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Ben Mezrich: the telling of a true story

By tbc in Culture
Fri Feb 06, 2004 at 04:02:56 AM EST
Tags: Interviews (all tags)

Ben Mezrich (photo) is the author of Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. I learned about the book first from his Wired article, "Hacking Las Vegas: the inside story of the MIT blackjack team's conquest of the casinos". I got the book this past Christmas and enjoyed it. It's an easy read. The story is engaging. However, in my review at Amazon (page back to 30Dec03), I questioned the book's veracity. To my surprise, I got an e-mail from the author: "Wanted to set your mind at ease... [T]he book is for real, as are the stories in it." Further correspondence resulted in his agreement to a phone interview.

It's sad that when an author writes a book as a true story -- even with the backing of a respected publisher like Simon & Schuster -- in our times there are too many skeptics refusing to believe. But, then, they were also the publisher for Stephen Ambrose, confessed plagiarist. And The Old Gray lady tolerated fabricated stories for over four years. Yet American civilization has not fallen beyond redemption. Plagiarists and liars are, for now, the exception, not the rule. As this story turns out, Ben Mezrich rules.

If you read Ben Mezrich's Wired article you'll get the Reader's Digest version of his book. All that needs to be said here is that the story's protagonist, Kevin Lewis (pseudonym), had a blackjack adventure in the 90's very similar to our own localroger, whose story "A Casino Odyssey," parts One, Two, Three, and Four, appeared on K5 two and a half years ago.

I was at MIT in the early 80's. There were rumors about undergraduates who earned their tuition counting cards at blackjack tables. I never met one. I did, however, know some of the authors of a bona fide MIT "hack" book: The Unix Hater's Handbook. "Hacking" (loosely translated as a "prank") is a core and longstanding tradition at MIT. That led me to write in my review that "Bringing Down the House smells like another hack to me, but I can't be sure." On one hand, several Amazon reviewers before me pointed out what appear to be exaggerations and inconsistencies. On the other hand, The Tech, official source of MIT news, published an article titled "Card Counting Gig Nets Students Millions," which essentially confirms the author's claims. It includes quotes purportedly from the people potrayed in the book. On the other hand, The Tech itself is not immune from being hacked. I'll wash my hands clean here. I was in a skeptical mood when I wrote my Amazon review. Now I admit that my theory is implausible. Although Ben Mezrich did tell me that "the idea of a hack of that scale is pretty cool." MIT hackers -- are you thinking what I'm thinking?

One particular detail that caught my attention is that MIT students aren't geeks. We're nerds. N-e-r-d nerd. The author doesn't use the word "nerd" once in the whole book. Mr. Mezrich said, "I just like the term 'geek' better than 'nerd'." I guess can accept that, seeing as how he's a Harvard alum, not MIT.

That's enough of my impressions of the book. Here's what Ben Mezrich had to say.

tbc: Name pronunciation?
BM: MEZ-rick

tbc: Your book's been out for over a year. What's been the reaction to the book?
BM: It's been very, very positive. It was on The New York Times Best-Seller List for 18 weeks and still continues to sell well. I spoke at MIT after the book came out. The team still exists. It's doing quite well this year and has more than fifteen members. The History Channel is airing a documentary in April. They interviewed the other team, the Amphibians. I have remained friends with people from both teams.

tbc: What about the casinos?
BM: I've done book signings in casinos. They like the publicity. It makes people think they can beat Vegas.

tbc: And the investigation agency you portray as the nemesis of the team?
Griffin claims credit for cracking the team, so they're happy with my book, too. They use the book for their own publicity. I've done a couple of interviews with them.

tbc: How long did it take you to put the book together -- research and writing?
BM: three months of research and two to write it. I spent weekends traveling with the team for about three months. I played as a Gorilla. [From his Wired article: "The Gorilla doesn't count at all: He just bets big, all the time. Typically, he adopts the pose of a drunken millionaire who has green to burn. The Spotters ensure the Gorilla's 'luck' by steering him to tables where he's got greater than even odds of winning against the house."]

tbc: Are any real names used in the book?
BM: none. The people I portrayed in my book spoke with me on the condition that I keep their identities secret.

tbc: In the book you say that Kevin Lewis was your main source. Did you talk to any other characters?
BM: I had access to most of the characters, some more than others. Much of the story had to be changed to conceal their identities -- even the chronology. If I had done less, it would have been easy to figure out who they were. Whenever someone writes a book based on a true story, they take liberties. Look at The Perfect Storm. That's a true story, but the boat was lost, so the author had to fill in the story.

tbc: How did Kevin legally use aliases -- especially drivers licenses and Social Security Numbers?
BM: That's a gray area. You can't legally get an actual, official driver's license. But you can get a fake one. People don't realize that fake IDs aren't illegal. What you do with them might be. But you can check into a hotel under a false identity. That's legal. The same goes for credit cards. You can use an alias legally. Now, taxes are a different matter. Tax forms and the Cash Transaction Reports, to be done legally, have to list your real SSN.

