Ben Mezrich: Based on a True Story

Ben Mezrich digs up real-life tales that are almost too incredible to believe, then turns them into bestselling books—and that has transformed the one-time Harvard geek into the bigshot writer he always wanted to be. Now, with the movie version of his breakout, Bringing Down the House, coming to theaters, there are nagging questions about just how far Mezrich stretches the facts in his fantastic yarns. Not that Boston’s party-boy author is concerned. He’s having way too much fun just enjoying the ride.

In the movie, the professor will be played by Kevin Spacey. Ben Mezrich is thrilled with this, and with everything else about 21, the forthcoming cinematic adaptation of the book that made him a star. He can’t wait to show off the new paperback cover that will be rolled out in conjunction with the film’s release. There’s a mockup of it splayed out on his coffee table, right next to a case of promotional casino chips stamped with the 21 logo.

The author sits in his lavish Back Bay apartment, arms spread across the back of his couch. Behind him, just past the balcony, is a spectacular view of Cambridge and the Charles. Six years have passed since the release of Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. The book spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller lists, and there are now more than 1.5 million copies in print in 12 languages. It’s the work Mezrich is known for, the force behind the wave of success he continues to ride today. And with this month’s release of the big-screen version (which also stars Laurence Fishburne and Kate Bosworth), Mezrich figures he can look forward to all kinds of new book sales. And attention.

As well as his book has done, the 39-year-old has become even better known for his embrace of the fast life. At a recent launch party for his latest tome, Rigged: The True Story of an Ivy League Kid Who Changed the World of Oil, from Wall Street to Dubai, the ambiance was fitting: dark, but not too dark—as though the light dimmer was set on “mood.” Music thumped through the speakers, and women with cleavage on full display pressed against men working hard to look casual. Mezrich was dressed up, as always, in his image of a bestselling author: frosted spiky hair; white dress shirt with a few buttons undone, allowing chest hair to peek out and say hello; collar resting atop a blue smoking jacket; designer jeans; white shoes that could have come straight from Tom Wolfe’s closet. The event had been scheduled for a smaller venue, but was moved to 33 on Stanhope Street, his publicist bubbles, “because of overwhelming response.” It seems everyone wants to be around Mezrich these days.

Indeed, Mezrich’s world couldn’t be more different from what it was before BDH. One day he was in Boston, a middling novelist wondering whether his first attempt at nonfiction would sell; the next he was on the Today show, telling America all about his incredible yarn. And that was just the start. He found himself attending bashes at the Playboy Mansion. He got to ring the bell at the Mercantile Exchange in Manhattan, was invited to host World Series of Blackjack for the Game Show Network, and did a few episodes of a show on Court TV. Mezrich used to joke that while most writers want a Pulitzer, he simply wanted to be named to People‘s sexiest list. Then, after BDH came out, he was.

Half a decade later, the momentum has barely slowed. Ben Sherman, the clothing company, now sends him boxes of free shirts, pants, and shoes, adopting him as a walking billboard. Maybach, the luxury car line, recently brought him down for a party in Miami. His standard fee for speaking engagements has grown to $20,000. Mezrich, in other words, has created for himself an existence every bit as unbelievable as the stories he writes.
“We love being in the Ben Mezrich business,” says Spacey, who is developing two other Mezrich books into movies. Mezrich loves it, too. “I have this crazy lifestyle,” he says. “I mean, every week there’s something I’m invited to. It’s pretty cool.”

It’s rare, what Mezrich is doing. A few decades ago, the cultural landscape included plenty of celebrity authors—Capote, Mailer, Wolfe, oversize personalities celebrated as much for their personal excess as their literary excellence. No longer. As books have been choked off in favor of digital cable and the Internet, the fame once afforded authors has shifted to reality TV stars and whichever attention-starved, coked-up anorexic manages to leak her sex tape.

“My heroes, like Hemingway, he was a personality as much as a great writer,” Mezrich says. “The goal for me is to be an entertainer and a personality—Hunter S. Thompson, minus the drugs and the guns and the suicide. He was what he wrote. To some extent, I am what I write, too. I write about kids living this high life, and I do it, too.”

Mezrich has written three books since Bringing Down the House was released in 2002, and, just like BDH, each of them features smart young people who do amazing things, beat long odds, make obscene money. Invariably, his protagonists face a daunting challenge—usually in the form of seedy, unscrupulous foes who try to orchestrate the heroes’ demise, leaving them to determine how far into the muck they’re willing to wade. The stories can all be disti
lled down to the trademark “Mezrich marketing sentence,” a line on the cover that quickly summarizes the drama awaiting inside. For Busting Vegas, it was “the MIT whiz kid who brought the casinos to their knees.” For Ugly Americans, “the true story of the Ivy League cowboys who raided the Asian markets for millions.” They are the hooks that reel in twentysomething hustlers—his most eager readers.

