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Card Counting Gig Nets Students Millions

By Jenny Zhang

STAFF REPORTER

Ben Mezrich, the author of Bringing Down the House:The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, discussed his newest book and held a book signing at Coffeehouse last night. He described his interaction with this covert team of gamblers.

Over a few years in the 1990s, MIT students earned several million dollars by playing blackjack in Las Vegas casinos on weekends while taking on the lives of normal college students during the week.

“I got to know them socially when we were in college. They always had cash, and were always going to Vegas. Eventually, they took me along and I got an inside look,” said Mezrich.

The basic strategy for the students was to employ card counting techniques, where they kept track of the proportion of high cards to the total number of cards left in the stack. “Based on that, they could predict hands and place bets accordingly,” said Mezrich.

Teamwork pays off big

Card counters are normally caught because they work alone and appear suspicious when they suddenly raise their bets once they predict a win.

The MIT team was different in that it employed a method of communication between seemingly unrelated players.

Mezrich described four basic roles for a team of the blackjack players. The back-spotter counts cards without playing and signals teammates when high cards are imminent. The spotter consistently places small bets at the table while secretly counting cards as well and relaying the information to teammates. The “Gorilla,” who always makes large bets, moves from table to table, guided by signals from spotters indicating advantageous positions. Finally, the position requiring the most skill is that of the Big Player, who counts cards, plays at the same time, and is advanced enough to always place high bets. Because of the division of labor, dealers could not easily spot these card counting teams.

Getting caught

Eventually, members of the blackjack team were betrayed. Out of greed, some team members sold names and faces to the Griffin Agency, which is hired by some casinos to track players who win disproportionately. The Griffin Agency compiles a face book of card counters and prohibits them from betting.

“It gets the MIT freshmen picture book every year,” Mezrich said.

“I know of this guy who walked in, was recognized almost immediately, and kicked out before he could play at all,” said a veteran blackjack player. “Other times, especially when it’s busy, you can play for a couple hours before they pay any attention to you. You get out fast as soon as they see you.”

Card counting is entirely legal, but casinos can still get rid of counters because they are taking the casino’s money.

Former members talk

A member of the counting team who did not wish to be identified commented, “It was an interesting part of my life. I was very poor at the time and without a job. I started out just playing and learning the rules, then later joined the MIT blackjack team. I pretended to be a bimbo while spotting so that they would not suspect me and then moved on up in my roles.”

However, the game was not just about getting loads of cash and staying in glitzy hotels.

“I stopped four years ago mainly because of the stress of knowing I could get caught. It is scary; they will take illegal measures such as pulling you to the back room ... you don’t know what they can do to you there,” she said.

Another person, represented by the character Andrew Tay in the book, said, “The team recruited students who had a propensity for playing cards and taught them basic strategy. I was first skeptical when they told me about it, but later I saw what a good opportunity it was.”

When asked how people felt about their techniques being revealed, Tay said, “most people mentioned in the book were comfortable with it. They were willing to talk to Mezrich.”

“This experience of seeing a book about me and people I know on The New York Times’ list - it’s been surreal,” Tay said.

Kevin Spacey to produce movie

Mezrich has already sold the movie rights to MGM studios. Kevin Spacey is planning to both produce and act in the movie, which could come out as soon as 2004. It will be unique in that many of the MIT students will be portrayed by minority actors, as was the actual case.

“Actually, Kevin Spacey came to me about making a movie. He read the wired.com adaptation of the book and became interested,” Mezrich said. “The funny thing is filming may take in casinos such as the The Mirage and Caesar’s Palace, where the real thing happened.

Several MIT students approached Mezrich after the book signing and expressed interest in acting or being extras in the movie.