A Bar, Blackjack And Best-Sellers: One Author's Big Break Ben Mezrich had been a struggling author, without a regular job and knee-deep in debt. But that all changed at a dive bar in Boston, when Mezrich saw a local college student whip out a $100 bill.
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A Bar, Blackjack And Best-Sellers: One Author's Big Break

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

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

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Writer Ben Mezrich got his big break from luck and gambling without ever placing a bet. Let me explain. Long before he wrote the books that became the movies "21" and "The Social Network" back in the '90s, Ben Mezrich was struggling.

BEN MEZRICH: My first six books were medical thrillers that nobody read - trashy pop, sci-fi medical thrillers. One of them became a TV movie called "Fatal Error."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FATAL ERROR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: What's this? It's a system of veins, see?

MEZRICH: Which was really horrible - it airs at about 2 in the morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FATAL ERROR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: A (unintelligible) cyst.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Yeah, doctor.

MEZRICH: So that was the quality of the work, and that's what I was writing.

RATH: Then, one lucky night, a friend took him to an Irish pub right on the river.

MEZRICH: Crossroads - it's kind of an MIT dive bar in Boston. I don't want to say seedy, because I like the bar. But it's a little seedy. But the people there are all really smart people. And there was this group of kind of geeky MIT kids who used to hang out there. And I was introduced to them. They were regular MIT kids, but they had tons of money and all of it was in hundred dollar bills.

And the thing is in Boston you never see $100 bills. I mean, I know in New York you see them all the time. In LA, you see them. In Vegas, they come right out of the ATM machine. But in Boston you never see $100 bills.

So I started hanging out with them, and I went up to the main kid. And I said why do you have all this money in hundreds? And he invited me to his apartment and pointed to his laundry. And in his laundry was $250,000 in stacks of hundreds. It was incredible. I'd never seen so much cash in one place. And he said come to Vegas with me tomorrow. I want to show you something.

And so the next day, I flew to Vegas. I was at a point in my life where I could just get on a plane and go to Vegas. And it was him and five of his buddies, and the driver took us to this suite on the Strip. And the MIT kids came in and started pulling money out from under their clothes. And they piled it up, and it was a million dollars in cash.

And they said we're the MIT blackjack team. I mean, it was incredible. It was like a real operation going on. Costumes - they would wear make-up. They would change their look at every casino. You know, the guy who played the big player, which is the big gambler, would have to dress like a high-roller.

And I was blown away because I'd been spending the past few years writing all this crap that nobody was reading and here was a true story that was better than anything I could come up with on my own.

So I get back from this trip and I wrote a book proposal. And I sent it to my agent. And he said, you know, nobody really cares about blackjack. Nobody cares about cards. Vegas wasn't hot yet. It wasn't on TV all the time. And so I sold it for the least amount of money I'd ever sold a book for. It was a tiny first printing. It was going to be 12,000 copies. And that was it. And I didn't think much more was going to happen.

I wrote an article for Wired magazine about the MIT blackjack team. And Kevin Spacey saw it. I was sitting at home and the phone rings, and it was Kevin Spacey's assistant, Dana Brunetti. Dana says, you know, I've got Kevin Spacey on the line. He wants to talk to you.

And I hung up on him. (Laughter) I called my mom and I said I think Kevin Spacey is trying to call me. And she said no, it's the MIT blackjack team. They're prank-calling you again, because they used to prank-call me a lot.

So I checked out Dana Brunetti's name, and I realized he really was Kevin Spacey's assistant. So I called them back, and they said come out to LA. We want to make a movie. And so I went and I met with Kevin Spacey. It was this incredible moment - the kid from Boston, basically. And we were at the Beverly Hills Hotel. And in walks Spacey. And it's, you know, wow. I mean, it's Keyser Soze - it's that guy. And Kevin says I want to make a movie out of this. And I said sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "21")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: You ever studied blackjack?

MEZRICH: It was amazing, you know, seeing a movie made of one of your books. It's kind of a dream come true for an author. And it was just wild. It was wild.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "21")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: It's beatable.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Are you talking about counting cards?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: No, I'm talking about getting very, very rich.

MEZRICH: Running into a story like that, it's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing, or at least you think it is, because it's perfect, you know, six MIT kids who took Vegas. So that really was my big break.

RATH: That's Ben Mezrich, author of the books "Bringing Down The House," the "Accidental Billionaires" and the newest is called "Once Upon A Time In Russia: The Rise Of The Oligarchs." No need to have had one of your books turned into a best picture nominee - email us your story at mybigbreak@npr.org.

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