tbc: At the end of the book, Kevin's essay describes sophisticated card tricks the team used to their advantage in the casinos. Did you see these done?
BM: Yes, it was pretty amazing. They showed them to me at initial meetings during my research, and also when I accompanied them to the mock casinos they had set up around Boston. Some players can cut exactly 52 cards, some can track shuffles, and some can spot aces and track them through the deal.

tbc: (this comes from localroger) How long do players generally last in a particular joint when their action turns orange ($1000+)?
BM: I'm not familiar with orange chips. They were betting ten thousand dollars a hand with a million dollar bankroll. Sure, they used thousand and five thousand dollar chips. I don't know a specific amount of time. The team rotates players, which makes it harder for the casinos to track them.

tbc: There's a scene in your book where Fisher and Martinez go to the Bahamas, and Fisher gets beaten up in a bathroom by the mysterious Vincent Cole. How did you get that material? Did Fisher tell you, or Martinez?
BM: That was tricky to do. It's a well-known story among the high-stakes gamblers. I relied on anecdotes, but it did happen to members of the MIT team.

tbc: One Amazon reviewer called your book fiction because he was a card counter and hadn't been mistreated by the casinos. They banned him from blackjack but still gave him comps.
BM: There aren't that many people betting at the level that the MIT team did. Sure, the casinos are going to be nice to low-stakes customers. But the high-stakes gamblers I've talked to about the book have no problem with my story. They know what happens to players at their level. A lot of counters complain that the MIT team couldn't do what they did, but those people aren't playing on teams. They're counting alone. The teams are much more effective.

tbc: Another reviewer deconstructed Teri Pollack, the cheerleader. "According to this book, she 'made her living off her looks: she was a rookie cheerleader with the Rams.' (page 104) Now, this is silly. NFL cheerleaders basically work for free. They get a nominal sum and a couple tickets for each game. But much worse, on page 139 we get this: '... they had stellar weekends beginning with New Year's and running all the way to Memorial Day. Kevin saw less of Teri during this period--football was in full swing, and she was traveling with the Rams most weekends...' Football is in full swing between New Year's and Memorial Day? Hellooooo? In what universe?"
BM: That has to do with my efforts to disguise her identity. She was indeed a cheerleader, but not the team or sport that I wrote about.

tbc: Congratulations on your movie deal. How's that going?
Kevin Spacey is producing it. He's assumed to be starring in it, but that hasn't been settled. MGM -- the same company that owns most of the large casinos in Vegas -- is the studio for the project. Some of the team members are consultants -- the Jill character, for one. It's going into production this year, In a couple weeks, US Magazine will run a story. I've heard that Tobey Maguire is being considered. So is Topher Grace from That 70s Show. He's "about to break out," as they say.

tbc: This story seems similar to Catch Me If You Can, or The Cooler.
BM: Yeah, I liked The Cooler. But this will be more like Ocean's Eleven. Instead of a heist, they'll do it legally. Peter Steinfeld is the screenwriter. I haven't seen it, but I hear it's terrific.

tbc: You got the movie deal even after exposing Hollywood's tracking boards in your Wired piece?
BM: That worked in a positive way. They like any kind of publicity. I didn't say anything people didn't already know: that Hollywood is a big game.

tbc: What are the characters up to these days? Have any of them gone public?
BM: Most of them have regular jobs. The consultants for the film aren't making huge money. Martinez is working with the current MIT team. Many of them have done interviews -- ABC Primetime, Court TV, National Geographic, The History Channel, Discover, as well as all local TV and radio in Boston. When they are interviewed their faces are blacked out. Kevin Lewis will be showing his face as part of the publicity for the movie. Semyon Dukach did ABC Primetime with me and Kevin. (He trained Martinez and Fisher.) He's the only one to show his face.

tbc: How do you compare fiction, nonfiction, and the movie businesses? Do you have a preference?
BM: I enjoy writing nonfiction more, but you have to find great stories. It's more work finding the story. I foresee doing both.

tbc: On the About the Author page of your book, you refer to your pseudonym Holden Scott. Why make the connection?
BM: I chose to put a book out under a pen name to get around contractual obligations. I wasn't trying to hide my identity. And Since Ben Mezrich writes so much better than Holden Scott, I don't see returning to my pseudonym anytime soon.

tbc: Your second nonfiction book, Ugly Americans: The True Story of the Ivy League Cowboy Who Raided Asia in Search of the American Dream is coming out in May. Anything you can say about that now?
BM: Kevin Spacey is attached as producer. I don't want to give too much away, but it's about a Princeton kid who went to Tokyo and got involved in high stakes s--t. He made close to a billion dollars. It focuses on the expat world in Asia.

tbc: Sort of like Lost in Translation?
BM: Yeah, Lost in Translation with sex & money.

After the phone call, I had one more check to make just to be sure that I had really been talking to Ben Mezrich. My caller ID logged the incoming number, so I googled it. My final surprise: he still has a listed number.


