21 Bringing Down the House NPR coverage of 21 Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions by Ben Mezrich. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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21 Bringing Down the House

The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions

by Ben Mezrich

Paperback, 273 pages, Pocket Books, List Price: $15 |


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21 Bringing Down the House
The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions
Ben Mezrich

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Book Summary

Recounts the story of how a notorious gang of MIT blackjack savants devised and received backing for a system for winning at the world's most sophisticated casinos, an endeavor that earned them more than three million dollars. Originally published as Bringing Down the House. Reissue. (A Columbia Pictures film, written by Peter Steinfeld & Allan Loeb, directed by Robert Luketic, releasing March 2008, starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Jim Sturgess, & others) (Current Affairs)

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A Bar, Blackjack And Best-Sellers: One Author's Big Break

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: 21 Bringing Down The House


It was ten minutes past three in the morning, and Kevin Lewis looked like he was about to pass out. There were three empty martini glasses on the table in front of him, and he was leaning forward on both elbows, his gaze focused on his cards. The dealer was still feigning patience, in deference to the pile of purple chips in front of the martini glasses. But the other players were beginning to get restless. They wanted the kid to make his bet already — or pack it in, grab the ratty duffel bag under his chair, and head back to Boston. Hell, hadn't he won enough? What was a college senior going to do with thirty thousand dollars?

The dealer, sensing the mood at the table, finally tapped the blackjack shoe. "It's up to you, Kevin. You've had a hell of a run. Are you in for another round?"

Kevin tried to hide his trembling hands. Truth be told, his name wasn't really Kevin. 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.

Kevin breathed deeply, calming himself. He'd done this a hundred times, and there was no reason to think that tonight would be any different.

He reached for three five-hundred-dollar chips, then glanced around, pretending to look for the cocktail waitress. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his Spotter. Red-haired, pretty, wearing a low-cut blouse and too much makeup. Nobody would have guessed she was a former MIT mechanical-engineering major and an honors student at Harvard Business School. She was close enough to see the table but far enough away not to draw any suspicion. Kevin caught her gaze, then waited for her signal. A bent right arm would tell him to double his bet. Both arms folded and he'd push most of his chips into the betting circle. Arms flat at her sides and he'd drop down to the lowest possible bet.

But she didn't do any of these things. Instead, she ran her right hand through her hair.

Kevin stared at her, making sure he had read her right. Then he quickly started to gather his chips.

"That's it for me," he said to the table, slurring his words. "Should have skipped that last martini."

Inside, he was on fire. He glanced at his Spotter again. Her hand was still deep in her red hair. Christ. In six months, Kevin had never seen a Spotter do that before. The signal had nothing to do with the deck, nothing to do with the precise running count that had won him thirty thousand dollars in under an hour.

A hand in the hair meant only one thing. Get out. Get moving. Now.

Kevin slung the duffel bag over his shoulder and jammed the purple chips into his pockets.

The dealer was watching him carefully. "You sure you don't want me to color up?"

Maybe the man sensed that something wasn't right. Kevin was about to toss him a tip when he caught sight of the suits. Three of them, coming around the nearest craps table. Big, burly men with narrow eyes. No time for niceties.

"That's okay," Kevin said, backing away from the table. "I like the way they jiggle around in my pants."

He turned and darted through the casino. He knew they were watching him from above — the Eyes in the Sky. But he doubted they would make a scene. They were just trying to protect their money. Still, he didn't want to take any chances. If the suits caught up to him — well, everyone had heard the stories. Back rooms. Intimidation tactics. Sometimes even violence. No matter how many makeovers the town got, deep down, this was still Vegas.

Tonight Kevin was lucky. He made it outside without incident, blending into the ever-present flow of tourists on the brightly lit Strip. A minute later, he was sitting on a bench at a neon-drenched cabstand across the street. The duffel bag was on his lap.

The redhead from inside dropped onto the bench next to him, lighting herself a cigarette. Her hands were shaking. "That was too fucking close. They came straight out of the elevators. They must have been upstairs watching the whole time."

Kevin nodded. He was breathing hard. His chest was soaked in sweat. There was no better feeling in the world.

"Think we should quit for the night?" the girl asked.

Kevin smiled at her.

"Let's try the Stardust. My face is still good there."

He put both hands on the duffel bag, feeling the stacks of bills inside. A little over one million dollars, all in hundreds: Kevin's bankroll, partially financed by the shadowy investors who recruited him six months before. They had trained him in mock casinos set up in ratty apartments, abandoned warehouses, even MIT classrooms. Then they had set him loose on the neon Strip.

