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Author, alumnus tell tale of 'Busting Vegas'

Since graduating from MIT in 1993 with a master's in computer science, Semyon Dukach has founded three technology startup companies and won millions of dollars at casinos from Las Vegas to Monte Carlo.

Ben Mezrich, who wrote about MIT's infamous blackjack team in "Bringing Down the House," told Dukach's story in his latest book, "Busting Vegas," just released last week. On Sept. 28, Dukach and Mezrich came to MIT to talk about the new book.

Hundreds of students lined up early to see Dukach and Mezrich in Room 10-250. Seated in personalized director's chairs, the two talked of Las Vegas, blackjack and the world of gambling.

In his latest book, Mezrich explores what he calls, "the darker side of Vegas." Though he had not intended to write about MIT again, he said that when Dukach contacted him, he could not pass up the opportunity. "What could be better than a bunch of MIT kids hitting up Monte Carlo?" he said.

Mezrich's first book was on the bestseller list for 59 weeks and Kevin Spacey is starring in the movie version, which is currently being cast in Los Angeles.

Dukach, who read that book, wanted Mezrich to tell his story of beating the house.

The Russian immigrant first discovered blackjack growing up in Houston, Texas. "I played a lot of Pac-Man," he said. One day, while looking for a Pac-Man book by a certain author, he discovered that author had written dozens of books on blackjack. From there, he was hooked.

Using a "very quantitative way of approaching the problem," Dukach developed a system of skilled play that was previously undiscovered.

When Dukach decided to use his skills to win, he said, "It wasn't just the money." He said he dislikes casinos. "It's a con. At the end of the day, they are going to take all."

Over the years, Dukach estimated that he and his team earned at least $5 million. "It definitely wasn't wrong," Dukach said, although he did admit that his methods walked a "fine line of legality."

Eventually, the casinos did catch on to Dukach and he is now unwelcome at blackjack tables throughout the United States and the world. Additionally, rules in many casinos have been altered because of his methods. "They only want losers in the casino," said Dukach.

Both Dukach and Mezrich hope that the book will force readers to take a hard look at both the casino industry and gambling in general. "Everyone who gambles loses and the casinos cover that up," said Mezrich.

Mezrich is asked to speak at a number of high schools. While he knows his subject is a bit racy for the younger set, he also understands why teachers might be interested in his book. "Every 15-year-old in this country gambles. It's a national pastime," he said.

By using what students are interested in pursuing, teachers can reach them in new ways: "The lesson here is that math can be your friend," said Mezrich.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 5, 2005 (download PDF).

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