In the midst of the go-go eighties and nineties, a group of overachieving, anarchistic MIT students joined a decades-old underground blackjack club dedicated to counting cards and beating the system at major casinos around the world. While their classmates were working long hours in labs and libraries, the blackjack team traveled weekly to Las Vegas and other glamourous gambling locales, with hundreds of thousands of dollars duct-taped to their bodies. Underwritten by shady investors they would never meet, these kids bet fifty thousand dollars a hand, enjoyed VIP suites and other upscale treats, and partied with showgirls and celebrities.If I didn't know that this was what actually happened, I wouldn't believe it to be true. It looks more like the script for a Hollywood movie than something that could occur in reality; but, then again, to paraphrase the blurb on the back cover, truth can often be stranger than fiction.
Handpicked by an eccentric mastermind - a former MIT professor and an obsessive player who had developed a unique system of verbal cues, body signals, and role-playing - this one ring of card savants earned more than three million dollars from corporate Vegas, making them the object of the casino's wrath and eventually targets of revenge. Here is their inside story, revealing their secrets for the first time.
The edition from which I will be quoting was published by the Free Press; no publication date was given, but the notice of copyright to the author is for 2002. I should note that Mezrich includes the occasional profanity, which I do not always take the trouble to excise when I quote from the book, so I have labelled this post accordingly. Let it also be noted that we're talking about Vegas here, so I might need to refer to unseemly activity from time to time.
The story begins in media res, in the middle of things:
Kevin tried to hide his trembling hands. Truth be told, his name wasn't really Kevin. I'm not sure why Mezrich tells us this, as he refers to his protagonist as 'Kevin' throughout the book. I imagine that most of the people, all of whom, I suppose, are real people, or are what the book's main subject, Kevin Lewis, remembers of them (or what Mezrich was subsequently able to learn of them), are referred to by pseudonyms. And he wasn't even slightly drunk. The red splotches on his cheeks had been painted on in his hotel room. And though thirty thousand dollars in chips was enough to make his hands shake, it wasn't something that would impress the people who really knew him. They'd be much more interested in the ratty duffel bag beneath his chair. The duffel bag, we learn a few pages later, contains a 'little over one million dollars'. We learn that Kevin has been at this for about six months. [p. 1]Kevin eventually leaves the casino in a hurry to avoid the casino's security men; they're on to him, whatever it is he has been doing.
Most of his friends were back at school - taking tests, drinking beer, arguing about the Red Sox. He was in Las Vegas, living the high life on a million dollars of someone else's money. Sooner or later, it might all come crashing down. But Kevin didn't really care.The issue of just how much of Bringing Down the House is historical is a worthy question, but I will refrain from pondering it at length here, and stick to making marginal commentary on the book itself. At any rate, the book turns from this sequence to the present, where the author introduces himself in the middle of things and provides Kevin's background.
He hadn't invented the System. He was just one of the lucky few smart enough to pull it off... [pp. 3-4] Although the book purports to tell of events occurring to an actual person, it turns out that it also includes a lot of fictional material. At any rate it is what one might call a semi-historical tale written in the style of a novel.
In many ways, Kevin was the classic MIT stereotype. His résumé was perfect: a math-science whiz kid who'd graduated at the tip of his class from Exeter, the exclusive New Hampshire boarding school. An electrical-engineering major with an incredible affinity for numbers, a straight-A student who'd covered all the premed requisites - partially to appease his father, partially because the challenge excited him. Even if Kevin's father never appears in this book, he is already likely to play an important role. I say this having read some ways into the book.Of course the book purports to tell how Kevin made his millions and had all these adventures. One thing which seems to come up frequently is the dubiety of what Kevin is doing:
But Kevin's résumé didn't tell the whole story. There was another side to his life, one written in neon signs and purple casino chips.
In Boston he'd earned straight A's at MIT.
... I'm skipping the synopsis of some of 'Kevin's' wilder accomplishments; suffice it to say that the names Mezrich mentions as people with whom Kevin has partied (partyed?) strikes me as very much redolent of the nineties.
Along the way he'd amassed a small fortune which he kept in neat stacks of Benjamins in a closet beside his bed. When I first read this I was confused by the reference to 'Benjamins', but of course it refers to the American one hundred-dollar bill. Although nobody was quite sure how much money he had made, it was rumored to be somewhere between one and five million dollars. All of it legal, none of it spawned from his perfect, stereotypical résumé. I am reminded of Tolkien's description of Bilbo's legendary wealth in The Lord of the Rings for some reason by this passage. [p. 8]
More than that, it was a way for Kevin to come to terms with the choices he had made, the decisions that had led him to his double life. Many of these choices might have seemed immoral to the outside world. By telling his story, Kevin could explain himself to those who believed that what he did was somehow wrong. [p. 10] As Mezrich pointed out in the passage I quoted from earlier, what Kevin did was legal; there is nothing wrong, legally, with counting cards. However, it is worth asking whether there really is nothing wrong with leading a double life; after all, what is legal and what is right or good do not necessarily coincide. Let us suspend judgment, however.We return to Kevin's past as he begins that double life.
