UD Profile

Blackjack, Vegas and Spending Two Million Dollars

The March Madness bug has bitten and you're thinking about hitting your favorite playground, Vegas. Before you do, take in a few insider tips from Vegas veteran and high roller Ben Mezrich, author of Bringing Down the House, the infamous story of the MIT kids who sacked the town for millions.

You can do Vegas like the regular folks, or you can blow the doors off—and no one would know better than a guy who blew through almost two million dollars in six months. Below, UD presents the highest rolling writer we've ever met, and his musings on Sin City, New York, the Benjamins, and, of course, Lady Luck.

UD: Why the love for Vegas?

BM: I think it's a great, great town. Vegas is basically the ultimate American city. Anything you want is there. And basically all that matters is your willingness to spend money. Nothing else really is important.

UD: Do you believe in luck?

BM: Oh, absolutely. You can't hang around a casino and not believe in luck. The math is what runs everything there. But people are lucky. You can't deny it. If you just watch, some people just walk in and they're just lucky.

UD: Which casinos have the best odds?

BM: In blackjack there are certain rules that are advantageous to the player. You want a casino with good rules. Whether the casino hits or stands on soft 17. Whether it allows surrender. Letting you double down after a split, letting you re-split aces. The Venetian, Hilton and Flamingo have really good rules. They'll never print the rules, you'll have to ask them.

UD: What games are winning games?

BM: Blackjack has the best odds. Craps can be good odds too, even if you play it perfectly. Roulette is a 5% disadvantage, so it's not a good game, but it's fun and wastes a lot of time. Slots are the worst, you're basically throwing away 20% of your bet every time. Video poker is actually pretty good, if you play it correctly.

UD: A stupid bet you love to make?

BM: I would always bet on the Red Sox making the World Series, although that's not a good bet to make this year. Or any bet involving the Yankees losing. Wait, is your audience all New York?

UD: We're assuming you've seen some stuff that epitomizes "What happens in Vegas"?

BM: There've been so many crazy nights in Vegas. I have this buddy Neil. We call him Big Red. One night I actually lost him at the strip club Spearmint Rhino. I had left and didn't hear from him. Then, at around 4 pm the next day, I get a call from him and it turns out he had passed out on the loading dock of the place and was still in the VIP room at four the next day. Another night in Vegas, it was two in the morning, and a friend and I see one of our buddies sitting at the cafe at the Hard Rock. We said, "How's your night going?" and he said, "Pretty good, it's a pretty strange night." And we said, "Why?" and he said, "You should go up and check my room." So we went up and opened the door, and there's a completely naked dwarf passed out on the living room couch.

UD: Where you do you go out in New York?

BM: I went through a period last year, I was hitting Marquee, Happy Valley, Home, Cain and Bungalow, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. I never go out on Friday and Saturday nights in New York, I hate it. I go to Boston for the weekends. For a whole year, I was doing that. Now, I just stay at the W, and go and hang out at the Soho House. I love New York, but the clubs are too much.

UD: What are your favorite places to eat in New York?

BM: Strip House is the best for steaks. Patsy's Pizza. Sarge's Deli. I love burgers. New York is only so-so, I think there are better burgers in Boston. The best are Bartley's Burgers in Harvard Square. It's really old school, they don't even have a bathroom. The thing's been around for 50 years. All they do is burgers, that's it. It's the best burger you will ever have.

UD: What about Vegas?

BM: Vegas is incredible right now for high end restaurants. Nobu at Hard Rock is fun, it's not the best Nobu but it's fun. The steak place at the Palms, N9, is probably the best restaurant in Vegas. The best brunch is at the Bellagio.

UD: What's the difference between going out in Vegas and in New York?

BM: The greatest thing about Vegas is that nothing matters except for money, not even how much you have, but how much you're willing to spend. Anywhere else, celebrity trumps money. But in Vegas, the willingess to spend money trumps everything. That's what's cool about it, it's very equalizing in a weird way. Where else in the world can a group of nine guys get into a club while girls are waiting on line?

UD: What's the best itinerary for a weekend in Vegas?

BM: If you're with a group of friends and you want to party, then stay at the Hard Rock. It's young, everyone's good looking, they've done a good job of capturing the LA crowd. Have dinner somewhere like N9 Steak House at the Palms. Then go to Body English. Tryst at the Wynn is also excellent. Tao at the Venetian is pretty good. For after-hours clubs there's Drai's at Barbary Coast, which is still pretty good. Or you can go to strip clubs. At the moment there's no comparison to Spearmint Rhino. Sundays at the Hard Rock pool there's a party called Rehab, and it goes on from 3 in the afternoon all night. So that's where everyone hangs out during the day. Sunday night there's a pool party at Light at the Bellagio.

UD: OK, how did you blow 2 million in six months?

