Dennis Deery

Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich

May 29, 2005

Sub-titled “The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions,” this is a great, fast read. It chronicles the story of the so-called MIT Blackjack Team, a group of whiz kids who, with funding from anonymous backers, spent several years working as a card-counting team at casinos around the country.

Blackjack, it turns out, is one casino game that is statistically beatable. This is largely a result of the rules that govern the dealer’s play. Card-counters take advantage of these rules, and, through careful observation of the game’s conditions, can vary their bets to maximize their chance of profit. Unfortunately, an individual counting cards must work in a fairly well-defined pattern in order to win. Though counting cards is not illegal, casinos have the right to kick out anyone they wish. Casinos keep a close eye on players, and generally when they spot the behavior of a card-counter the player is asked to leave.

The team came up with a method of play that used several people, each handling one of the card-counting tasks. By splitting their behavior this way, it was much more difficult for the casinos to spot counting behavior. The team would head for Vegas, Atlantic City or any number of riverboats and Indian casinos each weekend, usually hauling a stake of $500,000 or more. Over several years they earned their investors a profit of more than 30%, even after paying the team members. The team members, in the meantime, lived the life of high rollers, treated to free rooms, free meals and shows by the casinos, who viewed them as big-time players - while it lasted. The team viewed the casinos as large corporations, and so never feared punishment, but they did eventually learn to what extent casinos would go to protect their profits.

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