Busting Vegas: The MIT Whiz Kid Who Brought the Casinos to Their Knees, By Ben Mezrich Morrow, 304 pp., $24.95
Walking on the MIT campus one day, 21-year-old computer science student Semyon Dukach saw a poster that would change his life: ''Make Money. Play Blackjack." What followed was a thrill ride through the casinos of Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Monte Carlo during which Dukach and his team of mathematical geniuses would make millions of dollars. Needless to say, trouble ensued.
Author Ben Mezrich knows this territory well. His 2003 bestseller ''Bringing Down the House" told a similar tale about MIT kids getting rich in Las Vegas. Mezrich's next book, ''Ugly Americans," chronicled Ivy League investment bankers making a fortune in Asian financial markets. While Mezrich's prose may be lacking in Proustian lyricism or profound psychological insight, he's become a master at delivering fast-paced, tightly structured narratives that keep readers engaged every step of the way.
Mezrich's most impressive achievement is the manner in which he explains the complex ''mathematical sorcery" used by Dukach and his team to beat the casinos. Mezrich skillfully blends the sugar of the high-roller lifestyle with the medicine of the mathematics behind ''the three techniques" to create a concoction that goes down with entertaining ease. When Mezrich shows us the techniques in action, highlighting how they take advantage of weaknesses in the workings of casinos, we're left to shake our heads wondering why we hadn't thought of them first.
Much of the appeal of ''Busting Vegas" comes from the vicarious pleasure of watching Dukach and his young colleagues living the glamorous lifestyle of penthouses, limousines, and private jets. Dukach alternately poses as a Russian arms dealer, a New Jersey dentist, and a European pop singer named Dietrich. In the book's funniest moment, one of Dukach's teammates asks ''Dietrich" to sing his latest hit song for a Las Vegas pit boss. Taken aback, Dukach tunefully breaks out with, ''Baby you are the one, you are, you know, the one."
Of course, there's danger in walking away from a casino with millions of dollars. After ''busting" a casino in Aruba, Dukach and his team are seized by gun-toting security guards. They're brought in front of the casino's elegantly dressed owner, who pulls a gun on them and demands that they return ''his" money. They do. In Atlantic City, Dukach is abducted by two kidnappers who try to steal his winnings. When they learn that Dukach isn't carrying any money, they hurl him out of a moving car. In Monte Carlo, two French police officers bring Dukach and his team into the woods and order them to their knees, scaring the daylights out of them while ordering them at gunpoint to never come back.
In the end, Dukach chooses to stop playing. Mezrich leads us to believe that Dukach's intentions are noble, that he's a kind of Robin Hood who sacrifices his high-roller lifestyle to help a friend. But one can't be sure that Dukach is leaving the game primarily for these noble reasons or simply because he's afraid of getting killed.
While Mezrich's strength is not in plumbing the depths of Dukach's soul, what he's done, beautifully, is craft a riveting story about kids with excess brainpower taking on casinos with excess money. He has penned a gripping true-life adventure that will keep you reading well past your bedtime.