Medicine, academia, science for science's sake - these were not compelling choices in the tornado of options swirling around a campus such as MIT. But unlike many of his classmates, Kevin didn't see himself being satisfied by a life on Wall Street or a smoke-and-mirrors sojourn into Silicon Valley. He didn't think of himself as some sort of saint: He was as addicted to the notion of unfettered greed as the kid on the next bunk over. He just hadn't yet found his drug of choice. [p. 12] Fine, Kevin wants to make money - but can it be said of what he does get into that it is anything less than 'smoke-and-mirrors'?We are introduced to two of Kevin's friends (who are actually composites of actual people), one of whom, Martinez, is a bit of a prodigy:
The standout genius at a school filled with geniuses, a kid so smart he had scared the math professors into accelerating him to graduate-level courses on his third day at campus. Whiz Kid, Boy Wonder, the pride of MIT - until, one week into his sophomore year, Martinez had suddenly left school. [p. 13] Of course it is to get involved with the MIT card-counting group. Since Martinez isn't a real person and I have no idea if any of the members of the MIT blackjack teams were this brilliant, it seems a bit hard to say that he is wasting his genius on counting cards. But then, many prodigies do waste their considerable talent, and the world is, generally, incapable of rewarding incomparable genius, mostly on the grounds that it is incomparable.Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Martinez, and Kevin's other friend, Fisher, are both in on this, and they invite Kevin along to see a professional boxing match in Atlantic City. Kevin's thoughts:
... Kevin was curious. He'd been following a straight line all of his life. Nearing his last year at MIT, he was on the cusp of a time of confusion, searching for a future that was both satisfying and compelling. Maybe Fisher and Martinez could show him something more fulfilling than the world which had been painted for him. And bottom line - he'd always dreamed about seeing Holyfield fight. [p. 16] Shouldn't that be the other way around? Isn't figuring out his future really Kevin's 'bottom line'? At any rate I sympathise with his confusion about where his future will lead, especially since, as Mezrich puts it, it has been 'painted for him'; i.e., it is not his own. And, to be fair, most people would make going to see an exciting event such as a boxing match more of a priority than coming to grips with their future, however wise or unwise such a move may be.Kevin and his friends go to Atlantic City, where Kevin is initiated into their more glamourous existence. Martinez and Kevin take a limousine to a casino called the Tropicana, which is where they will be watching the fight. They are escorted by Martinez's 'host', whose job is to keep big spenders loyal to a particular casino. We get a taste of Martinez's double life, as his host refers to him as 'Mr. Kim.'
Kevin gets his first taste of playing for big money when Martinez gives him a wad of dough and they head to the blackjack tables.
After the first few hands, Kevin's nerves settled and he began to enjoy the highs and lows of gambling. Hand by hand, the chips lulled him into forgetting how much money he was playing with; instead, he concentrated on making the right plays. He'd never studied any books on basic strategy. This is a shorthand term for the strategy by which players learn to understand how blackjack works and how to anticipate in advance how well they will do once the game gets going. But he knew about BS from a television special he had seen on cable: a framework of proper plays based on what the dealer was showing[.] [p. 27] I was amused that the acronym for basic strategy is 'BS'; what amuses me even more is that in the library cataloguing system (at least at Huron), the letters 'BS' are the heading under which books of biblical studies are sorted. Where the respective worlds of biblical criticism and gambling collide, eh?On we go. Kevin learns about keeping track of cards from Martinez and they use this to get 'lucky' because they are able to keep track of many face cards. Later, they encounter Fisher who is 'running the cards, counting down based on the deal ... trying to control the deal so that a specific card is dealt to him. [p. 31]' He appears to be playing poorly, but in fact isn't. And, sure enough, he gets the card he wants and wins a big stack o' money.
Later, they meet at the pool and have a chat.
Fisher adjusted his shades. "Circus acts, Kevin. Shuffle tracking and cuts. They ... can't be used too often. ... The real action is a lot more consistent - and a lot more lucrative."Kevin remembers a blackjack club at MIT; he finds it hard to believe that 'a pair of anarchists [p. 34]' would be in on such a thing (Fisher tells him that what they are a part of is 'bigger than you can imagine [loc. cit.]', to which, of course, the proper rejoinder is, 'I don't know, I can imagine quite a lot.'). But to describe Fisher and Martinez as 'anarchists' is, perhaps, to render the term meaningless.
Kevin was both intrigued and disturbed. He ... looked back at Fisher and Martinez, splayed out on plastic chairs, cash bulging in their pockets. He thought about how hard he'd been working - in the lab, at school at home. It just doesn't seem fair. [italics original]
"So you guys cheat at cards?"
Martinez sat up, indignant. "Absolutely not. We don't alter any of the rules or fuck with the nature of the game. We use our brains to take advantage of arbitrage opportunities. Blackjack is beatable - so we beat it. ..."
Kevin was fairly sure it wasn't as innocent as that. After all, Martinez had checked into the hotel under a fake name, and pretending that Fisher was a stranger they had met at the casino. But Martinez was right; what Kevin had witnessed wasn't exactly cheating - was it? [pp. 33-4] What I have read of counting cards beyond the book indeed notes that it is not cheating or against the rules or anything of the like. But even so, the false identity and pretense are somewhat suspicious.
Later, Kevin returns to the 'steady monotony' of his regular life, but it is once again interrupted by Martinez and Fisher (p. 36). They introduce him to Micky Rosa, the group's ringleader and a former professor at MIT.
"I still teach here," Micky said, leaning back against the blackboard. Bright blue chalk was getting all over his shirt, but nobody said anything. It was obvious in the way they looked at him that his audience revered him. "But now I teach for profit. For me, and for my students."Micky explains how the club has modified a particular form of counting cards at blackjack called the 'hi-lo method', and invites Kevin, again, to become part of the group. Kevin briefly has cold feet.
He waved his hands at the kids seated in front of him. "Kevin, this is the MIT Blackjack Team. It's been around... for almost two decades. Recently, we've taken things to a whole new level. And we want to invite you to come aboard."
... "Why me?" Kevin finally managed.
"Because you're smart," Micky said. "You've got a good work ethic. Thanks, it should be said, to Kevin's absent father, not that Kevin thinks of it here. You're good with numbers. And you've got the look." [p. 39] Micky Rosa is another composite; Mezrich paints him, as he painted Martinez, as a prodigious mathematician. Once again I get the feeling of someone wasting his talent on counting cards. But again, it must be pointed out that mediocrity is frequently rewarded much better than genius.
