Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions by Ben Mezrich (257p.)
Last month, I picked up a prize at the library after winning a trivia contest on books and authors. There were four stacks of books, each gift wrapped in clear cellophane, and I was able to pick which one I wanted. I can’t say I recognized all the titles or authors, but I knew enough to recognize that one was stack was chick lit, another had a few thriller books, the third had nothing I recognized, and the fourth had the most books – fifteen – which all appeared to be nonfiction. I was greedy and went with the most books, many of which I’ll be reviewing. The books were all either brand new or proof copies and many of them are very recent or best sellers.
Bringing Down the House was one of these books and is a New York Times bestseller. It’s about a group of M.I.T. students that created a card counting team and took Casinos by storm in the 1990s, generating millions in profits. It follows the story of ‘Kevin Lewis’ and his experiences with the team and has served as the basis for the film adaptation of the book, 21.
The first warning bells went off in chapter two, when the author interjects himself into the story. Throughout the course of the book, you’ll be treated to the author smuggling money through airport security, an overview of casino security, getting a lap dance by a stripper, and moonlighting as a card counter with the subject of the novel. Only one of these vignettes is even remotely on topic: a dinner with one of the other team members. These stories might have made a nice foreword, but don’t fit into the narrative itself and don’t really seem to do anything than pat the author on the back for showing that he did some level of background research.
The author has admitted that liberties were taken with the book and they’re fairly well documented on the web. It’s the inanity of these changes that ruins the book. At several points, my consciousness drifted from the narrative to ask WTH? and after a browse at the penultimate authority – Wikipedia – I found that each of the moments was when liberty was taken with the story. It’s difficult to discuss these without giving spoilers, so I’ll stick to an example that doesn’t have much plot impact overall. In one instance, a real-life theft of $20,000 from a desk drawer that had nothing to do with gambling, as over $100,000 worth of casino chips were left behind, turned into $75,000 being stolen from a pried-open safe in a player’s apartment that was directly attributed to casino harassment. It is one thing to exaggerate the amount of money involved, but quite another to turn an unrelated theft into an action of the casinos. This is just one of a series of instances, some of them major plot points, that just didn’t make sense to me as I read. And this is my ultimate disappointment: the story itself is good enough. It did not the extra assaults, fake breaking and entering, covert strippers, or anything else. Either Mezrich couldn’t see that it was fascinating in its own right or didn’t feel up to doing the research to prove it.