Tag Archives: Ben Mezrich

Straight Flush, Ben Mezrich

William Morrow, 2013, 304 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-00622400

I picked up Ben Mezrich’s Straight Flush in a somewhat desperate attempt to reboot my reading. Due to various factors, my reading regimen has dwindled to almost nothing in the past few years. With a young child at home and various things to do around the house, my free time is limited and these days I long more for the passivity of movie-watching than for the effort of reading.

So, I thought, why not go back to a known quantity? When you pick up a Ben Mezrich book, you know what to expect: A heavily fictionalized account of real events, usually involving bright young men, halfway-legal schemes and massive amount of money. Our heroes are usually stuck between organized crime and police authorities, spend a lot of time around drugs, cars and women, and see the light at the end of the ride. Mezrich writes fantasy fiction for young men obsessed with status, riches and being cleverer than everyone else. I may not always like Mezrich’s book, but I can usually read them quickly and be reasonably entertained by the result.

Straight Flush did not disappoint me in that it’s almost exactly a pure Mezrich book. It tells the story of the frat-boys who founded an online casino in Central America, raking in the money until the U.S. government got wise and decided to criminalize their operations. There’s more to it, of course: the cutthroat competition between the casino start-ups, hints of cheating scandals, what it feels like to be hunted down by the U.S. government, and the sunny Costa Rican setting. If this is familiar to you, it’s either because this story made headlines circa 2010, or you’ve seen the 2014 film Runner Runner, which tackled the same subject in an even more fictionalized fashion.

But what I didn’t expect is how I would quickly sour on the people depicted in Straight Flush, or how even I (completely ignorant of the world of online Poker) would find fault with Mezrich’s attempts to exonerate the actions of his subjects. In keeping with his other books, Mezrich’s standard tone is one of barely repressed admiration for his characters. Since they made a lot of money, aren’t they smart? Aren’t they allowed a few exceptions to the rules given how clever they are? Aren’t haters just hating when they criticize them? Except no. They lucked out, exploited a legal loophole and then got caught with their pants down when the U.S. government finally passed down the law. Mezrich may try to excuse the behaviour of his subjects, but he doesn’t create a lot of sympathy for them.

It gets much, much worse when he tackles the issue of cheating at his heroes’ online casino. Worse yet: he tries to have it both ways, first by ending a chapter on the stunning revelation that an address associated with the cheating belongs to one of the casino insiders … then picks up in the next chapter by casually explaining that it was an unauthorized access to the system (by, what, a janitor?) that was the real explanation for the cheating. Even as a know-nothing in this field, that struck me as exceptionally suspicious. Then I checked other online sources commenting on the book and got eyefuls of savage criticism (“a gigantic literary fraud!” reads the most informative of them) against the book. If you go down that rabbit hole, be warned: The book comes out shredded once some of the most virulent reviewers are done with it. (Hilariously enough, most of the harshest Amazon reviews were posted within the span of a week or two, a month after the book’s release.)

I’ll be kinder, but not by much: In the end, Straight Flush reminded me not so much of Mezrich’s strengths, but his weaknesses in trying to spin entertaining docu-fiction out of shady stories. He ends up overcompensating by convincing himself that his sources are misunderstood heroes rather than possible criminals. He gilds the truth with some much drama that everything becomes even less believable. He creates conversations that can’t happen and so obviously fudges the chronology that even a cursory Wikipedia check can prove him wrong. If you’re on the more mature side, there’s something increasingly grating about Mezrich’s bad-geeks-gone-wild shtick that is nearing its expiration date. As much as I wanted to revisit the joy of reading with this book, I ended up revisiting the joys of writing a bad review. Eh, I’ll take it.

Rigged, Ben Mezrich

Morrow, 2007, 294 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-125272-3

What?  Another heavily-fictionalized account of an East-Coast young man making a lot of money?  It must be time for the latest Ben Mezrich book!

Oh I kid, but I kid with the Stockholm-syndrome grin of someone who now owns all of Mezrich’s non-fiction bibliography.  I may have issues with his repetitive use of fictional narrative devices to dope otherwise perfectly interesting non-fiction accounts, but when truth-seeking confront entertainment, I usually break in favour of having a good time: Mezrich’s books are a lot of fun to read.

