21 [Bringing Down the House], Ben Mezrich

Pocket Star, 2002 (2008 revision), 340 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-1-4165-8564-0

Probability mathematics and compulsive risk-aversion have forever cured me of gambling urges, but that doesn’t lessen my fascination for casinos and Las Vegas. Things are always interesting whenever large sums of money are involved, especially when it’s about places designed to take money away from people… and when people figure how to turn that system against itself.

Indeed, for a book revolving around blackjack at Las Vegas casinos, there isn’t much gambling per se at the core of Ben Mezrich’s docu-novel Bringing Down the House, now adapted to the big screen as 21: This is about a system, a business so simple that even disciplined students could be hired to follow its instructions. It’s about finding order over the chaos of card-dealing, and using a bit of cleverness to exploit a flaw in how casinos operate.

The story begins in the mid-nineties, when a brilliant young MIT student is recruited by two of his friends who show him a weekend of lavish excess in Atlantic City. Intrigued, the student learns that his friends are part of a small group led by a mathematician who has refined a method to improve the odds in blackjack games. It works using spotters, who keeps a running count of how a given table is likely to produce high cards, and gamblers, who come in and exploit “hot” tables having an idea of how they should bet. It only works using groups of disciplined specialists, discreet communications and hit-and-run weekends.

It’s isn’t strictly illegal, but casinos definitely don’t like it, which may serve to explain why the group’s leader won’t play, and where the story is eventually headed. At first, nothing is too excessive for the protagonist of the tale, who accumulates more money than he imagined. School soon becomes a memory when bekons a more lucrative way to spend his time. People leave and join the group. And then, well, obviously something happens to make them decide to stop…

It’s never too clear where reality ends and fiction begins in this book: Mezrich, a gifted novelist, is not the protagonist of the story, and there’s an element of a twice-told tale in how neatly the dramatic tension of the story rises with every passing chapter. The dialogs, structure and dramatic choices are presumably punched up for maximum effect, but that’s okay: It does become a terrific story of money, choices, villains, intimidation and close escapes. By the end of the book, the casinos have figured out how to close the loophole (it’s easy for dealers to switch decks or start over, thus destroying the card count) and every player’s face has been included in the big book of miscreants who are not welcome in casinos.

But the whole reality/fiction thing takes a step backward in Bringing Down the House mostly because it’s such a terrific, compulsively readable book. Fans of Vegas and casinos will sip it up in a single sitting, while others will be taken by this mixture of fact and fiction. There are tons of details about the way casinos operate, and author Mezrich himself becomes part of the story as he follows his friend to try out The System and delve deeper into Las Vegas lore.

In the end, paying ten dollars for Bringing Down The House is a surer bet that feeding slot machines. Not that anyone will rely on simple games of chance when the blackjack tables seem far more interesting…

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