Kevin looked around the room at the cabal yes, Mezrich calls it a 'cabal' of young blackjack players. When it was just Martinez and Fisher, it seemed seedy but manageable. Two rebellious geniuses siphoning money from the casinos. But this was something else - organized, calculated, put together by a charismatic adult with bad teeth and a brilliant pedigree. Two marginal comments begging to be made. First, that Micky is the only one described as an adult in this situation is odd, since, after all, all of the people present are at least twenty-one, which, last time I checked, made you an adult. Second, I am impressed that Mezrich is willing to say of someone not of comely physical appearance that he is charismatic; too often we believe that to be the latter one must be the former.Kevin joins the group, as we expect he would. He puts a lot of hard work into learning how the MIT Blackjack Team does their thing (pp. 47-9).
"I don't know," Kevin said. "It sounds kind of shady."
"Shady?" Martinez broke in. "We're freedom fighters, Kevin. We liberate money from the hands of the oppressors. We're Robin Hood, and the casino is the sheriff."
... "Seriously, the casinos have been screwing people over for years. The games are set up to give the house a hefty advantage. Anyone stupid enough to sit down and play is paying for all that neon, all those free drinks. If anybody's cheating, it's the corporations that own the casinos. They set up the rules so that they always win." [p. 41; the person saying this last speech is a woman introduced in this chapter by the name of Kianna Lam, again, probably a composite.] Just sign me up with this band of Merry Men. Given how much the legality of counting cards is stressed (Micky does it again on the following page), it is, on the one hand, a bit much to call what the MIT Blackjack Team is doing 'shady' (although adopting fake identities and pretenses ought so to be regarded). On the other hand, Martinez's and Kianna's protestations ring hollow. Oh, well.
At this point I would like to say that while I don't care much for the cause to which Kevin is applying himself, I am impressed by the effort which he puts into learning Rosa's system. He spends, we are told, several hours each day learning to count cards, keep a running count, and so on, in order to succeed at this venture. I have not cited every instance of it, but of course the habits which he previously applied to his studies, which Mezrich mentions now and again, are what enable him to learn card counting so successfully. Having long ago learned the virtue of temperance, whose habits of concentration, patience, and focus apply to learning, Kevin is as diligent at learning the team's methods of counting cards as he has been in his more routine studies.
Following Kevin's first tests, there is an intriguing passage:
"Kevin," Micky said now, peering at him through those thick glasses... "I think you're ready."Kevin then completes his final test. So diligent has he been practicing keeping count that as part of the final test, which takes place in an underground (figurative) casino in Boston's Chinatown that he is able to ignore the various distractions of the place and is even able to remember the most up-to-date count of the table at which he was playing blackjack when Fisher unceremoniously throws a bag over his head and drags him into a closet (pp. 53-9).
Kevin felt a rush of adrenaline. It was the same feeling he got when his father approved of something he had done. His father would not have approved of Micky, an adult who hung around brilliant kids, [another odd demotion of Kevin et al. into the category of children] turning them into gamblers. Kevin's father never would have understood. Card counting wasn't gambling. It was arbitrage. [pp. 51-2] I am usually suspicious when someone says 'you wouldn't understand', which generally means, 'I am doing something which you would disapprove of and which is probably wrongful, but I don't want to admit it'. At any rate the passage has a certain wistfulness to it; at least in Mezrich's telling, Kevin is beginning to see Micky Rosa as a father figure (a substitute, perhaps, for his own, absent, father); best of all because Kevin won't ever be as answerable to Micky as he has to be to his own father. One wonders about Mezrich's background; perhaps he himself, a distinguished graduate from Harvard, is making a living doing something his father considers beneath him (i.e., writing)?
Another 'Micky the Dad' moment:
"Congratulations," Micky said, reaching forward to shake his hand. "And welcome aboard."Then it's off to Vegas.
Kevin nodded. A strange feeling came over him as he looked into Micky's eyes; he felt unnerved by the fatherly sense of satisfaction he saw in the older man's gaze. [p. 59]
At one point (p. 70), Kevin thinks about how he has been misleading Felicia. He enjoys living a double life, however. 'I feel like James Bond', Mezrich records him as thinking (italics original). As tough as I have been on our protagonist, it must be said that nearly all of us, in one way or another, are trying to lead a double life; consider anonymous bloggers, or people who play online games such as World of Warcraft. Thanks to contemporary technology, one can stay home and lead a double life, as it were. I sympathise with Kevin's desire and interest in his newfound skill (one that will shortly rake in plenty of money and other benefits for him).
Meanwhile, Martinez earns scorn from me for this:
"These weekend flights are the funniest thing," Martinez continued. "On the way out, everyone's smiling, laughing, joking. They're all thinking about the great time they're going to have and how much they're gonna win at the tables. The flight home is like a wake. Everyone comes home a loser."But he does make a jaunty 'Hollywood music producer' (pp. 82-3):
"Except us," Kevin finished for him.
Martinez shrugged. "Sometimes we lose. But the longer we play, the more inevitable it is that we win. The opposite goes for the peasants." [p. 71] Ah, yes, as usual, someone smart and lucky gets the idea in his head that his intelligence, talent, and money make him better than the rest of the world. He does have a point, of course; it's just that it could have been expressed without the cruelty. Then again, much humour is cruel.
Martinez grabbed another handful of chips. "Benny Kato's the name. I produce music videos. Mostly street hip-hop, you know, pow-pow-pow, 'word up,' and stuff. Hey, count this up for me, boss. I want to split these suckers."It was a good night, but the hours are brutal. Then again, I suppose when you make 'twenty-five hundred' in 'one night's work' (p. 85), you're doing all right, even working overnight.
He pushed the chips across the felt. ...
Kevin's heart thudded as he watched the cards come out. Splitting tens was.... usually, an extremely stupid move. Unless the count was high and the dealer's card low [in this case the count is high, +15, which means big money for the counters, and the dealer's card low, a six]. Then it was an extremely profitable move. ... Everyone at the table won.
