Casinos must love this book. We follow MIT student Kevin Lewis as he gets sucked into a school blackjack card counting club with some friends, studies intensely, and comes out millions of dollars ahead. Hell, the story seemed so quick and inevitable, I felt like I could go to Vegas and get rich. And I have a solid record of hating gambling (because of cheapness, not morality). As the Bringing Down the House itself warns, blackjack is beatable, but the casinos make much of their money off people who read one book and think they know how to beat it.
These nerd to VIP fantasies form the book’s main appeal. Kevin Smith starts off with a nice, common Ivy League pedigree: MIT electrical-engineering math geek who graduated from Exeter and doesn’t know how to tell his dad that he won’t go to med school. Within a couple of years, he’s dating a Rams cheerleader, using eight fake names and partying with professional basketball players. In one scene, “Kevin lay on his back laughing, scooping huge handfuls of hundred-dollar bills and tossing them into the air. He closed his eyes, his head swirling, as he bathed in a cool green rain of Benjamins.” Mezrich writes at a Law and Order pace and hams up the rock star-type fantasies to make the book thoroughly entertaining.
But Lewis is just a case study; the real focus is on Las Vegas. If the book has a thesis, it’s that you can’t steal from Vegas without being shaped by the city’s mentality. As Lewis gets more and more money, he begins to act like it. His attempt to lead a double life — one in Vegas, one in Boston — falls apart as his previous world just isn’t exciting enough. His nice Boston girlfriend doesn’t fit the Vegas mold, so he dumps her for a cheerleader; his parents would never understand, so they are simply lied to. The book tries to explain where the Vegas mentality came from, but the passage is too short to do the history any justice.
The main weakness to Bringing Down the House is this lack of context: we don’t really know how things got to be this way in Vegas, or why the mentality is expanding: Lewis plays in just-opened casinos across the country. Mezric’s digressions from the breathless plot are few and far between. But no matter. Spy stories don’t need histories. The book, with its fake IDs, double lives, suspicious casino employees and loads of money, is a spy story for nerds. The thrill of such a story is taking the view of character who enters a world you aren’t supposed to see. Kevin Lewis’ world is illuminating if you have ever thought of beating Vegas — and still exciting if you think it’s a waste of time.
– JOSH KELLER