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


Related Links
o Google
o photo
o "Hacking Las Vegas: the inside story of the MIT blackjack team's conquest of the casinos"
o page back to 30Dec03
o Simon & Schuster
o Stephen Ambrose
o confessed plagiarist
o fabricated stories
o Ben Mezrich's Wired article
o localroger
o One
o Two
o Three
o Four
o The Unix Hater's Handbook
o Hacking
o The Tech
o Card Counting Gig Nets Students Millions,
o Griffin
o localroger [2]
o Kevin Spacey
o Tobey Maguire
o Topher Grace
o That 70s Show
o Catch Me If You Can
o The Cooler
o Ocean's Eleven
o Peter Steinfeld
o your Wired piece
o Semyon Dukach
o ABC Primetime
o Ugly Americans: The True Story of the Ivy League Cowboy Who Raided Asia in Search of the American Dream
o Lost in Translation
o Also by tbc

Display: Sort:
Ben Mezrich: the telling of a true story | 65 comments (42 topical, 23 editorial, 4 hidden)
You didn't ask my question. (1.60 / 5) (#14)
by bigbtommy on Thu Feb 05, 2004 at 03:35:31 PM EST

I so badly wanted to know what Ben Mezrich thought of the fine institution "Hooters". Ah, fuck it, I'll vote it up anyway.
-- bbCity.co.uk - When I see kids, I speed up
noticed this (2.80 / 5) (#17)
by StephenThompson on Thu Feb 05, 2004 at 06:41:21 PM EST

"People don't realize that fake IDs aren't illegal"

YES THEY ARE.  At least if they appear to be official state documents.  It is illegal to possess fake passports, and in most states, fakes of official looking licences or ids.  

The grey area might be: it might be legal to possess fake documents from other states.

What State? (none / 1) (#18)
by thelizman on Thu Feb 05, 2004 at 07:40:33 PM EST

In most states it is only illegal to make fake ID's, or to use fake ID's in committing a crime (like buying alcohol when you're underage).

"Our language is sufficiently clumsy enough to allow us to believe foolish things." - George Orwell
[ Parent ]
In Massachusetts (3.00 / 7) (#19)
by leviramsey on Thu Feb 05, 2004 at 08:56:07 PM EST

No person shall: (a) display, cause or permit to be displayed, or have in his possession, any canceled, fictitious, fraudulently altered, or fraudulently obtained identification card; (b) lend his identification card to any other person or knowingly permit the use thereof by another; (c) display or represent any identification card not issued to him as being his card; (d) permit any unlawful use of an identification card issued to him; (e) photograph, photostat, duplicate, or in any way reproduce any identification card or facsimile thereof in such a manner that it could be mistaken for a valid identification card, or display or have in his possession any such photograph, photostat, duplicate, reproduction, or facsimile unless authorized by the provisions of this chapter.

MGL Chapter 90, Section 8H

Whoever falsely makes, steals, alters, forges or counterfeits or procures or assists another to falsely make, steal, alter, forge or counterfeit a learner's permit, a license to operate motor vehicles, an identification card issued under section eight E, a certificate of registration of a motor vehicle or trailer, or an inspection sticker, or whoever forges or without authority uses the signature, facsimile of the signature, or validating signature stamp of the registrar or deputy registrar upon a genuine, stolen or falsely made, altered, forged or counterfeited learner's permit, license to operate motor vehicles, certificate of registration of a motor vehicle or trailer or inspection sticker, or whoever has in his possession, or utters, publishes as true or in any way makes use of a falsely made, stolen, altered, forged or counterfeited learner's permit, license to operate motor vehicles, an identification card issued under section eight E, certificate of registration of a motor vehicle or trailer or inspection sticker, and whoever has in his possession, or utters, publishes as true, or in any way makes use of a falsely made, stolen, altered, forged or counterfeited learner's permit, license to operate motor vehicles, certificate of registration of a motor vehicle or trailer or inspection sticker, and whoever has in his possession, or utters, publishes as true, or in any way makes use of a falsely made, stolen, altered, forged or counterfeited signature, facsimile of the signature or validating signature stamp of the registrar or deputy registrar, shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than five years or in jail or house of correction for not more than two years.

Whoever falsely impersonates the person named in an application for a license or learner's permit to operate motor vehicles, or procures or assists another to falsely impersonate the person named in such an application whether of himself or another, or uses a name other than his own to falsely obtain such a license or whoever has in his possession, or utters, publishes as true, or in any way makes use of a license or learner's permit to operate motor vehicles that was obtained in such a manner shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than five years or in a jail or house of correction for not more than two years.

A conviction of a violation of this section shall be reported forthwith by the court or magistrate to the registrar who shall suspend immediately the license or right to operate of the person so convicted, and no appeal, motion for new trial or exceptions shall operate to stay the suspension of the license or right to operate. The registrar after having suspended the license or right to operate in accordance with this paragraph shall not terminate such suspension nor reinstate the right to operate to such person until one year after the date of suspension following said conviction; provided, however, that if the prosecution against such person has terminated in his favor, the registrar shall forthwith reinstate his license or right to operate.

