Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions

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The Early Days of Big Money: A Review of A. Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town

The poker craze may have peaked, but it was a big thing there for a bit. About five years ago, ESPN’s prominent televising of the World Series of Poker and the emergence and proliferation of online poker sites where amateur card sharps could test their skills against other players around the globe fueled an explosion of interest in what was once a back-room pastime. To a lesser extent, a pair of books fanned the flames as well: James McManus’ Positively Fifth Street, a journalist and amateur poker player’s tale of parlaying an advance for a Harper’s piece on the World Series (and other related topics) into a miracle run to the final table and Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House, an apparently substantially apocryphal tale of MIT geeks who used their considerable mathematical abilities to bilk millions from Las Vegas casinos using card counting schemes. (Yes, the latter is about blackjack, but it seemed aimed squarely at the suddenly booming poker market and tapped into the same “get rich quick” bravado.)So, for the many poker novices who have taken up no-limit hold’em over the last few years, whether via a neighborhood game, or more likely online, the earlier, though not to say more innocent, years of no-limit hold’em and the World Series of Poker will be surprising in many ways.Such was my reaction to reading The Biggest Game in Town, a journalistic account of the 1981 World Series of Poker by New Yorker contributor and accomplished essayist, novelist, and poet A. Alvarez. On the one hand, it is interesting to know, some twenty years before ESPN began broadcasting poker seemingly every day, that the World Series, held annually since 1970 at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, was a notable event even back then. Alvarez describes “television teams trail[ing] their cables around the room,” major newspapers carrying the results, and spectators “packed against the rails.” At the same time, these early years seem almost impossibly quaint compared to the madness that is described on TV now. In 1981, there were 75 entrants competing for $375,000 in prize money. In 2007, it was 6,358 going after $8.25 million (and that was down from 8,773 and $12 million the prior year). Alvarez’s description of the players’ introductions sums up the scene:Jack Binion climbed onto a chair at the back of the room… He motioned for quiet, did not get it, then introduced the players over the babble of the casino: name, place of origin, a word or so of praise. His favorite description was “plenty tough.”This familial atmosphere allows for Alvarez to paint compelling profiles of a dozen or so of the participants. Unlike the online moonlighters and poker tourists that you might find at the World Series nowadays, these are hard-bitten bunch, and more candidly hooked on gambling than any drug addict and as prone to peaks and crashes. From the likes of Amarillo Slim, Johnny Moss, and Nick “the Greek” Dandalos emerges Doyle Brunson, a survivor in the poker world, thanks both to an uncharacteristically even-keeled demeanor compared to most of the poker pros that Alvarez meets and to a popular and highly technical poker manual he wrote, Doyle Brunson’s Super System: A Course in Power Poker. It’s not uncommon to see Brunson on ESPN still today, revered as a poker god among the hordes of newcomers. Even his children have become celebrity poker players.While Brunson and his small-town Texas bonhomie are at the heart of the book, his colleagues provide the color. What’s particularly interesting is that this book, far more than McManus’ Fifth Street, is a book about addicts. It just happens that these addicts are incredibly good at what they do and so can improbably make a living at it, albeit one that sometimes has them losing hundreds of thousands in a matter of hours and opening a line of credit with a casino (or some shadier operation) in order to get back on track.The World Series, we surmise, is just an attempt clean up poker and market these latter day cowboys for the tourists. It’s telling that the World Series itself isn’t particularly interesting to the participants, Alvarez, or this reader, rather it’s the numerous “cash games” that spring up when the world’s top poker players occupy the same zip code. In these games, which Alvarez describes with something like awe, the $375,000 that World Series participants spend a week competing for might be lost (and won) in a single hand. Members of the top-tier poker fraternity compete ruthlessly, and have no qualms about absolutely cleaning out the deep-pocketed amateur who gets in over his head. It’s an ugly world, lived in windowless rooms with smoky air, and trailing lost jobs and broken families. There’s glamor and excitement in the sums involved but, Alvarez’s book makes clear, never satisfaction.