Mezrich’s friend John D’Agostino met one of them once in Miami. The South Beach nightclub promoter went crazy when he learned that D’Agostino knew Mezrich. The guy had read all of Mezrich’s books. “This is a perfect example of a guy who loves Ben Mezrich,” D’Agostino says. “Young kid. He grew up with kind of a bad life. Was not well educated, but really ambitious. He had, like, four businesses going. And Ben is like his freakin’ prophet. He basically models his life after the characters Ben writes about.”

There’s a blueprint for both what Mezrich writes and how he writes it. He locks himself in his apartment (actually, his other apartment—he has two units in the same high-rise, one of which serves as his office) and hammers out a book in two or three months. It’s a dizzying pace. But that’s how he did it with BDH, and he’s taken care to follow the recipe with his subsequent tales.

“I’m not looking to use big words,” Mezrich admits. “I write for people who if they weren’t reading my book, they wouldn’t be reading another book. They would be watching TV. I’m not competing with other books. I’m competing with the Red Sox.” Mezrich works hard to build the excitement early in his plots, before attention spans wane. He gets right to it in Rigged, explaining in the first few pages the main character’s involvement with the shady world of the New York Mercantile Exchange: “If Wall Street was the financial equivalent of Vegas, the Merc was Atlantic City—on crack.”

Not exactly Hemingway. But then, that’s not exactly the point.

During his college years at Harvard, and even for a long time after, Mezrich was a touch quiet and socially awkward. He had a haircut that his wife, Tonya, describes as a “Lego piece,” a helmetlike ‘do that looked like it could be removed all at once. He also had a “go-to” shirt—an off-white number with stripes and stitched designs that looked like crop circles—that popped up in pretty much every photo he was in for about five years. Mezrich is not a terribly big guy—really, very average and nondescript—and when he went out to a bar, he was perfectly happy to hide in the background. One night, he saw a beautiful girl across the bar, but he was too nervous to approach her. He sent a friend over instead. That’s how Mezrich met Tonya.

“He was a total geek,” D’Agostino says. “He had this huge TV with a PlayStation. He was really into sci-fi. He was really nice and quirky. He was writing about nanotech, and his room was like a fucking hurricane hit it. There were nanotechnology books everywhere.”

Mezrich had done some writing for The X-Files after college, but mostly he was scribbling novels. The first few were never published. Mainly because they weren’t good. “They were crap,” Mezrich corrects. “I sent them out—reject, reject, reject. I got about 190 rejection slips. I still have them.”

At the time, he was doing some of his writing under a pen name that wasn’t much better than his prose: Holden Scott, a mash-up of the Catcher in the Rye protagonist and the Great Gatsby author. Luckily for Mezrich, while he was developing his career, his parents were willing to offer some support. His mother, Molli, had always thought her son would become an author, remembering how, when he was six or seven and growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, he would sit on the stoop outside a relative’s house and occupy himself with a pencil and paper. “He’s been a storyteller for a long time,” she says.

His dad, Reuben, agreed to send money to cover the bills. But he wanted Mezrich to find solid work. Paying work. “I was worried that this guy would be living in a cardboard box,” he says, recalling his son’s unpublished works. “To be honest, his earlier books weren’t so hot.”

Still, Mezrich kept knocking them out, rushing water against the dam. Maybe as he did so, he got better. Maybe it was luck. Whatever the cause, he finally managed to get his first novel published in 1996. It was a thriller called Threshold that somehow wove together a mad scientist, the mapping of the human genome, and the unexpected death of the secretary of defense. Next would come the novel Reaper, which was turned into the TV movie Fatal Error, starring Antonio Sabato Jr. and Robert Wagner. “It still airs on the Sci Fi Channel,” Mezrich says. “It’s really a piece of shit.”

Four more novels followed over the next two years. They sold well enough that his parents no longer had to prop him up, but not so well that anyone knew who he was. The night that he worked up the nerve to speak to Tonya, she asked what he did for a living. He said he was an author. She assumed he was lying.

Most writers would have been ecstatic to make a living pursuing their craft in anonymity, to have money in the bank—no job to report to, nothing more pressing than words traveling down the brain stem and out through the fingertips. But that wasn’t what Mezrich was after. What was the point of being a writer if no one knew who you were? In some ways, Mezrich got into writing because it sounded fun and glamorous. “We had the usual discussion about how most writers struggle,” says Reuben, who told his son that only one in 10,000 makes it. “But he would come back with all the authors who did very well.”

Partly because it wasn’t making him instantly famous, writing began to feel more and more like work. “You sit in your fucking room and you write and you write and you write,” Mezrich says. “That’s the worst part of the job. The best part is everything else.” Frustrated by a career that wasn’t panning out the way he’d dreamed, he considered trading the whole thing in for business school. Why toil away bent over a keyboard when you could make some real money?

