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Non Fiction

Bringing Down the House

After reading the The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, my interest was piqued by the author’s first book, Bringing Down the House.

Bringing Down the House is a story of six MIT students who use their mathematical skills to win money from the gambling houses of Las Vegas. The book’s main character is Kevin Lewis, an MIT graduate who was invited to join the MIT Blackjack Team in 1993. Lewis was recruited by two of the team’s top players, Jason Fisher and Andre Martinez. The team was financed by a maths professor named Micky Rosa, who due to his past profession as a card counter had been banned from the Vegas casinos.

As Kevin goes through his first lessons in card counting and put them in practice, from the gambling den in Chinatown to mega gambling house in Las Vegas, the team soon earns big money and soon attract the attention of the pit bosses and threats of the casino managers. The CV of card counters of the MIT team looks like this:

  • Mathematically brilliant. MIT student preferred
  • Possess a super memory and a very quick eye to count and track shuffling of 5 to 6 decks of cards, i.e. 6 x 52 = 312 cards in your memory
  • Memorise all hand gestures of your team members and know when to place your bets and minimise your losses when the count is low
  • You have to be suave, smooth and talk in hidden codes. Able to take on different names and different personalities, a master of disguise is preferred.
  • Potential to earn a winning of $40,000 to $50,000 per night
  • Teamwork and loyalty is essential, with each playing in their defined “spotter”, “high roller” and “big player” roles

The last criterion was violated by some of the team member and as greed and thrill got the better of them, Kevin has to choose between his real life and his weekend Las Vegas life, between giving it all to card counting or going back to his day job. The choices are not easy, as the reader soon finds out.

They weren't as cool in the movie as they looked on poster!

This is Kevin Lewis’ biography, yet it was written like a thriller and the book is simply unputdownable. A penchant for high drama, the same as what happen to the movie The Social Network and The Accidental Billionaire, author Mezrich was criticised for dramatising and adding story line which did not occur in real life. The casino bosses torture methods were exaggerated greatly. The book was adapted into the movie 21.

In my experience in Black Jack (shall not elaborate further!), when to split the bet, how deep the card should be cut, when the card goes in favour of the dealer and when it favours the better, do happens in a regular pattern but Bringing Down the House has managed to put it into words and turn it into science. The author provides a statistical hi-lo principles and probability explanation at the end of the chapter which delights the geekiness in me, and I suspect many other mathematical geek. The method employ only works for Black Jack, not for any other game. And why this will never work for the ordinary people because you and I need a lot to function as an effective as the MIT Blackjack team, which you and I can’t, because:

  • You and I don’t have super quick eyes to track every card and count the cards that are laid on table
  • You and I don’t have enough cash to sustain the losses when the count is low, and the cash to bet high when the table is turned
  • You and I don’t work in a syndicate and rely on a team member (who is just as sharp as you and I) to help with card counting
  • You and I must be able to count so subtly that the pit bosses don’t see that we are mouthing our numbers and sweating between our palms and hair!

So no one will get rich by simply reading this book, you need the synergies to work together. ;)

At the end of the book there are several discussion questions which I found to be quite interesting. Do I see these MIT kids as a bunch of gamblers or spoiled Ivy Leaguers who has nothing better to do, or do I root for them to succeed? The answer is I root for them to succeed. It is great to be able to find a way to beat the big boys, it is the thrill of being able to break a code that I rooted for them to win.

Kevin is afraid of his father’s disapproval of his secret lives, yet he becomes a card counter. D0 you think Kevin is rebelling again the stereotype of the studious, straitlaced Asian, or he is helping to perpetuate a new Asian stereotype – that of the Asian gambler? I think he has it in him to be a risk taker and a gambler, he perpetuates the stereotype and I also think books like Bringing Down the House helps to bring more awareness to the Casino bosses to track card counters, so it is not as easy to count cards as it is in the early 90’s.

