Monday, December 27, 2010
Bringing Down the House
Didn't intend on reading this again. I signed this out for my oldest son who has developed an interest in counting cards. It's such an easy and entertaining read, though, that I plowed through it again.
I'm a good father in that I encourage the understanding of mathematical "games of chance". Blackjack is a game in which the player can occasionally have an advantage over the house and have a positive profit expectancy (the others are poker, sports handicapping, horse racing and the stock market. Anything else is gambling and playing any of those without knowing what your edge is also is gambling). Trying to beat blackjack by counting cards solo, though, is a grind (as is trying to beat any of the above mentioned games). You have to play a lot, be patient for your edge to come, and then get your money in. Given that the edge in blackjack might be as little as two percent, ugh, just thinking about trying to make a living doing so is painful.
Bringing Down the House is a true story about a group of MIT students that formed a team of card counters in the 1990's and made a quite successful run on the casinos of the world. Ultimately, their success was their downfall as more and more casinos banned them from play when they discovered what they were doing. Casinos don't like losing and they treat card counters as cheaters even though they don't do anything to affect play. They just bet more when the likelihood of getting good hands is in their favor.
The team structure is what made the group successful. By having a handful of people counting cards at different tables and signaling a "Big Player" to join the table and place bets when the decks were advantageous, the team reduced some of the grind involved.
Like many such "success stories", timing is everything. One of the reasons the group was able to pull it off was because most of the players were Asian. The casinos weren't suspicious of young Asian players because you had such folks heading up tech companies in the 1990's during the tech boom. Casinos were seeing young Asians all the time. Likewise, one of the big solo card counters cited in the book was an African American who dressed and acted like a pimp/drug dealer. The biases of casino personnels led them to believe such a person could not be a card counter.
Another interesting aspect of the era which would be extremely difficult to overcome in 2010 is the transportation of money. The team would strap wads of cash under their clothes when they flew to Vegas. Carrying large sums of cash (tens of thousands) would be highly suspicious so they tried to hide it. In this era of heightened air travel paranoia, no one's getting by with that amount of cash on their bodies.
This book was made into a horrible movie starring Kevin Spacey called 21. VERY loosely based on the book. Don't watch it. Read the book. Mezrich writes plainly, keeps it exciting and moving along, and captures the story and characters well.