Reading Group Guide
Bringing Down the House Ben Mezrich
Blackjack is beatable -- so we beat it.
We beat the hell out of it.
Author Ben Mezrich takes readers into the inner circle of the M.I.T. blackjack club whose members develop a system for card counting based on techniques from Edward Thorp's 1962 book, Beat the Dealer. Using their unique system, this group of highly educated young men and women take Vegas for more than three million dollars.
And it's all legal.
Told from the perspective of amiable, attractive Kevin Lewis -- an M.I.T. electrical-engineering major who is torn between a life where his knack for numbers cashes out big and a life that will please his traditional, hard-working father, Bringing Down the House follows Kevin from his elaborate induction into the club and his first time counting cards to his role as Big Player and life as a Vegas high-roller. Under the guidance of the mysterious mastermind and former M.I.T. professor, Micky Rosa, Kevin and his teammates work together to win large sums of money, one casino at a time. Their success opens up a world where luxuries are comped and everyone -- whether a high-priced stripper or high-rolling celebrity -- is cheering them on. But shadows begin to appear in their neon lifestyle in the shape of casino managers who want to talk to them "downstairs" and an investigator who always seems to be one step ahead of the team. Within the group itself, tensions build and betrayal surfaces, and Kevin learns that "the most important decision a card counter ever has to make is the decision to walk away."
A New York Times bestseller and soon to be a movie starring Kevin Spacey, Bringing Down the House is the true story about "working the system, turning the math into money, [and] keeping the count without breaking character."
1. Do you see the M.I.T. card counters in this book as heroes who beat a greedy system or do you see them as spoiled Ivy Leaguers with too much time on their hands? When reading the book, do you root for them to succeed? Discuss greed and its role in our society. Do you think it contributes to, or detracts from, the "American Dream"?
2. If Kevin values his father's approval so much, why is it that he becomes a card counter -- a profession of which his father would not approve? Do you think Kevin is rebelling against the stereotype of the studious, straight-laced Asian? If so, is he helping to perpetuate a new Asian stereotype -- that of the Asian gambler?
3. Have you ever counted cards at a casino? If so, did it work? If not, would you try it now that you've read this book? Before you read this book, would you have considered card counting to be gambling? Would you have considered it illegal? What is your opinion about card counting now that you've read the book?
4. The fact that these club members are Asian and of college age is significant in helping them avoid suspicion and dupe the casinos. This is not the only way appearances can be misleading. How do stereotypes play a role in this book? What is your stereotype of a gambler?
5. Are Kevin and his card-counting colleagues gambling addicts? If not, how are they different from addicts? Do you think they are driven simply by ego and greed? Or are they driven by something more complex?
6. How does Bringing Down the House portray gambling centers like Las Vegas and Atlantic City? Do you think books and films about card counting can hurt or help casinos?
7. The book has a who-done-it element that is never fully revealed. Who do you think ratted out the team, selling a list of card counters for $25,000? The Amphibians? Mickey? A member of their own team?
8. Is Micky Rosa a good guy? A father figure and misunderstood genius? Or is he something more sinister? Kevin Spacey will be taking on the role of Mickey in the film version. Who would you choose to play this part?
9. In Kevin Lewis's essay at the end of the book, he tells us, "Keep in mind, card counting isn't gambling" (page 257). If gambling is defined as betting on an uncertain outcome, do you agree with Kevin? If not, explain your reasons.
10. Now you are the card counter. Decipher these code numbers:
One more drink and I'll fall off this stool.
The all-you-can-eat buffet here has the best eggs you ever had.
If I don't start winning, my girlfriend can kiss that engagement ring goodbye.
They've got a great sports book here. Especially when it comes to football.
Hey, where can I go bowling around here?
And translate these phrases into the team's gestures:
The deck's warm
The deck's turned hot
I need to talk
What's the count?
Something's wrong, get out now!
Who Said That?:
"A whale is someone who can lose a million dollars at cards -- and not give a damn." (Answer on page 22.)
"We're freedom fighters, Kevin. We liberate money from the hands of the oppressors. We're Robin Hood, and the casino is the sheriff." (Answer on page 41.)
"Card counting can be good for business, too. They make the civilians think the game is beatable." (Answer on page 66.)
"...the law is pretty clear: As long as you don't alter the outcome of the game, or use a mechanical device such as a calculator or a computer, the worst they can legally do is throw you out." (Answer on page 124.)
"Every time you walk into a casino, they're watching. Every time you cash in a chip, they're taking notes. Sooner or later, they're going to start asking questions. And things will change." (Answer on page 138.)
"Card counting is a misnomer; the practice has nothing at all to do with the ability to count the cards coming out of the deck." (Answer on page 257.)