Faithful readers will be happy to note that Mezrich expands his horizons a bit with this latest entry Rigged, which tells the sort-of-true story of a Brooklyn-born finance analyst who gets hired by the New-York based Mercantile Exchange, where he gets to put together a proposal to create the Dubai Mercantile Exchange.  The protagonist is named David Russo, but he’s loosely based on John D’Agostino, who gets to minimally fact-check the narrative in a signed afterword.

This being Mezrich’s fourth non-fiction book, it’s interesting to note how carefully he now acknowledges the novel as having heavily fictionalized components.  Unlike previous works, which tried to elide the fictive manipulations, Rigged recognizes up-front that some things have been changed or added, from an amalgam of antagonists to a tightening of events to, most likely, a number of ominous threats made against the protagonist.  There’s also quite a bit of lowest-denominator exposition-setting: It’s a bit insulting to read about two finance professionals discussing the basic point of mercantile trade; while readers don’t necessarily know those details, it’s ridiculous to pass the exposition as on-the-job training between two guys who really should know better.  (On the other hand, oh, that’s how oil is traded.)

But if it’s so fictionalized, is it better, then, to consider Rigged primarily as fiction?

Not really, because if Rigged is dramatized as a novel, it doesn’t necessarily make good fiction.  The plot threads are coarse, the characters are dull, the threats are strictly low-grade (the blackmail scheme is particularly obvious) and the book doesn’t quite know what to do with its second viewpoint protagonist, a young Dubai trader from who proposes a project to our lead character.  As financial fiction, it would be weak beer, and not even Mezrich’s rapid pacing, anecdote-heavy plotting and pleasant prose could patch up the lack of substance and simplistic structure.  No, the book has to somehow convince us that it’s about something real if it has any chance of surviving in our minds.

Too bad that there isn’t more to Rigged (a dull title, barely alluding to oil rigs and not at all to market manipulation) than a description of the trader life and a look at Dubai that feels repetitive to those who have already read other similar non-fiction accounts.  There’s plenty of yuppie macho posturing in the book and an allusion to the increasingly computerized nature of exchanges, but it seems like a throwback to a time where the trading floor reigned supreme.  (1983’s Trading Places is referenced more than once).  Modern finance is a game of automated high-frequency trading where even the physical location of computer servers can be crucial –it would be interesting to see Mezrich write about that, but in order to do so, I suppose that he’d have to find a way to feature a Boston-educated whiz kid making tons of money.

It may be that Mezrich’s formula is wearing thin.  Rigged uses so many of the same narrative devices (the threat; the mentor; the money-fuelled excesses) that it feels familiar even when it tackles a different kind of money-rich environment.  The foundation of the Dubai Mercantile Exchange is an important moment in financial history, but it seems like an afterthought to the kind of material already covered in movies like Boiler Room or plenty of other non-fiction titles of the past few years.  Mezrich’s money-is-interesting formula dissolves in meaninglessness if you don’t subscribe to its core value.  Add to that the uneasy balance between fact and fiction (Do I want information, entertainment or a disappointing mixture of both in which the presence of one nullifies the other?) and Rigged, albeit readable, still ends up feeling like the slightest of Mezrich’s non-fiction.

One notes, with some amusement, that his next book, The Accidental Billionaires, would leave the financial world behind to tackle the newest social media zeitgeist.  The one after that, Sex on the Moon, goes on to describe a moon-rock heist.  As you may expect, I have already bought them both.

The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich

Doubleday, 2009, 260 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-52937-2

I suppose that The Accidental Billionaires was inevitable: In his previous non-fiction work, Ben Mezrich has shown how much he loves to write about Boston-area young men who go on to make a lot of money, and so one could only count down the minutes until he turned to the Harvard-educated founders of Facebook.  As the book’s sub-title proudly announces, what’s not to like about “A tale of sex, money, genius and betrayal”?  That’s as good a shorthand as any to describe Mezrich’s chosen specialization.