M.G.L. Chapter 90, Section 24B

[ Parent ]
Nevada says (3.00 / 4) (#20)
by StephenThompson on Thu Feb 05, 2004 at 08:58:36 PM EST

Possession or sale of document or personal identifying information to establish false status or identity

[ Parent ]
Actually (none / 2) (#33)
by trhurler on Fri Feb 06, 2004 at 06:51:26 PM EST

In almost all states, it is legal to possess the fakes of other states. There are maybe half a dozen exceptions. BUT, the laws regarding this work the same way as the laws regarding fake money. An "obvious" fake is not illegal, and you can typically count on people who check IDs not to refer to the book frequently, so if you use an uncommon state, they probably won't even realize that your obvious fake IS an obvious fake. In no state I'm aware of is it illegal to possess fake foriegn identity papers, and if you're an American citizen, the relevant federal law contains no penalty that pertains to you(although this is not legal advice,) because you cannot be deported or extradited, provided you haven't committed a crime in the country your papers are supposedly from(and if you've never been there, then...)

The point is, faking your identity for all non-government requests except proof of age can be done almost everywhere in the US by a US citizen without breaking any criminal law. Breaking contractual obligations might be a problem(credit card companies probably have language regarding this, but I've never looked, for example,) and other civil problems could arise, but if you do your homework, you can almost certainly be sure of not getting a criminal record this way.

That said, any counter either has to rely on those CTRs not being adequately cross referenced(unlikely,) or else break the law sooner or later, unless he's going to remain small time in terms of money. I can imagine a couple of ways around this(all involving the hypothesis that it might be legal for a corporation to gamble and use its tax ID instead of an SSN, or else using a friend to cash out for you,) but they're insane and you'd get caught sooner or later anyway.

'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

[ Parent ]
Actually ... (none / 2) (#41)
by EphraimT on Sat Feb 07, 2004 at 01:00:46 AM EST

... breaking contractual obligations by means of a false instrument is prima facie evidence of fraud and/or theft by deception - a criminal offense in all 50 states.

Its easy to justify what we want to do - its a whole lot harder to get away with it.

[ Parent ]
Yes, but... (none / 1) (#50)
by trhurler on Sat Feb 07, 2004 at 07:11:08 PM EST

as we all know, whether or not you really used a false instrument in this case depends heavily on the circumstances, and proving that you did so may or may not be practical; there's a big difference between what's legal and what's practical grounds for a conviction, if you've got a good lawyer. Also, most of what I said remains true without qualification.

Incidentally, I don't recommend doing any of this, but I can see why some people would want to, and the law is actually remarkably porous on the subject, which is the reason I posted in the first place - it is an oddity that this particular area of law isn't more strict, given the overall legal scheme under which we live.

'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

[ Parent ]
NO IT ISN'T (2.00 / 4) (#34)
by localroger on Fri Feb 06, 2004 at 06:56:06 PM EST

It is illegal to manufacture and sell fake driver's licenses and it is illegal to use them for official purposes, but it is not illegal to possess up to six of them and to use them for concealing your identity in private transactions. The limit is six on the assumption that if you have more than that, you're manufacturing them.

This information came to X of A Casino Odyssey via a card-counting lawyer whose hobby is suing casinos that kick him out, and it has checked out with other sources.

What will people of the future think of us? Will they say, as Roger Williams said of some of the Massachusetts Indians, that we were wolves with the min
[ Parent ]

Oops (none / 2) (#40)
by localroger on Fri Feb 06, 2004 at 10:03:47 PM EST

It kindasorta is illegal, but only in the same way it's illegal to do 75 in a 65 zone. Massivefubar clarified this in a toplevel comment. What I interpreted from my friends as "it doesn't matter" wasn't "it's legal" as much as "it's not so illegal as to be a major bother."

What will people of the future think of us? Will they say, as Roger Williams said of some of the Massachusetts Indians, that we were wolves with the min
[ Parent ]
Please cite appropriate statutes & rulings (none / 1) (#54)
by tassach on Mon Feb 09, 2004 at 11:09:02 AM EST

If you are making an extrordanary claim without offering proof.  There are enough legal resources on-line that you can provide links to the relevant statutes and precedent rulings to back up your claim.

There's a huge difference between using a pseudonym or alias (which is usually legal as long as you are not doing it with fraudulent intent) and possessing and using counterfeit government documents.


"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants" -- Thomas Jefferson
[ Parent ]

If it's that important to you... (none / 2) (#55)
by localroger on Mon Feb 09, 2004 at 07:22:03 PM EST

my advice is to do what X did and ask a lawyer. I'm not your personal research assistant, and the relevant information isn't necessarily on the Web.

BTW I hope you noticed my "oops" comment just under yours which admits that it is illegal, just not very illegal like a traffic ticket. MassiveFubar also posted on this.

What will people of the future think of us? Will they say, as Roger Williams said of some of the Massachusetts Indians, that we were wolves with the min
[ Parent ]

That's ass backwards, son.. (none / 0) (#60)
by geekmug on Wed Feb 11, 2004 at 12:53:12 PM EST

You don't go find rulings and precedents for things that are ALLOWED. You go find them to prove that they are DISALLOWED. Everything is ALLOWED unless otherwise DISALLOWED (read: freedom).

