack club whose members develop a system for card counting based on techniques from Edward Thorp's 1962 book, Beat the Dealer. Using their unique system, this group of highly educated young men and women take Vegas for more than three million dollars.
And it's all legal.
Told from the perspective of amiable, attractive Kevin Lewis an M.I.T. electrical-engineering major who is torn between a life where his knack for numbers cashes out big and a life that will please his traditional, hard-working father, Bringing Down the House follows Kevin from his elaborate induction into the club and his first time counting cards to his role as Big Player and life as a Vegas high-roller. Under the guidance of the mysterious mastermind and former M.I.T. professor, Micky Rosa, Kevin and his teammates work together to win large sums of money, one casino at a time. Their success opens up a world where luxuries are comped and everyone whether a high-priced stripper or high-rolling celebrity is cheering them on. But shadows begin to appear in their neon lifestyle in the shape of casino managers who want to talk to them "downstairs" and an investigator who always seems to be one step ahead of the team. Within the group itself, tensions build and betrayal surfaces, and Kevin learns that "the most important decision a card counter ever has to make is the decision to walk away."
A New York Times bestseller and soon to be a movie starring Kevin Spacey, Bringing Down the House is the true story about "working the system, turning the math into money, [and] keeping the count without breaking character."
1. Do you see the M.I.T. card counters in this book as heroes who beat a greedy system or do you see them as spoiled Ivy Leaguers with too much time on their hands? When reading the book, do you root for them to succeed? Discuss greed and its role in our society. Do you think it contributes to, or detracts from, the "American Dream"?
2. If Kevin values his father's approval so much, why is it that he becomes a card counter a profession of which his father would not approve? Do you think Kevin is rebelling against the stereotype of the studious, straight-laced Asian? If so, is he helping to perpetuate a new Asian stereotype that of the Asian gambler?
3. Have you ever counted cards at a casino? If so, did it work? If not, would you try it now that you've read this book? Before you read this book, would you have considered card counting to be gambling? Would you have considered it illegal? What is your opinion about card counting now that you've read the book?
4. The fact that these club members are Asian and of college age is significant in helping them avoid suspicion and dupe the casinos. This is not the only way appearances can be misleading. How do stereotypes play a role in this book? What is your stereotype of a gambler?
5. Are Kevin and his card-counting colleagues gambling addicts? If not, how are they different from addicts? Do you think they are driven simply by ego and greed? Or are they driven by something more complex?
6. How does Bringing Down the House portray gambling centers like Las Vegas and Atlantic City? Do you think books and films about card counting can hurt or help casinos?
7. The book has a who-done-it element that is never fully revealed. Who do you think ratted out the team, selling a list of card counters for $25,000? The Amphibians? Mickey? A member of their own team?
8. Is Micky Rosa a good guy? A father figure and misunderstood genius? Or is he something more sinister? Kevin Spacey will be taking on the role of Mickey in the film version. Who would you choose to play this part?
9. In Kevin Lewis's essay at the end of the book, he tells us, "Keep in mind, card counting isn't gambling" (page 257). If gambling is defined as betting on an uncertain outcome, do you agree with Kevin? If not, explain your reasons.
10. Now you are the card counter. Decipher these code numbers:
One more drink and I'll fall off this stool.
The all-you-can-eat buffet here has the best eggs you ever had.
If I don't start winning, my girlfriend can kiss that engagement ring goodbye.
They've got a great sports book here. Especially when it comes to football.
Hey, where can I go bowling around here?
And translate these phrases into the team's gestures:
The deck's warm
The deck's turned hot
I need to talk
What's the count?
Something's wrong, get out now!
Who Said That?:
"A whale is someone who can lose a million dollars at cards and not give a damn." (Answer on page 22.)
"We're freedom fighters, Kevin. We liberate money from the hands of the oppressors. We're Robin Hood, and the casino is the sheriff." (Answer on page 41.)
"Card counting can be good for business, too. They make the civilians think the game is beatable." (Answer on page 66.)
"...the law is pretty clear: As long as you don't alter the outcome of the game, or use a mechanical device such as a calculator or a computer, the worst they can legally do is throw you out." (Answer on page 124.)
"Every time you walk into a casino, they're watching. Every time you cash in a chip, they're taking notes. Sooner or later, they're going to start asking questions. And things will change." (Answer on page 138.)
"Card counting is a misnomer; the practice has nothing at all to do with the ability to count the cards coming out of the deck." (Answer on page 257.)