As usual, it’s best to approach Mezrich’s non-fiction novels without any expectations of journalistic rigor.  Even though The Accidental Billionaires may be better-documented than any of Mezrich’s non-fiction so far, it’s still largely told from the perspective of a single primary source, that is Eduardo Saverin, the Facebook co-founder who was shut out of the company as it grew to become today’s behemoth.  Mezrich acknowledges this connection up-front, as well as the fact that the better-known Mark Zuckerberg “declined to speak with me for this book despite numerous requests.” [P.2] The Accidental Billionaires may rely on court documents, newspapers articles and public records, but it remains Saverin’s story –the truth, if ever it comes out, will no doubt be considerably less colourful than what’s presented here.

If this story sounds very familiar, you may have seen David Fincher’s The Social Network, a 2010 movie reviewer’s darling partly due to a snappy screenplay penned by Aaron Sorkin.  While the film is officially adapted from the book, a number of clues suggest that Sorkin used Mezrich’s sources and storyline, then went in his own direction –indeed, even a cursory read of the book after seeing the film will reveal a number of differences: The film is tighter, uses a convenient framing device, and is filled with symbolism that reality (or even the book’s version thereof) would be hard-pressed to provide.  For instance, the book suggests that Saverin’s then-girlfriend did set one of his gifts on fire… although not quite in the way the film presents it: Saverin wasn’t there speaking on the phone as his room nearly went up in flames.

If nothing else, The Accidental Billionaires is quite a bit more up-front than Mezrich’s other books in acknowledging its loose connection with reality, beginning with an author’s note that admits up-front that a portion of what we’re about to read is fantasy.  But questions of veracity eventually take a back seat to pure entertainment.  Anyone who has read Mezrich’s other works of docu-fiction can assume that he spiced things up in rewriting the story.  He recasts the events in the form of a quasi-novelistic narrative, providing us with scene-setting, dialogue, inner monologue and poignant scene endings.  The only question becomes… is the story interesting to read about?

It does works well in building a compelling narrative: The Accidental Billionaires is readable in a blink.  Saverin’s betrayal as his former friend Zuckerberg allows him to be replaced at the core of Facebook is well-portrayed even though more sceptical readers will want to consider the source and Mezrich’s tendency to favour drama rather than reality.

There’s a debate to be had, I suppose, about what standards of dramatization we’re ready to accept, and whether readers are complicit in accepting fanciful tales if they find their presentation enjoyable.  One of the biggest lies told by fiction is that there are such things as narrative arcs, momentous decisions, good or evil motivations, sharp dialogue and consistent personalities.  The Accidental Billionaires is enhanced reality, not a faithful portrait of history.

Doubts about Mezrich’s work are complicated by a fog of legally binding settlements and greedy motivations: at this time, even solid journalistic work may be unable to reveal the real story.  Considering that Facebook isn’t even ten years old and that all of the principals are still alive, this is both troubling and temporary: Troubling in that we can’t even get a straight answer at this time; temporary because sooner or later, tempers will cool down and we may then finally understand the complex web of motivations behind Facebook’s foundation.  In the meantime, there’s at least an entertaining book to attempt making sense of it.

Ugly Americans, Ben Mezrich

Morrow, 2004, 271 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-057500-X

After a moderate success as a thriller writer, Ben Mezrich finally found the winning formula with Bringing down the House, a book that blended true facts, blackjack-beating tricks, big winnings and fictional narrative tricks in order to give readers a taste of fast-earned money.  He repeated the formula with Busting Vegas, but in-between those two gambling books came Ugly Americans, “The True Story of Ivy League Cowboys Who Raided the Asian Markets for Millions”.  Some kinds of business, after all, are nothing more than high-stakes gambling and in telling this story, Mezrich describes the life of a young trader who went to Japan and made a small fortune betting even bigger fortunes.

In some ways, Ugly Americans complements the story of Nick Leeson, the infamous British trader who found himself free to bet big from a faraway Asian trading outpost of the venerable Barings… and literally broke the bank.  The nineties were a good time for traders willing to exploit the wild and mercurial nature of the Asian markets: There weren’t as many players over there than in the saturated American and European markets, the regulations were quite a bit looser than on Wall Street and the line between legal and illegal activity was considerably thinner, much like the line separating organized crime from legitimate business activity.