I watched the movie 21 soon after. It was disappointing. The book was much, much better. Kevin Spacey also took the liberty to alter the storyline and thrown in a predictable Hollywood cat and mouse chase, with lots of blood and torture, love and sex, which were not part of the plot of the book. I was disgusted. If the book has dramatised the real event, the movie 21 took it into another level, and produce a production which did not follow closely to the book. At least the characters in the book were more human and real to me than what I saw in the movie. I think reading the book has ruined the experience of watching the films for both 21 and The Social Network. While movie goers raves about the movie, I say, read the book, forget about the movies. The book is thousand times better.

This is my personal favourite and it was a 5-star read for me because it was so enjoyable.

Rating: 

Paperback. Publisher: Arrow Books 2004; Length: 310 pages; Setting: Early 90′s Las Vegas and Boston. Source: Westminster London Library. Finished reading at: 7th December 2011.

Jeff Ma and Jim Sturgess

The Real Deal

Jeff Ma made a cameo appearance in the movie "21" as Planet Hollywood card dealer

Jeff Ma or (Jeffrey Ma) was a member of the MIT Blackjack Team in the mid 1990s. He graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy. He attended MIT where he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1994. He was the basis for the main character of the book Bringing Down the House (where he was renamed Kevin Lewis) and the film 21 (where he was renamed Ben Campbell). Ma also co-founded PROTRADE (a sports stock market website, that has since been shut down) and does consulting work for professional sports teams including the Portland Trail Blazers and San Francisco 49ers. He cofounded Citizen Sports, a sport-information website and iPhone application based in San Francisco, which was acquired by Yahoo! in May 2010.

His first book, The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big In Business, was published in July 2010 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Ma makes a cameo in movie 21 as a blackjack dealer named Jeffery at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino. Jim Sturgess’s character, Ben Campbell, refers to Jeffery as, “my brother from another mother.”

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books.

Discussion

11 thoughts on “Bringing Down the House

  1. I may have heard about the real story before, but I didn’t know a book was written about it. Too bad the movie was a disappointment, maybe the director had to leave out a lot? The story in itself sounds intriguing: smart MIT kids who try to beat the casino’s very unfair odds. Am against gambling, so this pleases me even more ;)

    Posted by Chinoiseries | December 20, 2011, 7:12 am
    • I don’t know Chinoiseries. If the director follows what actually happens, it was much juicier than what is shown on the movie, especially with the power struggle between the team members and the split of the team with more than one teams involved. You will be pleased if you read this book, gambling don’t pay in the long run. But for Jeff Ma, at least he had made his money. ;)

      Posted by JoV | December 20, 2011, 9:08 pm
  2. This sounds really interesting. I remember hearing about the movie, but don’t think I realized there was a book as well. The book does sound, as always, better! I think as a fellow math geek I’d love parts of this too. heh.

    Posted by amymckie | December 20, 2011, 11:55 pm
  3. I meant to read this book, but ended up watching the movie instead which I did enjoy. Prob should read the book too!

    Posted by christa @ mental foodie | December 21, 2011, 6:11 am
    • Christa,
      I think it’s great that you watch the movie first. If you read the book you will find that there is more depth than what it is shown on big screen, reads like a thriller I think you will like it!

      Posted by JoV | December 21, 2011, 10:28 pm
  4. That is a good summary. Thanks for sharing. I wish I could earn $50k a night! I don’t know what I would do if I could.

    I must have given 21 a miss for some reasons back then. Looks like it is a wise choice after all!

    Posted by Wilfrid | December 22, 2011, 12:07 am
  5. One of my co-workers read this a few years ago and really liked it. Maybe I need to get off my bum and do the same !

    Posted by maphead | December 24, 2011, 4:01 pm
  6. I have watched the 21 and felt it was totally awesome. :) Merry Xmas, Jov.

    Posted by Marvin | December 25, 2011, 4:52 pm

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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