... Martinez had just bumped up twenty-nine hundred dollars in a single hand. It wasn't luck. It wasn't gambling. His odds of winning [had been] significantly higher than fifty-fifty.
If it was anything at all, it was acting. The italics in the passage are original. It's kind of odd that Mezrich emphasizes, over and over again, how what Kevin et al. are doing isn't gambling. It's true that it isn't, but still.
Mezrich begins creating friction within the team:
"It won't always be that high," Fisher said. "It was a particularly good night. In fact, Martinez and I think we should let you try a little Gorilla play before the fight."Kevin does well, of course, in his first time making the big plays. Then he notices something odd after having finished working a table:
Kevin sat up in the bed. Although spotting had its moments, overall it was a mental grind. The real glory was in the big betting, and Gorilla [this is one of the three roles on the card-counting team; the Gorilla follows the direction of other members of the team, only going to play blackjack when the count is high] was the first step.
"Seriously Micky thinks I'm ready?"
Fisher shrugged. "Well, actually it was more my idea. Micky likes to take things slow. But he shouldn't make all the decisions; he doesn't even play anymore, he's burned out of too many casinos. He's making a whole lot of money off of us, just sitting around by the pool." [p. 85] If there is one problem with Bringing Down the House, it is that, for all the glamour, it isn't a very exciting book. So we get Fisher being the agitator to take, as it were, the mickey out of Micky, as a way of generating tension. We also have suspense-building moments and phrases such as the 'bigger than you can imagine' line I quoted previously and other moments which Mezrich introduces in interludes set during the present day.
... as he was about to turn back toward the elevators, something else caught his eye. A short, stocky Indian kd was sitting at a blackjack table twenty feet away. The kid was unremarkable: dressed in khakis, betting the table minimum, patiently studying his cards. The strange thing was, Kevin recognized him. His name was Sanjay Das; he and Kevin had taken physics together two years ago. He was in Kevin's class at MIT.A poignant moment at home on Thanksgiving (in the U.S., so in November):
Maybe it was a coincidence; maybe he was just in town to see the fight. Or maybe there was something Micky and the others hadn't told him.
Maybe Micky's team wasn't the only MIT game in town.
Kevin decided to put the thought aside for the time being. ... Now it was time to celebrate. [p. 89] Another of Mezrich's conceits to increase tension. It turns out that there is another team. But notice the universal human instinct which Kevin displays, which is when things appear to be going well to ignore possible troubles. Unsurprisingly this gets him into difficulty later.
Kevin took the seat next to [his father], while Felicia [Kevin's present girlfriend] excused herself to use the bathroom. He watched his father turn the pages, checking his stock portfolio. He paused to glance at Kevin and nod, then went back to the NYSE. ...So much for Thanksgiving; on we go. Kevin is barred from his first casino (pp. 104-6), and Mezrich introduces Kevin's nemesis:
It was a rare opportunity, a moment alone with his father.
Kevin decided to test the waters: "Dad, have you ever heard of card counting?"
His father didn't look up from the newspaper. "You mean like professional poker players, who keep track of the cards?"
Kevin listened for the sound of the bathroom door. He certainly didn't want to tackle both Felicia and his father at the same time. He proceeded cautiously. "No, I mean blackjack. Some people count cards to give them an advantage."
His father turned the paper over, scanning the back page. "Foolishness. They use six decks at casinos nowadays. You can't keep track of six decks. It's not possible."
Kevin shook his head. He was surprised his father was falling for the common misconception. ...
"Dad, counters don't keep track of all the cards. It's about ratios, good cards to bad-"
"Kevin, it's a waste of time. Gamblers never win any money."
Kevin could tell from his father's tone that the conversation was over. It was a frustrating moment. Kevin understood his father's point of view - but what his father hadn't taken the time to process was that it wasn't gambling at all. It was more like a math or a physics problem, a question with an answer - and that answer led to easy money. ...
The timing wasn't right. Kevin's father wasn't ready to listen. Maybe he'd never be ready to listen.
Kevin felt strangely relieved. [pp. 95-6] This was one of the most interesting parts of the book for me. Both Kevin and his father (whose name Mezrich gives as 'Peter') are stuck with the view that they are merely imparting information to one another. What they are doing is expressing who they are, for better and for worse. Kevin got his habits of working diligently and thoroughly from his father, but, as this exchange shows, he also got his father's inability to articulate himself. 'Peter' doesn't grasp that his son might have something to teach him. He would also have had a hard time accepting what Kevin is doing, for reasons good and bad. Good, because the kind of behaviours which Kevin has to adopt in order to succeed at counting cards do not conduce to living well, something which 'Peter' would instinctively grasp, even if he can't spell it out; bad, because Kevin's father evidently does not see his son as a distinct person but as, in some sense, an extension of himself, and would undoubtedly react poorly to Kevin's revelation.
[Kevin] stepped outside onto the moving walkway, dazzled by the neon-lit canopy up above. If he had glanced back over his shoulder, he might have seen a tall, angular man with weathered cheeks, silver hair, and narrow ice-blue eyes watching him from just inside the glass doors. [p. 106] I can be a bit vicious about literary style, I think. I have to admit that while I'm not enamoured with Mezrich's style overall, he does well enough. But I found this passage off-putting, considering how well, generally, Mezrich keeps to Kevin's perspective. I suppose Mezrich had to introduce this guy (an investigator with a company that protects several casinos) somehow; here is where a slightly more authorial tone would have been appropriate, say, a separate paragraph, 'Kevin wasn't aware that he was being watched by a man, &c.'.Next we see Kevin break up with Felicia, in what I consider a revealing passage.