It’s in that context that ex-footballer and recent graduate “John Malcolm” is hired to execute orders from an expatriate trader living in Japan.  Sent to Osaka despite knowing next to nothing about Japan, Malcolm grows under the tutelage of his boss, experiences a massive earthquake first-hand, falls for the daughter of a well-connected businessman, finds himself working far too close to Nick Leeson and survives in-between loud bar crawls, conspicuous consumption and power demonstration by elements of the Yakusa.

There’s something both exhilarating and repellent in Mezrich’s trademark glorification of people having more money than sense.  The fact that they are making it from trades rather than gambling makes little difference in the way Mezrich portrays them.  Fast cars, expensive prostitutes and wild parties: These, apparently, are what money gets you if you’re in the right place and the right time to take advantage of the system.  Just like a sports movie, Ugly Americans ends with a Big Score that allows the protagonist to step back from the madness, but not before (in Mezrich’s familiar dramatic arc) a friend is severely affected by the rough trade in which they are involved.  You can almost feel the author react gleefully to the presence of the Yakuza in his story: They’re the perfect shadowy menace, acting in all-powerful positions within a Japanese society that is, we’re told in not-so-subtle terms, inseparable from organized crime.

But what are a few xenophobic comments for an audience looking for a few thrills?  It’s not as if Merzich swears fealty to truth: Like his other so-called non-fiction books, he obscures enough details to protect the identity of his sources and rearranges so many events for maximal drama that the entire narrative can be read as fiction.

What’s more embarrassing to admit is that it works: Ugly Americans is a quick and enjoyable read, a vicarious look at another culture and a completely different lifestyle.  It’s best to ignore some of Mezrich’s most obviously pumped-up melodramatic moments (although the juxtaposition of an ethics class with a description of the Leeson meltdown is worth a few smirks) but otherwise Ugly Americans is a splendid read halfway between a confabulating business memoir and a practical advice manual on why westerners should avoid doing business in Asia.

This isn’t to say that the real story is unavailable to those who want to dig a bit.  A quick look at online reviews of the book will uncover a number of revealing mistakes, and a few credible-sounding guesses as to the identity of the trader on which Ugly Americans is based.  People who know quite a bit more about trading –and more specifically westerners trading in Japan during the mid-nineties– will be able to piece together the real story and point out which part of the book are obvious nonsense.  For the rest of us, though, it’s another typical Mezrich dramatic non-fiction book; good enough to escape and imagine life as a high-roller, moral scruples temporarily suspended.

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.

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…

Threshold, Ben Mezrich

Warner, 1996, 336 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60521-2

A smart, competent hero. A beautiful heroine apt to be the target of bad guys. A mad scientist. A plan to radically change humanity. Explosions, guns, shadowy government projects and enough technical jargon to confuse the heck out of anyone not remotely familiar with the subject.

And the question was: What are ingredients to a good techno-thriller?

Threshold has all the required qualities of a good techno-thriller. The surprise is that it comes from a new author rather than one of the established masters of the genre.

Jeremy Ross is headed for a solid medical career when, suddenly, a ghost from his past appears and asks for help: Robin Kelly, an ex-girlfriend. Her father, the secretary of defense, (never mind this unlikely coincidence…) died a few weeks back and she doesn’t think it was an accident. So it’s up to Ross’s skills at medical hacking to uncover the truth. But when bullets start flying, he’s quick to realize that he’s in something far deadlier than a simple autopsy analysis…

A better-than-average thriller ensues, with car chases, creepy world domination plans, serviceable characters and stupid mistakes by the bad guys. The prose is as exciting as it should be, if not entirely clear at a few critical junctions. Threshold makes perfect summer reading.

Which is not to say that the novel is flawless: Serious suspension of disbelief is necessary at a few place (60 billion$?). The villains’ actions aren’t always logical (why two set of pursuers in the car chase?). A few characters aren’t kept on stage long enough (Christina Guarrez). The remarkably young age of many characters -while plausible- is sure to annoy a few. A final objection is that the villain’s plan is so… compelling, that the elitist reader will eventually root for its success. (The ultimate resolution also appears a bit tidy.)

As a first novel, Threshold is quite impressive. Mezrich has the potential for being a serious competitor for Crichton, Cook or Clancy: He’s got it as far as pacing, intelligence or characterization goes. This reviewer will anxiously await Ben Mezrich’s next novel.