Poker Words - A Poker Blog

Mostly a recount of my poker exploits along with a bunch of random other stuff just for fun.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Book Review: Bringing Down the House

Bringing Down the House Cover

Bringing Down the House: The Story of Siz M.I.T. Students who took Vegas for Millions By Ben Mezrich.

I thought I’d deviate from my usual posts where I just bitch about how poorly I’ve been playing lately and post a book review. This book is a few years old, and I actually read it before I really got into poker. Ever since then it’s been on loan to just about everyone I know. I finally got it back yesterday and decided to write it up.

Technically, this book isn’t about poker, it’s about blackjack, but it does involve Vegas and Atlantic City, and all sorts of other casinos and gambling and shenanigans that I figure most poker players will enjoy.

The book focuses on a group of M.I.T. students, and how they were able to take casinos for millions of dollars by working as a team to count cards. As some background, blackjack is the only game played against the house where past events can affect future results. In roulette for example, if red comes up 10 times in a row, the odds for red to come up on the 11th spin are the same as if black had come up the previous 10 times. The fact that red has been coming up has no impact on the next spin. In blackjack, if you get blackjack 10 hands in a row, the chances are significantly less that you will get a blackjack on the next hand than if you had gotten all low cards for the previous hands. Since the deck is not reshuffled after each round, once you use up the Aces and face cards, the advantage swings towards the house. When you use up the low cards, the percentage of Aces and face cards left in the deck increases, moving the advantage more to the player. There are hundreds of books and websites devoted to this principle. Basically, you keep a running count. You add one for every low card you see, and subtract one for every high card. Middle cards get zero points. The higher the number gets, the better your odds are, and the more you should bet. (Please don’t use this strategy without consulting an actual expert. I claim zero responsibility for any blackjack losses resulting from my most likely incorrect advice.)

The kids in Bringing Down the House take this strategy one step further. They would go to a casino as a group of six players. Five of them would sit down at different tables and start counting. When the odds got to be overwhelmingly positive, they would signal the sixth player, who would sit down, and bet a ton. Once the odds swung back in the house’s favor, he would get up and look for another team member’s table to join.

In the book you follow one of the team members who played the VIP/big spender on the team. He first joins the team after a few of his friends take him to Atlantic City, and show him what they can do. You then follow him through his training, and early stages of team play. You go on his first trip to Vegas, and his scouting missions. Eventually he becomes a VIP under different names at several casinos all across the country. He gets the full whale treatment from just about any place he visits, and for a while, no one catches on that he and his team are making a fortune off of them. Slowly their luck starts to change, as they start getting recognized and banned from various casinos, and you follow them as they try the less sophisticated riverboat casinos, and anywhere else they haven’t been. It becomes a race to hit as many places as hard as they can before they are universally recognized, and no longer able to play.

The book makes for a very fast paced and adrenaline filled read. It also leaves you with an insatiable desire to go to Vegas. I think every one that I have leant this book to has asked me when we are going to start our card counting team and go to Vegas as they are returning it. My only complaint with the book is that every few chapters or so, the author will throw in an interview with some personality that is somewhat related to the story; a security expert, a stripper, one of the minor players on the team. These offered no real value to the story, and I found myself just skimming those chapters, anxious to get back to the exiting part. It was almost like he finished the book and said “oh shit, I need 50 more pages. Better throw in some crap”. That being said, I would still very highly recommend this book. If you haven’t already read it, you need to.


At 4:29 PM, Blogger Adam said...

I absolutely loved this book. Then again, I am a gambling degenerate.

Think you could link my blog to this one? I've already done the same for yours. Thanks!


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