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MIT Alumnus and ‘Busting Vegas’ Author Describe Experience of Beating the House

By Kevin Der
ARTS EDITOR

Explosive laughter from alumni and students filled 10-250 while an amused voice with a Russian accent revealed his secret card-playing schemes that earned him millions of dollars. “At one point I had a casino convinced that I was an arms dealer. That was one of my favorites,” he said.

These words came from the mouth of Semyon Dukach SM ’93, who once walked the halls of the Laboratory for Computer Science like countless others. But while many graduates’ claims to fortune are through technology startups (Dukach himself has founded three), this MIT grad’s fame was accomplished by doing the impossible – taking millions away from casinos in Vegas and other exotic locales, all using blackjack and simple math.

Dukach’s tale is possibly the stuff of MIT students’ fantasies — laden with sex, enormous sums of money, alcohol, and high risk. And here he was, back on campus walking through the Infinite Corridor, ready to explain how he did it. The person he originally told was none other than Ben Mezrich, a Harvard graduate who had already written “Bringing Down the House.” That book, which remained on The New York Times Bestseller List for 59 weeks, revealed the story of another blackjack team from MIT that made millions. The methods Dukach and his team of three other students used, though, were more advanced, invented from within, and shared with fewer than a dozen people. Mezrich’s newest book, “Busting Vegas,” describes Dukach’s sensational tale with as much brilliance as his first Vegas novel.

And so Mezrich and Dukach lounged in maroon director-style canvas chairs, emblazoned with stars and their names, ready to talk to a lecture-hall audience of mostly MIT alumni, but also students. During the talk, Mezrich probed Dukach for interesting anecdotes, many of which ended up in “Busting Vegas.” Dukach described the myriad of characters he invented to infiltrate various casinos; indeed the inside cover of the book is tiled with the images of countless fake IDs used to gain entry to high stakes tables.

When the floor was opened for questions, a member of the audience noted that the characters in “Bringing Down the House” were investigated by the IRS and asked Dukach about his financial actions, whether legal or illegal. Dukach said, “We set up corporations and paid taxes.” Later, he revealed, “We made about five million dollars in about two years.” He stored actual winnings on campus in an enormous iron safe, he said, that had been at MIT for decades. Dukach later moved the safe away from MIT and permanently installed it in his home.

Dukach also explained his dislike of casinos. He disapproves of the facade that casinos create by giving the impression that the casual card player will walk away a winner — actually, the blackjack player is mathematically disposed to be a loser even if his play is perfect. Casinos now employ even more elaborate tactics to keep people gambling as much as possible; they not only try to keep the gamblers drunk, they also use aromatherapy and other means to ensnare their victims, he said. “It’s like date rape,” Mezrich said, “They get you in there, and you don’t remember what happened.”

In “Busting Vegas,” Mezrich uses multiple points of view and jumps back and forth between the past and the present to create suspense and delay tantalizing facts. The novel opens with Dukach and Cassius, another team member, flying a tired Cessna to Princeton from Atlantic City in the middle of a snowstorm. They crash land the plane, jump from the burning wreckage and then start to run back to the aircraft to retrieve their winnings of $350,000 in cash, stored in garbage bags during transit. Mezrich waits a while before he reveals what happens next, further captivating the reader with consistent profanity and descriptions of scantily clad women.

One thing Mezrich also does throughout the book is stress the two personas of his characters — on the one hand, a nerdy MIT student, one of those geniuses on a plane of intelligence above the rest of us at the Institute; and on the other, a bold and slightly reckless gambler living a lifestyle involving vice and debauchery. The story is so sensational, yet rooted enough in the reality of MIT, that the reader is inevitably sucked in. We follow Dukach and his teammates, first around Cambridge and Boston, then to one casino after another, from Vegas to Europe and Monte Carlo.

Over the course of these adventures, Mezrich explains each of the three techniques Dukach used to gain an edge over the house. Rather than using card counting, a long-known method for gaining a slight advantage in blackjack, the techniques involved tracking the whereabouts of a few particular cards. In one method, the player memorizes a sequence of cards in the discard rack; these cards are then re-circulated into the shoe, but shuffled in between other unknown cards. With multiple players at the same table, these known cards, if tracked correctly, can then be directed to create winning hands or to bust the dealer.

These skills require months or years of practice, says Dukach. Mezrich’s book makes it seem so easy to us, since we all have some understanding of probability distributions. Ultimately, the average MIT student might think himself smart enough to do what Dukach did, but it’s clear to me that this is just the result of delusions of grandeur brought about by visions of endless cash and the attractive lure of high stakes gambling.

This view is brought about in part by Hollywood, with films like “Ocean’s Eleven,” in which gambling is made to seem exotic and sexy. Incidentally, Mezrich’s “Bringing Down the House” is now being turned into a feature film by Kevin Spacey, who will play the MIT professor who trained the blackjack team described in that book. During the talk, Mezrich mentioned the stereotypical Hollywood casting process — though most of the actual blackjack team was composed of Asian males, a studio executive involved in the casting process said that most of the film’s actors would be white, with perhaps an Asian female. Even as Asian actors are entering more mainstream films, such as “Better Luck Tomorrow” and the upcoming “Memoirs of a Geisha,” these stereotypes still exist, Mezrich said.

Ultimately, Dukach’s story is one in which math can be extremely profitable. Mezrich described his amazement when he witnessed Dukach employing these techniques in person. And even though most casinos in Vegas and other places now recognize Dukach on the spot and throw him out, he still plays — staying at a South American hotel last week, Dukach casually played, making a few thousand dollars. About his techniques, Dukach said, “It definitely wasn’t wrong. We were taking money away from casinos.”