Kevin tried to think of someting that would take the terrible, dejected look off her face, but he couldn't bear to string her along anymore. He ran his hands down the sides of his charcoal Armani suit, reminding himself of the life he was choosing.And now for a moment of foreshadowing:
"I'm sorry. It's the mature decision, Felicia. We're graduating in a few weeks, and we're both moving away. I think we owe this to each other."
It was bullshit, but in the past year Kevin had become a master of bullshit. ...
"We could make it work," Felicia tried. She simply didn't understand; she was holding him back from a life he wanted to live. [p. 107] On the one hand, Kevin's motives for breaking up with Felicia are deceitful; on the other, he does have a point: he ought not to be stringing her along. Considerations of misleading her about his double life apart (the revelation of which would likely end their relationship anyway), Kevin is about to embark on a relationship with a girlfriend in Vegas, so at least he won't be two-timing Felicia.
[A]s he looked at Fisher's dark expression, Kevin was beginning to think that it would soon be time for a changing of the guard. He hoped it would be a smooth transition; he liked to think of the team as a pleasantly dysfunctional family. If Micky was forced into retirement, couldn't he still play the father figure? [p. 111] Kevin, at least in the book, views Micky as a father figure, so it comes as no surprise that he'd like to continue to see him that way.Later, the author meets an acquaintance of Kevin's, someone who, with her husband, had been recruited onto the team. It transpires that she and her husband have since divorced; while we get the sense that their experience as card counters exacerbated it, I imagine that their difficulties were inherent from the beginning (pp. 121-7).
Eventually the moment arrives that spells Micky Rosa's removal from the team, as Kevin and Fisher identify another blackjack team, working the same casino as they:
"Listen," Fisher continued. "I respect Micky more than you know. Based on Fisher's later behaviour to Kevin, he clearly expects Kevin knows nothing about how much he respects Micky. But he's not a player anymore. This sentence and the previous one could have been combined. No, really, we don't mind reading complex sentences. He's a dinosaur, man. His time came and went. Now he's making money off of all of us, and we simply don't need him anymore. That's more like it."Sure enough, Micky gets booted off the team (pp. 135-8). Kevin thinks about how badly he feels about the team's decision (he himself having gone along with Fisher's idea) and about how he considered Micky a 'surrogate father in Vegas [p. 137]', but that's that.
... "You know what happens to dinosaurs," Fisher said[.]
"They run amok in amusement parks?" Kevin said, aiming for levity. I like the reference to Jurassic Park, which would still have been in public memory at the time.
Fisher didn't crack a smile. Boo-urns. No sense of humour. He was dead serious. And now, from the department of redundancy department. "Dinosaurs go extinct. If they don't do it on their own - someone has to help them along." [p. 134] Last time I checked, animals generally required help, if help you call it, to go extinct; however, Fisher is using 'dinosaur' as a metaphor. I think.
Things go swimmingly for Kevin et al., until the infamous Tyson-Holyfied fight during which Mike Tyson bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear. Remember that? In Mezrich's account (pp. 147-9), in the aftermath of that fight there is a bit of a riot at the casino, and Kevin's team faces the challenge of trading in the chips for cash before the casino switches the more expensive chips (to prevent looters from making good on their ill-gotten gains). The solution? It has to be quoted to be believed:
Barbie put her top back on and headed off toward the VIP stage. As she climbed up to the silver dancing pole in the middle of the raised platform, Martinez leaned in close to Fisher.Another revealing passage; in this case the pun is fully intended: Mezrich writes an interlude during which he does some 'research', this time at a club whose purpose, so far as I can tell, is to allow the clientele to come as close to having sex with a prostitute without actually having to go through with it. Mezrich meets an acquaintance of Kevin's who works at the club, who requires of him to buy champagne, pay for an hour of her time, and allow her to sit on his lap with next to no clothes on. Naturally. The passage is:
"It's settled," he said. "She'll bring some of her friends over to our room tonight to work out the details."
Kevin stared at the two of them. "What the fuck are you two doing? We've got an emergency here. The MGM Grand is going to change all its high chips. We're sitting on two hundred thousand dollars in worthless plastic. ..."
... Kevin ... wasn't in the mood to play games. "Who's solving our problem? You and Barbie?"
"That's right," Martinez responded. "Kevin, who carries around multiple thousand dollar chips, other than professional gamblers?" This, obviously, is a rhetorical question.
... "High-class strippers," Kevin said, impressed. [p. 151] Only in Vegas. I'll spare you the details of how Kevin & co. make use of the help of strippers to solve their problem, but solve it they do.
"This place is no different than the casinos [April said]. We're all a bunch of liars, just like them."That appears to be a turning point, because things begin to go downhill for Kevin and company from here in. On pp. 164-5, Kevin gets turfed from another casino (and on p. 165 we see the silver-haired man with the ice-blue eyes again, at long last). Meanwhile, Martinez becomes 'everything-bad-happens-to' Martinez, when he gets brought down to the back room in the middle of the night (pp. 165-8; and of course this is just the first bad thing which happens to Martinez).
I tried to shift beneath her weight. My legs were starting to cramp. "What do you mean?"
She waved her arms toward the smoked-glass wall that separated the Emperor's Room from the rest of the club. "All the girls are so friendly and smiling and happy to see you. They dance and they dazzle and tell jokes while they take your money. Inside, they hate your guts. Each and every one of them. They think you're a sucker and a mark."
The vitriol was out of place on her girlish face.
"The casinos are exactly the same. They give you glitz and flash and glamour. But inside, beneath the smiling faces, they hate you. They know you're a greedy bastard, and they use it to get at your money. They lure you in and rob you blind. And they laugh at you when you leave, every one of them. They laugh and try to figure out ways to get you to come back." [p. 160] This is one of the truest things ever spoken in this book about the relationship between those selling the goods - the casinos, strippers, escorts, hookers, and whatever it is the women at this particular club are called - and the buyers. Frankly, it describes the relationship between many people in retail and those they are selling things to. It really does. Not that the consumers are any more innocent or in many cases any less two-faced. Anyway.
