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?
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?
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
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
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.
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.
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?
tbc: What are the characters up to these days? Have any of them gone public?
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
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.