BUSTING VEGA$: THE MIT WHIZ KID WHO BROUGHT THE CASINOS TO THEIR KNEES
by Ben Mezrich
304 pages, $24.95
O.K., here's the incredible story: A Russian-American kid named Semyon Dukach joins the blackjack team at MIT, where he is a student. The team is made up of math geniuses who figure out three foolproof techniques with which to beat blackjack dealers. Dukach and his friends travel from Las Vegas to Atlantic City to Monte Carlo, playing under an assortment of assumed names, breaking dealers everywhere they go. Mind you, despite winning millions they aren't in it just for the money. They are waging what Dukach calls "a passionate, desperate struggle against the mighty evil empire ... the casino industry."
Of course, the people who staff this industry are no match for such brilliance, so they dispatch goons to intimidate Dukach and his pals--and sometimes to beat the daylights out of them. In the end Dukach decides that friendship and love are more important than blackjack, so, in a scenario remarkably similar to a pat Hollywood movie's, he sacrifices a fortune to save his best friend, whom he finds dying of a heroin overdose in a Nevada whorehouse. Not long thereafter he resolves to reveal his blackjack "secrets" to Mezrich, author of the best-selling Bringing Down the House.
Pretty incredible, huh? Only problem is, the word incredible has two meanings: to elicit great wonder; and, to be so implausible as to elicit disbelief. Both definitions apply here, and which one applies most often depends on your ... well, credulity.
January 23, 2006
Despite the writer's characterization of Dukach as an "MIT whiz kid," the blackjack techniques explained in this book have little to do with advanced math. Dukach calls them "honest," but they often involve peeking at cards, a technique most card players refer to as "cheating," and then signaling other players how to bet. You don't have to go to MIT to come up with such strategies. Moreover, in at least one of the few instances in which math comes into play, Mezrich stumbles. "An ace dealt to a player's hand gave a 51 percent advantage to that player," he writes. "The other five hands at the table were playing at the normal two percent disadvantage--so in total, Semyon and [his teammate] Allie [who, between them, were playing all six hands], had sixty thousand dollars bet at a mathematical advantage of 45 percent.... It was a huge number."
Huge indeed--but, by my calculation, wrong. The advantage seemed a lot closer to 7%. I contacted the publisher and asked to speak to Mezrich about this apparent error. To my surprise, it was Dukach himself who returned my call (Mezrich later told me that he deferred to Dukach in all things mathematical) and told me that I was correct, adding unctuously that he was "impressed" that I had caught the error. He also revealed that at least one of the book's characters, the group's ringleader Victor, was a "composite." This detail was later confirmed by Mezrich, who had failed to make that clear in the book, which notes only that "some names and identities were changed."
Dukach's credibility, and Mezrich's credulity, are matters of some consequence because a good deal of criminal behavior is described in the book. For instance, Mezrich writes that Dukach stole a passport belonging to one Emilio Díaz--but asks us to believe that he stole it under the following circumstances: One night, while in Barcelona to gamble at the Gran Casino, Dukach was held up at knifepoint as he stepped into the elevator of the dingy apartment building in which he was staying. He handed over more than $100, but when the assailant turned his back, Dukach spied a passport "sticking halfway out of [the mugger's] back pocket.... [He] yanked the passport free and jammed it into his own back pocket."
There's only one word for a story like that: incredible.