Things go from bad to worse; on pp. 175-6, Kevin & co. get kicked out of a favourite spot of theirs, the Grand Victoria, a paddleboat casino on the Fox River near Chicago:
Kevin looked up in time to see, walking toward him, one of the pit bosses he knew from his very first trip to the casino. The man's name was Robert Steiner, and he had once even invited Kevin to invest in a noncasino-related awkward business he had started. Short, balding, with wide blue eyes and chubby round shoulders, he was a family man with two kids getting ready to head to college and a wife who dealt cards during the day shift.Despite the later reassurances of Fisher and Martinez, it turns out that the team has been cracked; Kevin sees the man with silver hair at an old haunt of the team's, the MGM Grand (p. 182).
Kevin was already out of his seat and moving away from the table when Steiner reached him. He smiled as affably as possible, reaching out to shake the pit boss's hand. Steiner shook back, but his grip was limp, and he had a confused look on his face. "Jackie, we've got a little problem."
Kevin tried to remain cocky, in character. "Am I taking too much of your money? You know I'll blow it all back at the craps table."
Steiner looked pained. "We can't have you hopping from table to table anymore."
Kevin raised his eyebrows. He couldn't believe he'd been pegged as a card counter here, in Chicago. If they didn't want him moving around, they thought he was either back-counting the shoes or working with teammates. Steiner was breaking it to him gently because he was a friend a friend of whom, may I ask? The friend of a false identity?, but Kevin was effectively on his way to being barred.
"This is crazy," Kevin said, feigning indignance. "I've been playing here for years."
"Maybe it's the guys you're hanging out with. Maybe they're the problem, not you."
Kevin swallowed, his throat dry. "What are you talking about? I came here alone."
... Now Kevin's fingers were twitching at his sides. [Steiner has just identified other members of the team while asking if 'Jackie' knows them.] "What the hell is going on, Rob? You know me. I always play alone."
Steiner shrugged. His tone was rapidly shifting from reluctant to annoyed. "Maybe its some sort of mistake. But they made the call upstairs. You can't hop tables anymore. But just between you and me, I think it's time for you and your friends to pack up and get the hell out of here." [pp. 175-6] A certain amount of the charm of what Kevin & co. are doing is lost here, even though it is they who are being kicked out unceremoniously. For all that Kevin, Micky, Fisher, or anyone else on the team paints what they are doing as fighting oppression, that explanation feels a bit forced when one learns of them befriending employees of casinos under false pretences or enjoying the perks which people who actually lose lots of money to the casinos do.
Anyway, I rather feel as though I've got off track. I don't want to spend the rest of the post writing a synopsis with marginal commentary. Instead I will look through the remainder of the book for a few passages which illustrate the practice of virtue and how what is virtuous behaviour is construed differently by different people.
There are two schools of thought represented in Bringing Down the House. Now that hard times have come upon the team, we see how people trying to live different lives react in different ways to the event.
Kevin, who has expressed concern about leading a double life (although since he has begun making money hand over fist such expressions have subsided), at least to himself, is of the opinion that 'there was little to discuss. Somehow the team had been compromised. They could still gamble at a number of casinos... but the enemy was closing in fast. [p. 189]' This opinion is shared by Jill, who says of counting cards, '"Hey, it's been fun. But I just don't think it's worth the risk anymore. [p. 191]"'
On the one hand, then, the Taylors and Kevin. On the other, Kianna says: '"I think we just need to switch up the team a bit,[p. 190]"' and Mezrich writes of her that '[l]ike Fisher, she always wanted to push forward; she didn't care about risk. [loc. cit.]' And Fisher and Martinez arrive at a meeting to discuss the future of the team with the '"highest-quality disguises... available on the market. [p. 191]"' Their gambit pays off, at least in terms of convincing the team to go on; but in the event Martinez is turfed from a casino despite wearing his disguise and not even playing any blackjack there (As a pit boss tells him, '"You think you're fooling anyone with that idiotic mustache? [p. 197]"'), although elsewhere the ploy succeeds.
A few members of the team go to Louisiana, where disaster strikes; Kevin sees a photo of four members of the team being faxed to the staff at a casino, and promptly arranges for the team to evacuate (pp. 202-3). The different virtues being espoused by Kevin, on the one hand, and Fisher, on the other, are emphasised in an argument that they have following their hasty departure:
Dylan [a more recent member of the team] leaned forward from the backseat [sic]. "If this is true - how did they get pictures of us?"Now there is a split between Kevin and Fisher; we shall see how their respective points-of-view, sustained by the separate (and to an extent) opposed virtues by which they lead their lives, eventually end their friendship.
Martinez drummed his fingers against the side window. "Well, if the Grand Victoria hired Plymouth [a firm of private detectives], it's possible these riverboats are also working with the PIs. Maybe Plymouth is sending out a warning to all the casinos on its list. We get burned the minute we start to win - sometimes the minute we walk through the door."
"Then we're dinosaurs," Kevin mumbled, a heavy feeling in his chest.
"We are not fucking dinosaurs!" Fisher shouted, slamming a fist against the dash. "You don't know what was on that ffax. It might have had nothing to do with us. For all we know, they might be looking for four hicks who knocked over a goddamn 7-Eleven. We didn't get barred. Hell, we took fifty thousand dollars from the Horseshoe, and they didn't even whimper."
"You think it's a coincidence?" Kevin asked.
"I think you're jumping to a conclusion," Fisher shot back. "Your head's not in the game. We should have waited until they barred us. We shouldn't have broken ranks. Now we don't know what's going on or what to do next."
Kevin shook his head, insulted by Fisher's tone. "I know exactly what we do next. We get on a plane and go back to Boston."
