Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Double Lives and Double-Crossed

The double lives recounted in Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich are the stuff of legend: MIT students, graduates and drop-outs who formed a team in the mid-90s to defeat the gambling casinos on their own turf at the blackjack tables. For some team members weekends in Las Vegas were a break from 9 to 5 jobs; for others it was their only job. Like most teams, this team had leaders and followers, rivalries, egos, and power struggles which were only intensified by the large sums of money to be won or lost.

Mezrich does such a good job of explaining the nuances of card counting (and the boundaries that keep it legal) that you ALMOST think you could have done it, too - in the days before continuous shuffling in the casinos. The point is made repeatedly: blackjack is the only game offered by casinos that is beatable over an extended period of time. Absent a shuffle of the deck, the cards you see affect the cards that you are going to see. But the story makes another point: casinos and the corporations that own them don’t like to lose. As the team leader said to the new recruit: “The most important decision a card counter ever has to make is the decision to walk away.” That’s good advice not just for card counters.

I’m not sure whom to blame for what I consider the double-cross: the author or the publisher, probably both. It’s right there on the last page in About the Author: “Bringing Down the House is his seventh book and his first foray into nonfiction.” Even the Library of Congress cataloging is misleading: “Biography.” Except that it isn’t nonfiction and it isn’t biography as a very careful reading of the Copyright page discloses: “Some of the events and characters are also composites of several individual events or persons.” That makes it Fiction in my mind. No footnotes, no bibliography. And I am left to wonder: if the author was not constrained by facts and the truth, how much may have been invented to make a good story even better?

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