Busting Vegas, Ben Mezrich

Morrow, 2005, 289 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-057511-3

Ah, sequels; always tricky.

For Ben Mezrich, the challenge was to go back to the story of college whiz-kids using a system to beat casino blackjack without necessarily producing a carbon copy of his hugely enjoyable Bringing Down the House (recently adapted to the big screen as 21). You would think that there’s a limit to the number of blackjack-busting schemes to come out of Boston’s MIT, but it seems that there are at least two: In Busting Vegas, Mezrich gets to tell the true story of one Semyon Dukach (his real name), a student who eventually becomes part of a team dedicated to profitable card-counting.

Whereas Bringing Down the House depended on a scheme involving aggregate card-counting, many players and a bit of theater, Busting Vegas discusses a number of solo precision techniques that allow players to locate a particular card, know when it’s going to be exposed and then bet heavily on that knowledge. But no matter the technique, the dramatic arc of the two books remains the same. This volume may open on a dramatic plane crash and then go on to a seedy whorehouse meeting between Mezrich and his source, but the story is pretty much the same: See boy bored, see boy learn, see boy win, see boy get greedy, see boy forced out of the racket… As with Bringing Down the House, there’s a shadowy mentor answering to even more mysterious investors, a cute MIT girl to provide romantic tension, and a formidable antagonist to personify the casino security systems. If you’ve seen 21, it’s hard not to picture Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth and Laurence Fishburne smoothly stepping into the same roles.

As with most non-fiction books never meant to include a reference index, it’s often difficult to figure out where the real story ends and where the writer’s embroidery begins. The tale told on the page often appears too convenient to be entirely truthful. Semyon and his partners in casino-busting are too flamboyant to be credible: You would think that serious players would limit their winnings as well as their losses in an effort to play undetected. But the ticking clock in Busting Vegas, like Bringing Down the House, is to see how long they can get away with it. Alas, the players in this second volume go well beyond the weekend Vegas fantasies to embark on serious capital-building. Any lingering sympathy goes away quickly: Death threats from European casino security personel may be exotic, but they’re issued in response to behavior that goes well beyond anything we readers would consider to be cautious or reasonable.

In short, Mezrich gambles and loses on the reader’s attachment to the protagonists of his story. By the time he describes the world of the European ultra-rich, Busting Vegas is as likely to inspire a serious case of class resentment than it is to inspire admiration in “the little guy that beat the system”: the protagonist gets too greedy, and the narrative ends up leading the reader to a place where the hero arguable deserves his fall from grace. (Plus; don’t try the card tricks at your local gambling establishment: It’s dead-easy for the casinos to mess with the deck if they think you’re playing games with their games.)

As with most follow-ups, it doesn’t have the freshness or the energy of the original. The familiarity and thinness of the story leads to a few chapters of perfunctory padding in which Mezrich suddenly becomes interested in, say, the economics of the Vegas sex trade. (He coyly ends the chapter, and his description of a paid interview with an escort, with the creepy “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” [P.211]) Other moments are so unlikely as to strain the credibility of even the most forgiving readers, especially when they include some of Mezrich’s most over-the-top dramatic prose.

This being said, the book itself remains a pretty good read despite its flaws. Those who pick up the book will get what they expect: a look at casinos, the people who play in them, and the people who make sure the house always wins. As a follow-up to Bringing Down the House, Busting Vegas is intensely familiar… but those who just want another hit of the same reading experience don’t have much of a reason to complain if they, indeed, get more of the same.

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