I first read Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich when I was about 16. I was at my grandparents’ house, and my cool uncle had brought a bunch of books with him as gifts. I grabbed this one and settled in to see if it was any good; I got absorbed immediately and finished the book in a single afternoon. Given that this book was just adapted into a movie, 21, starring Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, and Kate Bosworth, I figured this would be a good time to reread it.
Six years after graduating from MIT, Kevin Lewis approached Mezrich at a Super Bowl party, claiming, “I’ve got a great story for your next book.” Although skeptical, Mezrich listened, and was rewarded with the story of a lifetime: the rise and fall of a the MIT Blackjack Team — six students that used a sophisticated, team-oriented version of card counting to take Las Vegas for millions. The book jumps back and forth between Kevin’s story of the team, and Mezrich’s investigation into the background of card counting in Las Vegas. Once Kevin was persuaded to join the team, he began to lead a daring double life — straight-A student during the week, and high-rolling Vegas all-star by the weekends. However, the lies necessary to maintain the secrecy and the technological advancements designed to catch card counters threaten to derail the team. All said and done, the MIT Blackjack Team took Vegas for more than three million dollars over a four year period.
The thing I enjoyed most about reading the book a second time was the way Mezrich was a part of reporting on the story. During his research, Mezrich visits pit bosses, strippers, and other members of the team to try and get a full picture of the story; through his experiences you can get a sense of the conflict between excitement and dread that must have been part of each of the team’s visits to Las Vegas. As an aspiring journalist, I liked being a part of the process of discovering the story — it makes the reader feel more like part of the adventure rather than just a bystander.
At the same time, Mezrich’s writing style can get a bit dull. Like most news writing, it’s very clean, concise, and to the point, and doesn’t make the reader think much. While this is often an advantage, sometimes his awkward metaphors (“Kevin’s world became a schizophrenic blend of grey reality and brightly colored fantasy”) get old, and as a reader I sometimes want to have to do a little more to understand the story. Bringing Down the House is not “Literature with a capital L,” but it is a lot of fun to read.
When doing some research for this review, I discovered that there were some concerns about the factual basis for the book. Reports claim that Mezrich created composite characters and fabricated events to make the story more compelling. It seems that number of the books most interesting scenes — the underground Chinese casino where Kevin passes the test to join the team, the strippers used to cash out chips, and the unknown investors, among others — may not be true. While this puts a little bit of a damper on the story when reflecting back on it, it doesn’t impact the experience of reading what ends up being a pretty entertaining book.
Comparing the movie to the book is another interesting project. If the book is guilty of taking liberties with the story, I can’t imagine what the real MIT blackjack team would say to the movie. It’s a great, light-hearted movie that captures the sense of excitement Kevin had about Las Vegas adventures, but misses the intrigue and darkness that leading a double life caused him. And as much as I like a good love story, the relationship between Sturgess (Ben Campbell — the new Kevin Lewis) and Bosworth (Jill Taylor) is entirely fabricated. While the movie is also fun, the book is a richer and more intriguing look at the legacy of the MIT Blackjack Team.
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