-- Why reinvent the square wheel?
[ Parent ]
A comment on the card-counters (3.00 / 9) (#29)
by StephenThompson on Fri Feb 06, 2004 at 04:17:09 AM EST

 know a person who is involved with a scheme that is indistiguishable from what is described by the author; he is ex-MIT, extremely brilliant and very secretive about a card counting ring he is in (I'm not supposed to know about it).  
It is interesting that the linked article mentions the "Gorilla" as a person posing as a drunken millionaire because this person actually is a hugely wealthy millionaire who really could gamble $10,000 a pop and not bat an eye.
Now like I say, he's very brilliant; as smart as anyone I've ever met.  But, you know, there is a little blinder there socially. Its a type of arrogance, the type you see in precocious teens before they have outgrown their superiority complexes.  The kind that can be used by much less intelligent, but more socially perceptive manipulators. I percieve a similar type of blindness in localroger when he talks about his gambling days.  Its not easy to put into words; but its about why they are doing what they are doing and who is fooled by it.  

BM even touches obliquely the subject in this interview: the casino's actually like the publicity when somebody writes a book about beating the house.  
So who is fooling who?  I mean, they are so smart they can make a few bucks 'hustling' the house [which in my aquaintance's case is a losing propition given his defacto hourly income], but not smart enough to see that they are being used. I mean, localroger talks a lot about people using people in his writing, but I just don't see that he is really getting the bigger picture.
They are being used as a loss leader by the gambling industry for advertising.  In some sense they know it too, but in another sense, there is that ego, telling them that they are smart, and can't be taken.  
Oh well, they are getting paid [in a way], but then, so is the girl they send to your room.

[bah, editorial should not be default in edit Q]

I thought I'd seen this comment. (none / 1) (#31)
by tbc on Fri Feb 06, 2004 at 01:03:01 PM EST

It's a dupe, and there's already a thread started there.

[ Parent ]
MGM Mirage (3.00 / 4) (#32)
by MadBrowser on Fri Feb 06, 2004 at 01:47:26 PM EST

Perhaps this story is true... Changing the cheerleader thing to protect an identity into something nonsensical seems a little odd... Anyway, he says that the movie studio MGM owns casinos. Incorrect. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (NYSE: MGM) makes movies and owns a large back catalog of films. Majority stockholder is Kirk Kerkorian. MGM Mirage (NYSE: MGG) is a totally independent company that owns 5.5 casinos in Las Vegas (Bellagio, MGM Grand, NYNY, Treasure Island, the Mirage and 50% of the Monte Carlo). Majority shareholder is also Kirk Kerkorian... Not the same company, totally different management, etc... Just nitpicking. RateVegas.com - http://www.ratevegas.com

My dubiosity is aroused (3.00 / 3) (#35)
by localroger on Fri Feb 06, 2004 at 07:13:11 PM EST

I'm not familiar with orange chips.


By his own claim he was a Gorilla for this team. Which means he was handling money. Even if we assume he was playing with grey ($5K or $10K depending on casino) cheques, betting only in high counts so as to make no small bets, it beggars the imaginatin that he would not be familiar with the standard color for $1,000 cheques. Hint: the slang nickname "Pumpkin" is almost universal.

While a million dollar bankroll can sustain $10,000 max-bet play, I cannot believe they actually play at this level. For one thing you are filling out a CTR every time you place a bet, and it's illegal to use your fake driver's license to fake CTR info. For another, there are very few people in the world who play at that level regularly -- less than a thousand. Their play is watched meticulously. They are known.

It is simply unbelievable that you could play at that level for any length of time without it being noticed that you only bet in high counts. It might take a few hours, but that's all it would take. Nearly everyone who plays at that level has their own private table and they cannot cherry-pick the shoes they want to bet like a green chip bettor can.

Ever been in a real casino? Hardly any offer the opportunity simply wander around among the tables and place a $10,000 bet on a whim.

I sense a Spock moment: Mezrich may not be lying but I think he has exaggerated a hell of a lot.

Ed Thorpe, who did the first formal analysis of card counting, was once asked how much he could make counting cards. He answered $300,000 a year, which is in line with what X experiences considering that it was easier to play in Thorpe's day.

I'm sure Griffin and the casinos really do love this book. Anyone trying to emulate it will be quickly nailed anywhere they try to play.

What will people of the future think of us? Will they say, as Roger Williams said of some of the Massachusetts Indians, that we were wolves with the min

Elaboration: Cheque Colors (3.00 / 3) (#37)
by localroger on Fri Feb 06, 2004 at 08:49:29 PM EST

If you haven't spent eight years hanging around casinos you might not know the standard cheque coloring scheme. For reference, here is a quick rundown:

$1: Silver / White

Not all casinos have white cheques; some use $1.00 slot tokens instead. This is hell on Craps dealers because the slot tokens don't stack as neatly as cheques. We know of one casino where there was much rejoicing when management finally decided to spring for white cheques and the infrastructure to deal with them.

There are occasional exceptions. A couple of low-end Vegas casinos (such as the Golden Gate) use blue $1.00 cheques.