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.

He hadn't invented the System. He was just one of the lucky few smart enough to pull it off...


Boston, Present Day

Twenty-five thousand dollars in hundreds, strapped to each thigh. Another fifty thousand in a Velcro bag taped to my chest. Fifty thousand more stuffed into the pockets of my jacket. A hundred thousand nestled against the small of my back.

I felt like a cross between the Michelin Man and a drug dealer. Bulging and nervous, I pushed through the revolving glass door and entered Logan Airport. Refrigerated air smacked me full in the face, and I paused, getting my bearings. Terminal B was bustling with college kids fleeing town for the long Memorial Day weekend: backpacks, baggy jeans, baseball caps, duffel bags. Everyone moving in every direction at once, the unchoreographed ballet of a modern American airport. I took a deep breath and joined the flow of people.

I kept my eyes low, watching my scuffed dark loafers pad across the tiled floor. Act casual, think casual, be casual... I tried not to think about the new BMW strapped to my back. I tried not to think about the down payment for a two-bedroom condo nestled in my jacket pockets. I concentrated on looking like everyone else; maybe not a college kid, but perhaps a grad student, a teaching assistant — someone's older brother here to help with the luggage. Just part of the cacophony, a statistic in Logan's weekly FAA report. Act casual, think casual, be casual...

Suddenly, the modern equivalent of Stonehenge loomed in front of me: two airport metal detectors standing side by side, flanked by waist-high conveyor belts continuously feeding into boxy steel X-ray machines. My pulse rocketed as I mentally checked myself. No bills hanging from my sleeves, no glimpses of green sticking out through the buttons on my shirt. I stepped into line behind a pretty brunette in low-riding jeans, even offering to help her hoist an oversize, sticker-covered suitcase onto one of the conveyor belts. Act casual, think casual, be casual...

"Next." A tall African-American woman in a grey Logan uniform beckoned. There was a name tag on her right lapel, but I couldn't make out what it said because of the sweat stinging my eyes. I blinked rapidly — but casually — and stepped forward through the disembodied door frame. The invisible rays sliced and diced my entrails in search of metal. Just as I started to breathe easier, a high-pitched mechanical scream tore through the dead air. I froze.

The woman with the name tag pointed me back through the machine. "Empty your pockets of any metal objects and try again."

My throat constricted. My hands jerked instinctively toward the bulges beneath my jacket. Above the stacks of hundred-dollar bills, I felt something shaped like an enormous suppository.

Shit. I had forgotten about my cell phone.

My fingers shook as I reached into my coat and fumbled for my Nokia. I could feel the woman's eyes on me. If she asked me to take off my jacket, I was dead. She'd see the bulges and all hell would break loose. I'd spent the past six months researching stories involving attempts at sneaking undeclared fortunes through airport-security checkpoints, and I knew all about customs law.

The security agents can detain you for forty-eight hours. They drag you to a windowless room, sometimes handcuff you to a chair. They call in agents from the DEA and the FBI. They confiscate your stake, sometimes without even giving you a receipt. It will take lawyers and letters and appearances in court to get the money back. Maybe six months, maybe a year. Meanwhile, the IRS will descend on you like grey-suited locusts. It will be up to you to prove you weren't planning to trade the cash for little bags of fine white powder. Because to customs agents, money smells like cocaine. Especially hundred-dollar bills. I've read that 95 percent of the hundred-dollar bills in circulation have minute traces of cocaine embedded in their fibers. That means those specially trained customs dogs can sniff out a professional blackjack player faster than they can spot a drug courier. To the dogs — and the customs agents — they both smell the same.

Fear soaked my back as I handed the woman my cell phone. She looked at it like she'd never seen one before. She turned it on, turned it over, then handed it back. Behind me, a kid in a tie-dyed sweatshirt tried to shove a potted plant onto the conveyor belt. The woman with the name tag rolled her eyes. Then, thankfully, she waved me past.

"You're okay. Have a nice flight."

I was barely breathing as I stumbled toward my gate. America West, flight 69. Boston to Vegas direct, the Friday-night neon express. A line of people had already formed by the check-in desk; boisterous, drunk, mostly male, palpably eager.

