Best book on Blackjack
Ben Mezrich at the premiere of 21, the film adaptation of Bringing Down the House.Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Once — before he'd hit the New York Times Best Sellers List, before he'd hosted a TV show, before he'd written a book whose film adaptation got an Oscar nomination for best picture — Ben Mezrich was just another struggling author.
"My first six books were medical thrillers that nobody read, " he laughs. "Trashy, pop, sci-fi medical thrillers. One of them became a TV movie called Fatal Error, which is really horrible [and] airs at about 2 in the morning."
He was deep in debt and using credit cards to pay rent.
The night that things changed, a friend took him to an Irish pub in Boston called Crossroads, just across the Charles River from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"There was this group of kind of geeky MIT kids who used to hang out there, " Mezrich remembers. "They were regular MIT kids, but they had tons of money and all of it was in hundred dollar bills."
He remembers that those crisp bills caught his eye.
"The thing is that, in Boston, you never see $100 bills, " he says. "I know in New York you see them all the time. In LA, you see them. In Vegas, they come right out of the ATM machine — but in Boston you never see $100 bills."
Mezrich was introduced to the group. Among them was a tall, athletic kid named Jeff Ma.
"'Why do you have all this money in hundreds?'" Mezrich remembers asking Ma. "And he invited me to his apartment and pointed to his laundry — and in his laundry was $250, 000 in stacks of hundreds. It was incredible. I'd never seen so much cash in one place. And he said, 'Come to Vegas with me tomorrow; I want to show you something.' "
Mezrich had no regular job and was deep in debt anyway, so he figured: why not?
"It was him and five of his buddies, and the driver took us to this suite on the Strip. And the MIT kids came in and started pulling money out from under their clothes. They piled it up, and it was a million dollars in cash."
The kids from the dive bar were members of the MIT blackjack team. They invited him to watch as they hit the blackjack tables with their elaborate system for counting cards, complete with costumes, false identities and secret hand signals.
"It was like a real operation going on, " he says. "I was blown away, because I'd been spending the past few years writing all this crap that nobody was reading. And here was a true story that was better than anything I could come up with on my own."
When Mezrich got back to Boston, he wrote up a book proposal and sent it off to his agent. The agent wasn't incredibly impressed. Las Vegas just wasn't "hot" yet, Mezrich recalls. This was back in the late '90s, before Ocean's Eleven and poker on TV.
Kevin Blackwood is a professional blackjack player, card counter and gambling author. He is best known for his novel, The Counter, and his instructional book, Play Blackjack Like the Pros.
Blackwood has played in the World Series of Blackjack and the Ultimate Blackjack Tour, a televised 10 week blackjack tournament airing on CBS.