Fisher glared at him but didn't respond. ... [They have to return to the Horseshoe to exchange their chips] "All right," [Kevin] said quietly. "We'll park the car twenty feet from the front doors. You guys wait while I go inside and exchange the chips."
Fisher looked like he was going to say something, then shrugged. It was Kevin's paranoia that had them on the run. If Kevin wanted to make the exchange, it was his call. [pp. 204-5] Notice this lapse, albeit a brief one, from Kevin's point of view. It is a revealing lapse regarding Fisher's opinion about what has just happened, however. Fisher, I think, is wrong, on the one hand, for dismissing what Kevin saw; Mezrich makes it clear that the picture is of young Asian men matching the appearance of the group. Kevin was right that it was a matter of time before they were barred. On the other hand, Fisher was right to say that they should have waited until they were actually barred before leaving. While Kevin does seem quick to leap to the conclusion that they should cut their losses and leave, Fisher seems too dismissive of the risks to the team posed by the casinos and too quick to get angry when someone suggests a course of action he doesn't like. In the event (pp. 206-8), the folks at the Horseshoe realise what the team did, contra Fisher's assertion, and the team gets a scare from the local authorities. On p. 208, Kevin tells Fisher:
"Don't fucking talk to me about jumping to conclusions. Those cops weren't looking for hicks. They were hunting for dinosaurs."
First, an exchange they have when they visit Micky after things have been going south:
[Kevin] didn't need card counting. He didn't need to go up against guys like Vincent Cole. Cole is the name of that fellow who has been tracking Kevin's team. He works for Plymouth, the private investigation firm.Kevin later remembers a New Year's Eve at the MGM Grand not long ago, a telltale sign that the glamour of Vegas is wearing thin:
Then again, the thought of giving up - just like that - bit at Kevin down deep. He didn't need card counting, but he didn't want to be forced out of it by the casinos.
"So what can we do?" he asked, handing the sheaf of photos back to Micky.
Fisher looked like he was going to jump down Kevin's throat. "There are still dozens of casinos that don't work with Plymouth. We can start over."
... Kevin touched his lips. He wished he could be as optimistic as Martinez and Fisher. But he wasn't sure the risk was worth the return. Foreign countries were guided by foreign laws. Card counting in Vegas was one thing... But Kevin had learned a lesson in Louisiana. ...
"Maybe we should take some time," Kevin said, "slow down a bit."
"We get right back on the horse," Fisher said, jabbing a finger toward Kevin's face."We find out the casinos that don't work with Plymouth, and we hit them, hard. ... We can make just as much money as before."
Kevin rose from the couch. He didn't want a lecture from Fisher. ...
"Come on, Kev," Martinez said, "you want to go to the Bahamas this weekend? Bikinis, booze, and blackjack?"
Kevin shook his head. He couldn't go to the Bahamas because he would be busy preparing his IRS audit. Martinez sighed, and Fisher turned away in disgust. Kevin could sense the fissure that was growing between them, but at the moment he didn't see any easy solution. ...
"Kevin," Fisher said. "Martinez and I don't need time to think. We know what we have to do. We're card counters, like Micky. We'll always be card counters." [pp. 217-8] The main source of conflict, then, is that Kevin has a life outside card counting that he doesn't want to risk; Martinez and Fisher, so it seems, do not. Their differences are unlikely to be reconciled because they live in different worlds, as it were. For Martinez and Fisher, any risk is worth it because counting cards is their livelihood (although the possibility of doing something else does not seem to have occurred to them; perhaps they are so comfortable with living a kind of lie that they don't know how to live one life). For Kevin, other aspects of his life make the risks of counting cards less worth taking. The virtues by which Kevin, on the one hand, operates and those by which Martinez and Fisher operate, on the other, are in many respects similar, but in crucial ways different.
As the clock struck midnight, Kevin shared champagne with a roomful of strangers: mostly inebriated, middle-aged men dressed in expensive clothes and surrounded by strippers in sparkling dresses and high-class escorts in Versace gowns. Enveloped by so much Vegas glitz, Kevin felt a sudden sense of melancholy. Was this where he belonged? Was this who he had become?Eventually, what Mezrich has hinted at comes to pass; the team breaks apart:
As the New Year's ball dropped, he had no one to hug or kiss or laugh with. Instead, he had teammates down in the casino who could call him in to positive shoes. He had strippers over at the Paradise who knew him by his fake names and loved to dance for his real money. He had casino hosts waiting to extend him incredible lines of credit and provide him extravagant creature comforts. He had a woman who traveled with a football team waiting for him to phone - because she knew it meant another high-profile weekend of five-star restaurants and sold-out shows. He had a family at home who didn't know him anymore, an ex-girlfriend whose heart he had broken because she didn't play blackjack.
He'd spent the last three New Year's Eves gambling in Las Vegas ... and he wondered:
Is this who I've become? [italics original; p. 220] The glamour has worn off; the spell is broken. Kevin no longer wishes to live this life, even though he will struggle against it for a little while longer. Those around him may find the glamour of Vegas fulfilling, but for Kevin the enchantment has worn off.
"Kevin, I just got the weirdest e-mail from Kianna."The last word belongs to Martinez:
It was Dylan...
"What sort of e-mail?" Kevin asked. ...
"She asked if I could send her all the playing records from the past year. When I pushed her for details, she said she needed them because she and a few of the others were heading to Vegas this coming weekend. Kevin, am I out of the loop on something?"
Kevin's eyebrows rose... . "Not that I know of. We haven't discussed another trip since we found out about that list." ...
Kevin was more awake now. He was concerned, but he wasn't going to jump to conclusions. ... Kianna's e-mail was more worrisome. More worrisome, that is, than Fisher having probably been beat up in the Bahamas (which is what in fact happened). Why would she want the playing records, unless she was planning to schedule some team play? And why hadn't Kevin heard about any trip to Vegas? ...
"Let me call Fisher," Kevin said. "I'll figure this out. ..."
