By the time we reach early adulthood, most people have at least one good gambling story to tell. Whether it is a blind luck win at a roulette wheel, a hit on a slot machine, winning a superbowl pool, or, as is the case for too many of us, that time where we got in a little over-our-heads at the betting table and busted big time. Kevin Lewis, the focus of Ben Mezrich's enthralling new book Bringing Down the House, must constantly find himself subjected to hearing any number of these stories on a daily basis. But none can pony up to his own. By the time he was a Junior at MIT, Lewis, along with a small group of like-minded MIT classmates took part in one of the largest card-counting scams in history, one which would garner them in upwards in three million dollars in blackjack winnings from casinos across the country.
Mezrich describes how this group of inexperienced young students perfected a method of card-counting and signaling techniques to take millions of dollars from casinos without attracting attention from pit bosses and owners.
Using a relatively simple system-each face card and ten that is dealt counts as negative one point, each card below a six counts as a positive one point, sevens, eights, and nines are neutral-the team members would keep a running total of the cards being dealt, determining the probability of drawing a high hand (the higher the count, the better probability that favorable cards would be drawn). As Lewis explains in his supplemental essay "How to Count Cards and Beat Vegas," which accompanies the paperback edition, unlike other casino games, blackjack has a memory, and because of this, a good blackjack player has absolutely no use for luck. In a beatable game like blackjack, the only smart better is the one who knows what card he is going to be dealt. All of this of course, is legal, as Lewis and his teammates did nothing to change the outcome of the game. They just paid very, very close attention to what was going on.
Using a system of "spotters" and high-stakes rollers ("Big Players"), the MIT team fielded in upwards of ten players at a time spread out across the casino floor.
The job of the spotters was to cover as many tables as possible and keep running card-counts at their location. Then, using designated hand signals, they would call the rollers to their table once it started to heat up, or shoo them away if it was cooling down. Once the Big Player was called over, the spotter would continue to play, and using a buzz word, would let the Big Player know how high the count had risen. For example, a spotter would ask the dealer "Does the hotel have a pool?" to signal a count of +8 (in reference to an 8-ball on a pool table). Or to signal a count of +15, he might say, "I'm losing my paycheck here," because paychecks go out on the fifteenth of the month. Knowing how high the count was, the Big Player could bet accordingly. For high counts, it was not unusual for Lewis and his teammates to bet up to $100,000 on just a few hands.
Using this strategy, the team moved from casino to casino; from Atlantic City to Vegas, making sure not to draw too much attention to themselves at any one location.
In doing so, they established themselves as frequent customers at casinos across the country, usually posing as children of wealthy Asian businessmen, because apparently casinos are less skeptical about Asians spending large amounts of money, than a group of white kids. The players were given VIP treatment at nearly every casino in the country including complimentary suites, meals, tickets to boxing matches, and any other perk the casino managers could think of to keep the high-rollers coming back.
Few young kids could handle this type of lavish lifestyle, but the MIT crew tried very hard to not let the Vegas nightlife get to them, rather concentrating on what they were there for-to win at blackjack and get home with as big a bankroll as possible. But it wouldn't be long before the life gets to their head. Kevin, a self-described math geek, finds himself reveling in the life of his Ripley-esque alter ego. It's not hard to get comfortable living the high-life when you are hob-nobbing with celebrities and professional athletes and dating an NFL cheerleader, and the crew oftentimes ran the risk of getting in too deep and blowing their cover.