$5: Red

There are a few exceptions such as Binion's and Sam's Town which have traditionally used blue $5 tokens. Otherwise "red action" means $5 a hand.

$25: Green

$100: Black

$500: Purple

Some extremely cheap casinos don't have purple cheques but they are nearly universal. Purple cheques are generally the highest denomination which are the same size and shape as ordinary $5 cheques.

$1000: Orange

Pumpkins were rare on the Gulf Coast at first, what with the relatively small action the startup casinos would tolerate, but go into the Grand or Beau Rivage and color out at the table for $4325.50 and you will get four orange cheques, three black, a green and a US JFK fifty cent piece. I am not aware of another color being used for this denomination, and because it's the highest standard color it's common to hear "orange action" used to describe anything above this level.

Pumpkins are also usually a bit larger than lower denomination cheques, so as to avoid confusion with other denominations in low light conditions.

$5000: Gray

$10,000: Gray

Yep, once you get above $1,000 the air gets pretty thin. When I was active only two Gulf Coast casinos had cheques higher than $1,000 and they were both gray $5,000. At properties where large action is more common the gray cheques are sometimes worth $10,000. Normally the only people who use these cheques are "whales" like Larry Flynt.

These cheques are also very large and heavy compared to normal cheques. This means the normal cheque holders and rails do not work for them. If you are actually playing these cheques it will almost certainly be at a properly equipped private table.

Cashing in:

At most properties the largest denomination cheques are tracked carefully. If you show up at Casino Magic Biloxi with ten Pumpkins you cannot expect to cash them out without some questions about where you got them. The cashier will usually call the pit where you were gambling to verify that the cheques are really yours.

At a place like Caesar's Palace or Binion's they won't sweat the Pumpkins but they will be just as careful with their Grays.

Anybody who had ever been gambling at this level, or even with hanging with people who were, would know everything I just wrote, just as surely as you know what a red octagonal sign with the letters S-T-O-P means if you've ever ridden in a car.

What will people of the future think of us? Will they say, as Roger Williams said of some of the Massachusetts Indians, that we were wolves with the min
[ Parent ]

Binions is closed.... (none / 1) (#42)
by ckm on Sat Feb 07, 2004 at 03:11:25 AM EST

It was raided when I was in vegas a few weeks ago.  By the federal marchales and on a Friday night, no less..


[ Parent ]

Yeah, I heard about that (none / 1) (#45)
by localroger on Sat Feb 07, 2004 at 08:41:20 AM EST

I think the Horseshoe in Tunica also uses the blue cheques, though. It's run by different people and is still open.

What will people of the future think of us? Will they say, as Roger Williams said of some of the Massachusetts Indians, that we were wolves with the min
[ Parent ]
Red $5 cheques last time at Horseshoe. (none / 1) (#46)
by mattmcp on Sat Feb 07, 2004 at 12:32:59 PM EST

Been a couple years though. Don't actually remember any non-red $5 cheques.

[ Parent ]
They switched to the standard scheme, then /nt (none / 1) (#48)
by localroger on Sat Feb 07, 2004 at 06:15:22 PM EST

What will people of the future think of us? Will they say, as Roger Williams said of some of the Massachusetts Indians, that we were wolves with the min
[ Parent ]
Bellagio & Mirage use blue (none / 1) (#47)
by harryh on Sat Feb 07, 2004 at 05:56:54 PM EST

There are occasional exceptions. A couple of low-end Vegas casinos (such as the Golden Gate) use blue $1.00 cheques.

Some high-end ones do as well. Bellagio & Mirage (owned by the same people) both use blue for $1 cheques.

[ Parent ]
Never noticed (none / 1) (#49)
by localroger on Sat Feb 07, 2004 at 06:19:09 PM EST

I am way too cheap to play craps at Bellagio or Mirage. (Mirage might be do-able now but I haven't been there since Bellagio stole all their business.) And they don't generally use $1 cheques at the BJ tables.

In fact, some casinos (the Grands for sure) have special $2.50 cheques they use for paying 3:2 BJ on $5 wagers. Those were pink IIRC.

What will people of the future think of us? Will they say, as Roger Williams said of some of the Massachusetts Indians, that we were wolves with the min
[ Parent ]

Or... (none / 0) (#61)
by lgas on Fri Feb 13, 2004 at 02:34:24 PM EST

Maybe they only played at Luxor, where the $1,000 chips are light blue.  

Also, in most of the places I've been, they use larger chips for denominations even as low as $100 in the baccarat pit, but they also have smaller versions of the same chips (at least up to the $5k level, which if I recall was brown at Mandalay Bay) which they use at the regular black jack tables.

It's also been my experience that even some of the big strip hotels in Vegas have started "sweating the small stuff".  I've had calls to pits to verify amounts on cashouts as low as $2,500... with all black/green chips.


[ Parent ]

dishonesty sucks (none / 2) (#36)
by massivefubar on Fri Feb 06, 2004 at 08:36:30 PM EST

Do you know the meaning of the word "true?" If you actually read the story, and if you had any contact with the many MIT teams (yes, Virginia, there is no such thing as "the" MIT team, lots of folks go to MIT or once went to MIT or once met someone who went to MIT and they all say they have an MIT team), you would have gotten a pretty good laugh at some of the howlers in Kevin Lewis's story.

