Ben Mezrich’s Vegas Books

February 15th, 2008 at 11:10 pm

If Charles Bock’s “Beautiful Children” and 21 are any indication, Las Vegas is still a well that has not run dry. The stories keep getting drawn out.

From Ocean’s 11 to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to The Godfather to Casino to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Ocean’s 11 to Ocean’s 12 to the Las Vegas television show to Ben Mezrich’s two tomes on the city to Ocean’s 13, it’s a town with ample material.

They’ll make an Ocean’s 14 and no one will blink.

Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House and Busting Vega$ are two books ripe for Hollywood’s interpretation. So thank god for Kevin Spacey. They have all the elements of an entertaining spectacle complete with flashy characters, violence, sex, and suspense. Mezrich writes a lot like Michael Crichton: simple, easy entertainment of enjoyable intrigue. Mezrich’s books are as equally hollow and undeveloped as typical Hollywood Faire. The books were written like screenplays, as Crichton’s are. The dialogue is sparse, the suspense is heavy-handed and forced.

In both books, Mezrich fails to examine the obvious metaphors and themes his setting and subjects are providing. Hunter S. Thompson did it so much better by having the journalistic gumption to observe and pass judgment, to realize the obnoxiousness of it all. The fact that otherwise intelligent MIT students are turning to Las Vegas for fun and profit means something. The fact that they are able to succeed only to a certain extent means something greater. “Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mister Jones?”

Mezrich’s tales are about smart college students from MIT who organize teams in order to exploit the weaknesses of casinos to win a lot of money. A lot. The kids are recruited, trained, and tested before their lucrative abilities are let loose all over the world, from Shreveport to Las Vegas, Aruba to Monte Carlo. Their operations are impressive; complete with significant financial funding, secret identities, performance standards, code words, tactics, paperwork, procedures, and signals. Bringing Down the House is about teams counting cards. Busting Vega$ is about using opportunities to observe cards and to cut the deck so as to make the dealer bust or benefit the players.

Somewhere in Mezrich’s two books is a meaningful and cautionary tale about America in general and capitalism in particular. It’s the story of making money. A lot of money. It’s a David and Goliath story. College kids against the corporate behemoths running the casinos. The students exploit the casino’s inherent weaknesses only to be intimidated away. And along the way, Mezrich illuminates the alternative reality that exists in casinos across the country. A world of pit bosses, high rollers, luxury suites, stacks of hundred dollar bills stashed in trash bags and laundry baskets, handguns, back rooms, private investigators, hookers, and high-end sophisticated surveillance technology. There is robbery, a plane crash, heroin use, friendship, success, strippers, love, and betrayal. It’s the story of Hope and Crushing Defeat. It’s a story of the American Dream.

And it’s all very flashy and wow!, sure, but one that felt hollow and unsatisfactory for its failure to probe the contradictory and unfair nature of the casinos. It’s a bizarre industry that operates under its own rules. An industry that is fun, yes, but one that is indicative of something greater. Corruption? Perhaps. Indifference? Maybe. Opportunism and manipulation. Probably.

One of the MIT whiz kids, Semyon Dukach, is far more eloquent on this issue in his afterword for Busting Vega$, even getting around to praising open source software: “For me and my teammates, beating the casinos has never been entirely about the money. Of course the money was important, and on the surface, the whole enterprise may have even resembled a kind of crazy financial start-up on steroids, but anyone looking deeper would have seen that for us, the blackjack team was not a business, but a passionate, desperate struggle against the mighty evil empire that was and continues to be the casino industry.”

I didn’t like these two books very much because they aren’t as good as they could be. They operate on only one level: what. What happened. Not why. Why is always so much more interesting. Writing about cool shit that really happened, man!, is not enough.

As the late, great Stanley Kubrick once said, “Real is good, interesting is better.”

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