BM: It was difficult considering I didn't buy anything that cost more than 5 thousand dollars, or do anything that could be considered an investment, and I don't do any drugs. I would do things like get up at noon on a Wednesday, go to the airport, with no bags, nothing, and book a first class ticket to Paris. I would fly to Paris and land, and I'd call up the nicest hotel and I'd book the whole top penthouse floor for like a week, and I'd call up all my friends nearby and they'd all come and we'd hang out.

In LA I stayed at the Standard for a month. I used to stay at the Plaza, an eight hundred dollar a night suite, and I would stay for a month at a time. In Amsterdam, I threw a three-day New Year's Eve party at the Ramada Renaissance. We had the entire top floor. My roommate was kind of crazy. He went out to the red light district and invited 25 girls to be the staff at the party.

UD: How long did this all go on?

BM: I was crazy, for about a period of six months. So most of the money was spent on travel and hotels. By the end of the year I had spent all this money. And I get a tax bill. And I owed something like 700,000 dollars. I was like, oh shit, I didn't have any money left. So the next three books in my career went towards paying off my taxes.

UD: Any regrets on blowing it all?

BM: I don't regret anything I did. I do regret not buying an apartment though. I regret not even putting aside like 100,000 dollars! I lost a 65,000 dollar check. Just lost it. It was that kind of a lifestyle. I was never in my apartment. My electricity got turned off, my phone got turned off, because I was never there to pay my bills. I was just traveling and partying.

UD: True or false - Money can't buy happiness.

BM: What I've learned is that money is great, and anybody who says it's not is just absolutely wrong. In terms of freedom, your life's freedom is based entirely upon how much money you have. And as a writer, you write better when you are completely free. I think experiencing the world and experiencing life are contingent upon financial success.

UD: Underground casinos in New York. Where can you find them?

BM: There are a lot of them. They're kind of like speakeasies—you have to know somebody at the door, and you have to have a password. Inside there are blackjack tables, poker rooms, slot machines, full-scale casinos. They're careful about who comes in and who comes out. They move around, too. The best way to find one is to find a serious poker player, or to look on Craigslist. Also, it's all interlinked, these worlds—if you were to go to Scores, and ask the doorman about an underground casino, he would probably know.

UD: How much do women love high rollers?

BM: Oh god, if you walk into Vegas and you're betting big, you have women all over you. Like these MIT kids, they were the dorkiest guys. And you go out with these guys in Vegas, and they are surrounded by the hottest girls. Girls there just know who the high rollers are.

UD: So Vegas is a losing bet?

BM: Oh absolutely, over time. If you're not a professional card counter, you will always eventually lose. The only way to win is to walk in for give minutes, get lucky, and then walk out. And never come back. It's what the city is built on. It's all losers. And they know it. But it's fun.

UD: Your next book Ugly Americans was about high rolling Americans living in Tokyo. And we heard you hung out with the Japanese mafia?

BM: I had to interview these Japanese Yakuza gangsters. These guys are insane. They cut off their pinky when they do something wrong, and have to give their pinky to their boss as a sign of loyalty. So you meet these guys and most of the big mafia don't have pinkies. So it's not like the Sopranos, where it's family.

UD: What was the weirdest experience with the Yakuza?

BM: I had to do an interview in a really illicit massage parlor in Queens, and it was a Japanese mafia run massage parlor. I get to the door with a friend of mine, who's a translator. So a woman looks at us through the door and thinks that because I'm a white guy, I'm a cop. So she says, you can't come in. And my friend's telling them, he's got a meeting with the guy who owns the place. So she said I had to show my penis to get in the door, because she thought if I was a cop I wouldn't do that. So I had to unveil myself in an alley in Queens. I had to get the story. That book took me to some scary places.

UD: Craziest thing you've ever seen in Japan?

BM: The sexual harassment clubs. They're really perverse. You go down these stairs and it looks like a subway car. It vibrates, like a real subway car. And there are women standing around pretending they're riding the subway. And you pay a fee and you can go in and molest the women. These are very popular. And there's another one that's like a hospital, and the women are dressed like nurses, and you pretend to be patients. Every Japanese man goes there after work. They all have signs that say, no whites, Japanese only. But I was going with the Yakuza. It's a very different world. There's Soapland, a many-storied building where there are rooms with rubber mats, and women soap themselves up and use their bodies as sponges, and sponge up guys lying on the mats. The different levels of the building are different levels of girls, so the highest level the girls are actually actresses and porn stars. But there's no sex. Everything's compartmentalized. If you want sex, you go somewhere else. There are things you can't imagine. This girl I interviewed, her job was to sit in her underwear in a glass booth reading children's stories, while guys masturbated around her. It's all very underground, but it's hugely popular. Every guy does it. It's a bizarre world.

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