Personal favorite: When he claims someone broke into his house and left him a $500 chip "as a message" that they had been there. Now I've bet a lot of money and I've pissed off a lot of casinos, and somehow no one ever bothered to break into my house to leave a $500 chip to send me a message.

Yo, casinos, I'm still at the same address -- you know the one you sent all the junket offers to? I'll take any $500 chips you care to leave.

Griffin is a joke, and I don't doubt that Ben Mezrich was happy to take cash to make their ineffective services look real. Nor do I doubt that a writer would make up a story in order to sell it to the movies. I have no problem with a frank novelist. Hollywood has no interest in what it's really like to count cards, and we all must put food on the table. But a man who claims that his lie is the truth is a whore for money. And the man who believes him is a dupe.

it's illegal but... (none / 3) (#38)
by massivefubar on Fri Feb 06, 2004 at 09:00:29 PM EST

People don't seem to grok the difference in severity between a summary offense, a misdemeanor (spelling ? sorry it's Friday night), and a felony.

If you have five or more false IDs, it's a felony offense under some old terrorism statues going back to the 1970s, when terrorism was also big. I don't even want to know how big a felony it is under the Patriot Act.

If you have a single fake ID which you are using to commit a minor offense such as buying underage alcohol or playing in a casino to hide your privacy, it's a summary offense (a traffic ticket). A friend received a ticket for $100 for cashing a coupon at Harrah's New Orleans in a false name. Since he'd earned many tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, can we agree that it was worth it? Many of us routinely get $100 speeding tickets just to get a little ahead on the interstate, with no financial benefit whatsoever. It does not make you a criminal nor does it give you a criminal record to be subject to a summary judgement.

Somewhere in the middle is the option of charging the holder of false ID with a misdemeanor offense. Right now I can't think of anyone charged like that who wasn't using the ID for buying alcohol underage.

In my experience, the person who discovered I had fake ID would just sneer. I was never charged with any offense. On the other hand, a friend who went through a major airport with his blackjack kit was arrested, jailed, and had to spend close to $20,000 to get the charges dropped for felony possession of fake ID. Use common sense. Ever hear of 9-11? Please, no fake ID in airports or in other places where you will upset people who are trying to protect this country against the evildoers.

There are MIT teams and other players who are said to use fake ID to evade the CTR reporting requirement and to engage in other forms of fraud. I don't doubt it, but I fail to understand why. If you are going to break the law anyway, there is a lot more money in (shall we say) chemical engineering. And there are many forms of white collar fraud that are infinitely more profitable than blackjack that are never prosecuted. I thought blackjack was for honest folk. Silly me. It is for honest folk and for stupid dishonest folk. As far as I'm concerned, it takes an idiot to commit a federal offense on videotape.

And it is shameful of self-promoting writers to pretend it's OK for a buck. Some naive kid could really get hurt as a result of this sort of lie. Carrying false ID is never legal, and it could be an extremely serious offense. Know the very complicated law in this area, and know what you are doing.

Ouch (none / 2) (#39)
by localroger on Fri Feb 06, 2004 at 09:57:26 PM EST

I stand corrected. It's not OK, it's just not very un-OK in moderation. Been awhile since I was around this shit.

What will people of the future think of us? Will they say, as Roger Williams said of some of the Massachusetts Indians, that we were wolves with the min
[ Parent ]
Alternative crimes.. (none / 0) (#59)
by geekmug on Wed Feb 11, 2004 at 10:32:00 AM EST

Chemical engineering is a bad one because the offense is highly punishable and will haunt you for a lifetime. Not only that but you would immerse yourself in a crowd of people that would kill you to steal your "precipitate". And they were from MIT, that doesn't tell you much about what their expertise is in.. unless they were skilled in those trades, there would be a large margin for error (profit loss).

Maybe card counting was just some they were particularly well suited for..

Ditto on the stupidity of commiting an offense knowingly being taped.

-- Why reinvent the square wheel?
[ Parent ]
Question (none / 1) (#43)
by kobayashi on Sat Feb 07, 2004 at 05:10:39 AM EST

For anyone who knows about this more than i do ..

The expected return 2% has what kind of standard deviation (over time) associated with it? I can believe that if you went to the casino frequently, with some moderately good counting scheme, you could earn a postive return. But consistently, in just one night, or a weekend, taking in $100,000 wins? I'm surprised by those numbers. My guess would have been that the time required to safely earn your "edge" would have been some months.

It's very large (none / 2) (#44)
by localroger on Sat Feb 07, 2004 at 08:40:27 AM EST

The rule of thumb is that you need 100 big bets to play without significant risk of ruin, and you need 500 to 1000 hours play to have a significant likelihood of realizing your EV.

Playing at a level of $1000 to $2000 max bets it is not unusual to be down $50,000 from your max bankroll at any given time.

