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Copyright

Title: Bringing Down the House
Author: Ben Mezrich
Publisher: The Free Press
Copyright: 2002
ISBN: 0-743-22570-8
Pages: 257
Price: $24.00
Rating: 88%

If you're at all mathematically inclined, you can immediately understand the attraction of using your skills to win a fortune at the blackjack tables. And if you're a high-caliber nerd who can make it into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you almost certainly have the horsepower to play well enough to gain a useful advantage over the house. The problem is mastering the people skills that convince casino bosses to let you continue playing. Casinos are very good at analyzing betting and play patterns to figure out who is using card-tracking techniques to gain an edge, so anyone attempting to count cards needs to camouflage what they're doing.

Regardless of what you hear, card counting is perfectly legal. It's also perfectly legal for Nevada casinos to ask anyone not to play any game, or even to leave the casino, for any reason, at any time. Yes, that's any reason. And they can be ruthless about it. I've seen skid row inhabitants playing the 25-cent craps game at Binion's Horseshoe who wouldn't make it three steps inside the front door of any of the more upscale Strip casinos.

In Bringing Down the House, Ben Mezrich tells the tale of a bunch of MIT students and alumni living the ultimate geek dream: using math to make money. The secret is in team play...pooling a bankroll to smooth out the effects of variance (there's no such thing as luck when math is your ally) and to let you employ strategies that emphasize the experience and skills of your team members.

Bringing Down the House is Mezrich's first work of non-fiction, but he didn't cast away his skills as a novelist when he sat down to write this book. The third-person narrative tracks the progress of the book's main character, "Kevin Lewis", through his time with the fabled MIT Blackjack Team. It's not quite the mythical hero's journey you find in so many tales, but Kevin's progress from apprentice to wizard, and the adventures he goes through during the journey, make for engaging reading. If you'd like an example of the benefits of being a successful counter in a place where testosterone and money mix, read on:

"Labor Day weekend, end of 1995, he found himself escorted to a private booth in a newly opened club at the Hard Rock Hotel. Surrounded by strippers and starlets from L.A., Teri, on his arm, Jill and Dylan one booth over but never making eye contact, and Tay on the dance floor, his head bouncing high over the crowd, Kevin watched the flickering lights and wondered if life could possibly get any better. He had seventy thousand dollars in a money belt around his waist and another quarter million back in his room. Card counting was the key that had unlocked the casino's coffers, and there was no reason to think the party ever had to end."

That quote starts on page 131 of a 251-page book, so you might guess the hero's story arc is about to change. You'd be right, but you should read the book yourself to find out how he got there and what happens next.

Curtis D. Frye (cfrye@teleport.com) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews.  He is the author of Microsoft Office Excel 2003 Step By Step, Microsoft Access Version 2002 Plain & Simple, Privacy-Enhanced Business, and ten other books.