Kevin Lewis was waiting quietly near the back of the line. I spotted him immediately. Tall, athletically built, but with a slight, shy stoop to his shoulders. Dark hair, dark eyes, a wide, boyish face beneath a mop of dark hair. Vaguely ethnic, but beyond that, indeterminate. His roots could have been Asian, Latino, even Italian or Russian. Like me, he was older than most of the college kids boarding the flight, but he easily fit in with the crowd. He could have been twenty-one, twenty-six, or thirty-five. Wearing a jeans jacket and a baseball cap, he could have passed for a BU frat boy. In a suit and tie, he would have blended in on Wall Street. At the moment, he was wearing an MIT sweatshirt and baggy shorts. The classic MIT stereotype, right out of his parents' dreams.

He saw my flushed cheeks and smiled. "That's what it felt like. Every day."

The bravado seemed incongruous with the shyness in his shoulders. In many ways, Kevin was the classic MIT stereotype. His résumé was perfect: a math-science whiz kid who'd graduated at the top 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.

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.

In Vegas he'd partied with Michael Jordan, Howard Stern, Dennis Rodman, and Kevin Costner. He'd dated a cheerleader from the L.A. Rams and gotten drunk with Playboy centerfolds. He'd been chased off of a riverboat in Louisiana and watched a teammate kicked out of a Las Vegas casino. He'd narrowly escaped being thrown into a Bahamian jail. He'd been audited by the IRS, tailed by private investigators, had his picture faxed around the globe by men with shadowy reputations and guns holstered to their waists.

Along the way, he'd amassed a small fortune which he kept in neat stacks of Benjamins in a closet by his bed. 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.

Shy, geeky, amiable Kevin Lewis had led a double life for nearly four years. Now I was going to tell his story.

"The Velcro's starting to itch" was all I could think to say as I shook Kevin's hand. "There's got to be an easier way to carry your stake."

He grinned, his head cocked to one side. "Sure. Fake umbrellas. Phony laptop computers. Plaster casts and hollow crutches. We went through a gadget phase. You know, James Bond kind of stuff. But hollow crutches are a lot harder to explain to the FBI than Velcro."

If there hadn't been a quarter million dollars taped to my body, I'd have thought he was joking. But Kevin was dead serious. He was keeping his part of our bargain, disclosing the secrets no one on the outside had ever heard before.

I met Kevin Lewis nearly seven years earlier, in a local Boston bar. I had graduated from Harvard a few years before he left MIT, and we shared a few mutual friends as well as a few minor interests: sports, late nights at college pubs, widescreen TVs. I was a fledgling writer at the time of our introduction, just about to publish my first novel. As far as I knew, Kevin was employed by some sort of computer software firm, something he had never explained in detail — probably because I had never been interested enough to ask.

Kevin seemed too much the typical MIT grad: a true engineer at heart. As my writing career began to take off in the years that followed our first meeting, we rarely crossed paths. It was almost six years later that we ran into each other at a Super Bowl party in an apartment located a few blocks from Fenway Park. Kevin had just flown in from a "business" trip to Las Vegas. During the game's halftime show, I found myself alone with him in the kitchen. After a quick exchange of pleasantries, he surprised me by lowering his voice and beckoning me in close: "I've got a great story for your next book," he began.

I immediately thought about edging toward the exit. Like every other writer, I had heard this opening a thousand times in my career. Everyone had a story he believed worthy of a best-seller; for me, reality was rarely interesting enough to take the place of fiction.

But as Kevin began to open up to me, I felt the hair rising on the back of my neck. Unlike the thousands of other cocktail party stories I had heard, Kevin's tale had all the elements of a high-concept, cinematic thriller — but it was real. Everything Kevin was relating to me had actually happened. He had lived it, every minute of it, and he was willing to let me get it all down on paper.

"Why?" I had asked, amazed.

Kevin never answered my question directly. Over time, I've tried to piece together an answer of my own.

Kevin had been part of something incredible. He and his friends got away with one of the biggest schemes in Vegas history — and nobody knew a damn thing about it. Telling the story was his way of reliving the experience in a public forum. It was a way for him to prove to himself and to anyone who cared that it had actually happened.

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 those 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.

In other words, his story was part boast, part confession. For me, this was too good a story to pass up.

As the Super Bowl played on in the other room, Kevin made me an offer. He promised to tell me everything, to give me access to his contacts and his lifestyle. He promised to teach me his system and show me the key that could unlock the casino's coffers.

In return, I would give him his moment.

The deeper I delved into Kevin's double life, the more I realized how far I had come out ahead in our bargain. When I finally sat down to put the words onto paper, Kevin's story flashed by my eyes in Technicolor as bright as a Vegas marquee...