What will people of the future think of us? Will they say, as Roger Williams said of some of the Massachusetts Indians, that we were wolves with the min
[ Parent ]

Hollywood tracking boards (none / 1) (#51)
by Stickerboy on Mon Feb 09, 2004 at 01:09:24 AM EST

If it's true that the major players are in collusion by consensus in Hollywood, how the hell do you explain catastrophes like Gigli?  Battlefield Earth?  The Postman?

Or did every senior Hollywood executive read the steaming pile of shit that is Gigli, wake up the next morning and exclaim, "This script is solid gold!"

Who says they read it? (none / 2) (#53)
by Repton on Mon Feb 09, 2004 at 07:32:04 AM EST

Did you read the whole article?

"It's really about buzz," she says, deferring to the will of the herd. "Tracking boards create it. This script, as bad as it sounds, has it."

The thing is, as far as I can tell, no one has actually read the script yet. It hasn't even gone out to auction; nobody is supposed to have this script. I have to ask: "Would a studio buy a project based on positive tracking, without ever reading it?"

She gives me that smile. "They'd never admit it."

They say that only an experienced wizard can do the tengu shuffle..
[ Parent ]

the whole thing seems ridiculous to me... (none / 1) (#52)
by anmo on Mon Feb 09, 2004 at 01:53:15 AM EST

...why don't they reshuffle the decks every time? End of story. Get a job.

Some casinos do (none / 1) (#56)
by scheme on Tue Feb 10, 2004 at 12:35:20 AM EST

I think they do that in some casinos as well as use something like 6 decks. However the question is statistical. E.g. given that there are two aces, an eight, and 2 face cards on the table what is the possibility that my current hand will beat the dealer if I hit. Given that some information is revealed by the upcards on the table, it may be possible to use math to reveal situations where you are positive ev if you play a certain way. Or more generally, given certain pieces of information about what is on the table, you can determine the optimimum play as well as whether you will be able to make money by playing optimally over the long run.

Note: even if a person plays optimally it may still be impossible to win over the long run if the payouts are low enough.

"Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity." --Albert Einstein

[ Parent ]
they do... (none / 0) (#57)
by horny smurf on Tue Feb 10, 2004 at 10:07:32 PM EST

...if they think you're counting cards, they'll reshuffle every hand. However, if the dealer is shuffling, he's not dealing and the casino isn't making money.

[ Parent ]
Nesmith lies. (none / 0) (#58)
by drc500free on Wed Feb 11, 2004 at 01:13:38 AM EST

I was actually flipping through the book again this weekend for some reason... And I couldn't help but notice that there's stuff in there that's definitely made up.

For instance, he claims that the main character was graduating MIT with honors... Only problem is MIT doesn't HAVE honors. The truly odd thing is that Nesmith went to Harvard, just up the street, and I would expect him to know that little fact if he's going to write about a guy from MIT.

The graduating with honors thing is almost an inside joke by this point - every two-bit script writer has their hacker genius have some form of honors degree from MIT, and no one ever seems to check to see if MIT has honors.

On the other hand, I'm on the MIT swim team, and it's a pretty open secret who the book is about. I have no doubt that he was part of the MIT team, that he counted cards, and that he made buttloads of cash. But between him and Nesmith, who was writing his first non-fiction piece, I think a whole bunch of stuff got embelished.

Nesmith was with the Monkees (none / 0) (#64)
by tbc on Tue Feb 17, 2004 at 11:15:26 AM EST

The author's name is Mezrich.

[ Parent ]
wow... brainfart ;) (nt) (none / 0) (#65)
by drc500free on Wed Feb 18, 2004 at 04:23:01 AM EST

[ Parent ]
Nevada Supreme Court case involving an MIT player (none / 0) (#62)
by andybloch on Mon Feb 16, 2004 at 03:16:24 PM EST

Here's a Nevada Supreme Court case, Chen v. State, Gaming Control Board from 2000 that relates to a couple of comments: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=nv&vol=116NvAdvOpNo25 &invol=2

Chen was an MIT team player who was stopped while playing blackjack at the Monte Carlo casino in Las Vegas. Chen had used a passport from the country of Burma as ID. The casino tried to keep Chen's buy-in and winnings because he had used a "novelty passport", but the team fought back through the Nevada courts and won.

The passport was not illegal to possess because the country is no longer called Burma. There was some question whether Chen could have been charged with a misdemeanor in the case but no criminal charges were ever pressed.

Why wasn't the case mentioned in the book? The case is a great story (only part of which is in the published opinion), but Ben Mezrich might not have known about it because he didn't interview any Amphibians. His "research" was primarily limited to a very few members of "Kevin Lewis's" wing of the "Reptile" branch of the MIT team.

Andy Bloch (former "Amphibian" MIT member)

Home page: www.andybloch.com
Editor and host of WPTfan.com.

Writers have their own agendas. (none / 0) (#63)
by tbc on Tue Feb 17, 2004 at 11:07:00 AM EST

A general lesson I learned from my contact with Ben Mezrich is that published writers have enough self-confidence that they make no excuses for what they choose to write versus what they choose to ignore or change.

[ Parent ]
Ben Mezrich: the telling of a true story | 65 comments (42 topical, 23 editorial, 4 hidden)
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