Curiosities

It’s good to see James Wood covering Richard Price in The New Yorker; and even better to hear Price himself on Fresh Air.And also from The New Yorker, may we recommend Dan Chiasson’s wonderful essay on Frank O’Hara?Luc Sante’s blog pretty much has to be good.Derek, the guy who got both Max and Garth started blogging in the first place, is taking part in a big group blog at the Washington Post covering the Nationals baseball team and its new stadium.With features like this reconsideration of The Gnostic Gospels, the New York Sun is quietly building what may be the country’s best books section.”Growing Up Radical: An Interview with Peter Carey” (via scott)”On Magic Feelism” – n+1 considers Kevin Brockmeier’s The View from the Seventh LayerBoris Kachka profiles Jhumpa Lahiri in New YorkSurreal: “Garfield” minus Garfield. Alternatively, “Garfield” without Garfield’s thought bubbles.Nobody knows if the Kindle is a hit, AP says, but something is happening.A book graveyard in Russia.Languagehat’s specialty: a thoroughly edifying investigation of a phrase pulled out of thin air.American Book Review has developed their own lists of 100 Best Last Lines from Novels (PDF) and 100 Best First Lines from NovelsThe Boston Globe argues that Bringing Down the House, the basis for the new movie 21, is not a work of nonfiction.

Ask a Book Question: The Eighteenth in a Series (Showing Your Cards)

My good and old friend Hot Face, I mean, “Larry ‘Boom Boom’ Delvechhio” writes in with this question about going for broke and laying it all out on the line.Howyadoin’. I was recently in beyootyful Atlantic City–business trip–and I’m thinkin’, geez, this crap is fascinatin’. Is there any, like, books on the subject of gambling/casinos/slots/A.C./Vegas youse might know about? I’m thinkin’ like a New Yorkery piece of joinalism with an eye for the math and the drama of the whole thing.Mr. Delvechhio, fresh off celebrating his swiftly disappearing bachelorhood, must have caught the gambling bug in Atlantic City last weekend. I know because I had a similar experience during my celebrations in Vegas about a month ago. Remember? At the time I discussed a number of books that are related to Sin City in one way or another, but I left out books about gambling. Nonetheless, I can recommend three that might serve Mr. Delvechhio’s purposes, though I’m sure there are countless others. The first is one that I have read, or rather listened to as an audiobook. In 2000 James McManus arrived in Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker for Harper’s. He would leave a lot richer and with a seed for book to be called Positively Fifth Street planted in his brain. A poker player his whole life, McManus couldn’t resist jumping into the fray. He used his advance to pay the entrance fee for the tournament. Remarkably, McManus, an unassuming family man, makes it to the final table of the tournament, and in the process is able to give a great insider’s view of a grueling tournament that features bizarre personalities and incredibly high stakes. He also weaves into the narrative the intrigue and murder surrounding the Binions, the family whose casino hosts the tournament. It’s a fantastic, quick read that will get you hooked on poker if you aren’t already. Another poker book is called The Biggest Game in Town by the mysterious A. Alvarez. This book also focuses on the World Series of Poker, though it hails from an earlier era. Though I haven’t read it, I’ve had this book recommended to me dozens of times since I started working at the book store. By all accounts it is a very quality book; in fact, large portions of it originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1981 or so. And finally, a blackjack book: Ben Mezrich uncovered a pretty remarkable story last year when he wrote about the M.I.T. blackjack team in his book Bringing Down the House. I haven’t read this one either, but I heard Mizrach several times on the radio last year. The revelation: apparently, for years, there has been a highly secretive blackjack team at M.I.T. Created, recruited, and originally bankrolled by a professor, the team used their considerable math skills to make a killing counting cards in Vegas. Before the operation was permanently blackballed from the casinos, they racked up millions. It got to the point where they were traveling with suitcases full of cash and sitting next to NBA stars at the blackjack table. If you see yourself as a money-making, mathematical genius, this might be the book for you. Oh, and, Delvechhio, I’m looking forward to the nuptuals.The Hype ContinuesMore news in a story that is sure to dominate the book-related headlines for months to come: it has been announced that former prez Bill Clinton has completed his a 900-page manuscript for his memoir due out this June, putting an end to fears that he wouldn’t finish on time. They have also released the cover photo, which is just a standard portrait. The remaining intrigue surrounds how revelatory this memoir will be and the timing of the memoir’s release, with some conspiracy theorists claiming that Clinton’s stealing of the spotlight is meant to sabotage John Kerry in an attempt to clear the way for Hillary in 2008.

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