He hung up the phone and dialed Fisher's number. The line clicked over to voice mail immediately, a sign that Fisher was on the phone and wasn't using his caller ID. Curiouser and curiouser. Alice in Wonderland. Interesting reference. Kevin dialed Martinez - and found that his phone wasn't picking up, either.
Kevin was beginning to get concerned. ... He... searched for Kianna's number. She was the one who had sent the e-mail. And if there really was something going on, she would probably be the easiest to crack.
... There were three rings on the other end of the line, then Kianna's voice: "Fisher? Michael's in. I haven't reached Brian yet-"
"Kianna?" Kevin broke in. ... There was definitely [italics original] something going on. ...
... "I want to know what the hell is going on. Why did you ask Dylan for the player records? And what's this about a trip to Vegas next weekend?"
There was a long pause on the other end. Then Kianna answers quietly, "I think you better talk to Fisher."
"... Listen, Kianna, I have a right to know what's going on. I'm part of this team, aren't I?" ...
"Kevin," Kianna finally responded. "Fisher and Martinez are starting a new team. I don't think it's anything personal, they just want to make some changes-"
Kevin hung up the phone. ... [T]his wasn't quitting - this was being thrown out. Of his own goddamn team.
He dialed Fisher's number... Fisher finally picked up on the sixth redial. His voice sounded rushed. "Kevin, I can't talk right now-"
"But you're going to, Fisher, because I deserve an answer. Are you kicking me off the team?"
Fisher coughed. ... "Not exactly. We're restructuring. You know we've been having some problems lately. Martinez and I think it's time to reposition ourselves, take things a little more seriously."
Kevin squeezed the phone. "You think I don't take things seriously?"
"Frankly, no. Come on, Kev. This is a hobby to you. This is our livelihood. You've never been willing to commit to this one hundred percent. And now we've learned that anything less is dangerous."
Kevin wondered if he understood Fisher correctly. "Are you accusing me of something?"
"Of course not. But I no longer want to play with anyone who isn't in this all the way. I've sacrificed everything for this team. I don't have anything else in my life that matters. Can you say the same?"
Kevin sat there, silent. Did Fisher have a point? Kevin did see card counting as a side passion, not as his only reason for living.
But that didn't mean he hadn't sacrificed for the game. And it sure as hell didn't mean he had done anything to endanger them. He began to wonder if there wasn't more to it. He remembered how eager Fisher was to cut Micky out of the team - because it gave him a chance to make more money.
"This isn't right, Fisher. Cutting me out behind my back." A good point by Kevin, in my view.
"It's not personal..." [ellipsis original]
"Like hell it's not," Kevin said, growing angrier. "If you wanted a bigger share of the investment pie, you could have simply told me. If you felt I wasn't spending enough time in the planning stages, or giving enough weekends to the team, I would have made some adjustments."
"I don't want adjustments [italics original]," Fisher said. "I want to run the team my way. And that's exactly what I'm going to do. Kevin, you said yourself that you wanted to slow things down a bit. Take some time to think things through. Well, now you've got all the time you need." [pp. 228-31] The crux of the matter, then, is how Fisher (and to a lesser extent Martinez) view card counting, their place in that world, and the place of others, compared to Kevin's own views on those things. Kevin's memory of Fisher's motivation for getting rid of Micky is probably on the ball. Fisher and Martinez have given up a lot for card counting, it is true, but with the amount of money that they have already made, they could easily retire. The clash of lifestyles seems to be a sideshow, after all. Fisher's protestations that Kevin hasn't sacrificed enough for the team, or the game, or that the team 'needs' people who will commit to it 'one hundred percent' ring hollow. Many enterprises are successful which do not have people committed to them wholeheartedly; indeed, overinvolvement is probably more harmful to the enterprise and to the people attempting to carry it out than having other interests and passions. Fisher cannot demonstrably prove that Kevin's apparent lack of passion is responsible for the team's recent troubles (indeed, if anything, it is Fisher's and Martinez's evident lack of caution). Moreover, it is significant that, when Fisher gives his real reasons for getting rid of Kevin, it is because he wants to run the team 'my way' - no mention of Martinez. However, Martinez does not, unlike Kevin (or Micky), seem to be a threat to Fisher's leadership. And (this is where the virtues related to lifestyle return), Martinez and Fisher are, as it were, brothers-in-arms; Kevin seems to always be an outsider, to a certain extent.
"It shouldn't have gone down like this," Martinez said by way of a greeting. "But you know it was inevitable. MIT chaos theory. Put a bunch of overly intelligent, socially inept people like us togehter, sooner or later you get chaos."So much, then, for Bringing Down the House.
Kevin closed his eyes. "Maybe."
He couldn't help feeling sad about the team's breakup. It was like a good relationship ending. They had gone through some wild times together.
"I never told you why I left MIT, did I?"
Kevin opened his eyes. ... He waited for Martinez to continue.
"Because I didn't belong there, anyway. I had already been recruited by Micky. I knew this was the right life for me. Some people might think I'm wasting my gifts. But I believe this is what I'm supposed to do. I'm a card-counter, Kevin." [p. 233] Martinez is, in fact, wasting his gifts, although as I have pointed out above, because genius is incommensurable, he can hardly be blamed for using his talents in a field where the rewards are great (but the actual use of talent, compared to its potential in other, less rewarding fields, low). This is at any rate one of the best emotional parts of the book, although it would have been better had Mezrich omitted direct reference to the team's break-up when describing how Kevin felt. Martinez's words are an appropriate coda to this marginal commentary, because they get to the root of the problem. For Martinez (and for Fisher, despite his additional greed and need for control), their identity is as card-counters; for Kevin, as for others, it is not. My take on it is this: we are able to be identified (defined, if you like) in many ways. Is 'card-counter' the best choice for one's primary identity, or is it not?