## Monday, February 11, 2008

### Bringing Down the House

Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich

Is it really possible to beat the casino at black jack? This true story by Ben Mezrich chronicles how a team of MIT students studied Basic Strategy and developed an intricate queuing system designed to capitalize on favorable odds and ultimately win money from the house. The book reads like a suspense thriller novel with all kinds of twists and turns, mutiny, subterfuge, dark alleys, shady men in dark suits, complex video surveillance, private detectives, false identities and pretty much anything you've seen in your basic thriller centered around Vegas.

The story follows Kevin Lewis who begins as a straight A MIT engineering student and is recruited to be a member of the MIT black jack team. He learns how to count cards and determine ways to increase the probability of winning at blackjack. If played by oneself, a skilled card counter may have a 2% advantage over the house. But when working in tandem with a team, much larger returns can be made.

The teams used different role players such as spotters, gorillas, and big players. Spotters sit at a table and play the minimum bet while counting face cards and low cards. Low cards are 2 through 6 and receive a point value of positive 1 and high cards are 10 through Ace and receive a value of minus 1. The 7 through 9 cards have neutral value. Each time one of these cards is played the spotter either adds or subtracts from the total to determine the probability of drawing a high card. High cards favor the player over the house. So when the count gets high, the spotter signals the big player to come in and put down big money. This allows large bets with high probabilities of winning. The big player then leaves the table when the count drops back to unfavorable odds. In casino play, they commonly use 6 decks of cards at a time so the counter improves his or her ability of predicting favorable outcomes the deeper into the deck (or horseshoe) that the game goes. The best hand is if the player hits black jack or 21 which pays out 1.5 times the bet. By working as a team, wins are maximized. The system doesn't guarantee winning every time but over a long period of time allows for a good team to win and make lots of money.

The team would fly to Vegas on weekends strapped with as much as half a million dollars strapped to their bodies going through airports and play in the big casinos. Eventually the casinos began to notice patterns of players who consistently won and would ask them to leave to stop the outflow of money. Casinos hire private investigating firms to help identify cheaters and card counters. Eventually, the MIT team is found out and begins getting barred from playing in any casino. They try to circumvent this by developing disguises but these end up failing in time as well.

Some of the members of the team ended up walking away with hundreds of thousands of dollars up to as much or more than a million dollars in winnings over the course of a few years. Card counting is perfectly legal and is not considered cheating since it does not alter the outcome of the game. Casinos clearly do not like to lose money so try to limit losses by identifying card counters.

The amateur should not think he or she can emulate the success of these MIT students. They practiced and practiced countless hours and memorized charts, patterns, signaling systems, and dealt many many hands of Black Jack before even entering a casino. Keep in mind that they were also some of the most brilliant students at MIT which speaks for itself.

The reader should be cautioned that there is a good bit of graphic detail about the seedy side of Vegas, the gambling industry as a whole as well as some moderate violence. If the book were a movie, it would easily be rated R.