TMS Bookworm: Ben Mezrich Edition

March 18, 2008 | Comments (0) | by The Hundley

We're back again with another TMS Bookworm. Every so often here, we feel the next to flex our intellectual muscles and let you know that we still kick it old school by (gasp!) reading books. In case you missed the first edition, you can view it here. We welcome your suggestions as well.

Bringing Down the House
by Ben Mezrich. Perhaps you've read this one, it was a New York Times bestseller and has now been adapted for the big screen. The fast-paced, non-fiction book follows MIT student, Kevin Lewis, and his education in an MIT card-counting group that is gearing up to make a run at Vegas. The author manages to get what appears to be carte blanch with Kevin and all the interworkings of the club, which was founded by a former MIT math instructor.

The book hit the shelves just as the poker boom was hitting the TV everywhere, and it doesn't disappoint. You find out all you'd want to know about the management styles of Vegas casinos, what a "gorilla" is on the blackjack table, how to travel on a plane with large sums of money, and most shockingly, how this group of kids legally took Vegas for almost $4 million and lived the life of a high roller right on The Strip.

It's amazing how easy the book makes it sound: it's simply keeping track of a running number, making note of how many big cards have been played. So simple, yet you must realize that these were all math whizzes from one of the most prestigious technical schools in the world. The author even addresses the fact that Vegas really doesn't care if people know about this book because of how difficult it is to beat them. You're more than likely to lose large sums of money than win it big when playing this tactic.

This makes for a great airplane book because it reads so fast. If you're interested in the movie, you can see the trailer here. True to form, it looks like the filmmakers have taken some liberties with the screenplay.


Ugly American$ by Ben Mezrich. Yet another true story about Ivy League kids making it big. Ugly Americans tells the story of college grads that descended on the Asian financial markets in the mid 90's. These Hedge Fund Cowboys walked a fine line of business ethics to make millions of dollars on derivative trading. The main character is "John Malcolm", a former Princeton football player determined to make it in the world of finance. When run-of-the-mill interviews on Wall Street don't pan out, the kid from a humble background decided to call a guy who he'd originally thought was just a football fan.

Taking this "job" on the fly, Malcolm moves to Japan to work at a company comprised of expatriates, and trades over $20 million on his first day alone. All throughout the book we're told of how the financial market ties into the Japanese mafia and also a burgeoning sex market (which is described in detail quite often). These expatriates have found a loophole that allows them to exploit fledgling companies and turn them into big profits. Obviously, it's an immensely risky business, and the author alludes to the man who is associated the most with the Wild East financial market, Nick Leeson, he who singlehandedly caused the collapse of one of the oldest and well-respected banks in Europe.

While some could argue that the author makes things too simplistic, it works. I'm looking for an entertaining and fast-paced page turner, not a textbook on finance. Much like Bringing Down the House, much of the book is focused on living large. The main character constantly has his eye on two things: the one, big sale and the soon to follow exit point. Maybe not your grandfather's American Dream, but certainly an exciting rags-to-riches story to be sure.