Before Mezrich got around to sending off any school applications, though, he met Jeff Ma. At a party one night, while drinks flowed in another room, the two were introduced by a mutual friend. Ma cornered Mezrich and said that he had a great idea for a story. Mezrich was skeptical—it’s a pitch every writer hears. Hey, buddy, I know what you should write about next. But then Ma told him about the MIT blackjack team. After that, Mezrich didn’t think about business school anymore.

“It was the perfect story, the perfect American story,” Mezrich says. “And I stumbled onto it.”

Bringing Down the House, which recounts how a group of hyperintelligent academics learn advanced (and legal) blackjack techniques and win millions, is told through a crisp narrative. The students live an opulent lifestyle, flying out of Logan with tens of thousands of dollars in cash strapped to their persons to hit casinos on the Vegas Strip. Along the way, they train in sordid underground Chinatown gambling dens, enlist strippers as accomplices, are tracked by security personnel looking to shut them down, and, in one memorable scene, take a beating for their efforts. It truly is an amazing tale. “Six MIT kids who took Vegas for millions—that’s beautiful,” Mezrich says. “In a million years I couldn’t come up with that sentence again.”

He was leery of writing it at first, for
a simple reason: He’d never penned a true story. Though a gifted few can work in both genres, the difference between a nonfiction writer and a fiction writer is typically as vast as the gap between a jumbo-jet pilot and an astronaut—both know how to fly, but one is headed to Maine, and the other to the moon. In journalism, the premium is on lining up the details, interviewing countless sources. The story’s important, but what’s paramount is accuracy. That can prove frustrating to a novelist, who by nature prizes plot and character development above all. There can be temptation to massage a few facts—maybe make the narrative more dramatic.

Now, with 21 coming out and renewed interest in the book, some are questioning the rubdown Mezrich gave the MIT story. “The general premise of the book is pretty accurate, but in terms of mapping everything out on a timeline—the dates, the how, when, and where—not much matches up perfectly,” says Mike Aponte, a member of the MIT team who appears in the book as Mike Fisher. “What would have made it easier to accept initially is if it hadn’t been released as nonfiction. To me, that means it’s 100 percent accurate.” Among the points disputed by Aponte and Dave Irvine, another former team member: They say they never used strippers to cash out chips; that there was never an underground casino in Chinatown where the team practiced; that no one was ever beaten up; and, contrary to another contention in the book, that no shadowy outside investors had a stake in the team.

Ma says the complaints of his former colleagues are overblown. “When you turn something like that into the style Ben writes, it’s impossible for it to be 100 percent what happened,” Ma says. “Because I don’t remember if this happened before that. But there are some stories in there that are so on point, it’s almost eerie to read them.” For his part, Mezrich has always acknowledged that, for storytelling purposes, certain events were combined or shifted around chronologically. He insists that everything in the book is true, with most of the material gleaned from interviews with Ma.

Aponte and Irvine, however, say that a little fudging of the details cannot account for problems they see with one of the book’s central characters: Micky Rosa, the MIT professor played by Spacey in the movie. In the book, Rosa is responsible for assembling the students and setting them on their incredible path. There’s just one problem. Aponte and Irvine say he didn’t exist. “He made that character up,” Irvine says. “That was completely fiction.”

“There was an adult figure who was dealing with this team in every level of the story,” Mezrich counters. “That character in the book is absolutely based on reality. There are two people, really, who are that character. I have been approached by the character who is in that book, who came to me and told me, ‘Yes, this is largely me.'” Ma backs him on this. But interestingly, when Mezrich first shopped the story, the professor played a less prominent role. After Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, bought the book, Mezrich’s editors pushed him to develop the Rosa character further. “The plot line and the secret society had all the elements of good storytelling,” says Dominic Anfuso, a vice president and editorial director who acquired the book for the publishing house. “But I wanted the professor, from the proposal that I recall, to be a bigger character.”

If Free Press wanted Mezrich to puff up the professor in exchange for a fat check, he wasn’t going to argue. BDH was published with a disclaimer stating that names and locations were changed, and that composite characters and scenes were used. And if you ask Mezrich, that damn well covers it.

Most journalists would have chosen a much different path in writing the story. Then again, they might not have sold as many copies of the book, or spun the material into something that would become a movie headlined by A-list stars. Which explains why, when people ask Mezrich what the hell he was thinking, his reaction isn’t to beg forgiveness and cower before Oprah the way James Frey did when his A Million Little Pieces imploded. Mezrich’s instinct is to throw it back at them and ask what the hell they’re thinking. Questioning his methods is a bit like accusing pro wrestler Chief Jay Strongbow of not being a real fighter. Why bother? He’d only laugh in your face and tell you he’s an entertainer.

However it may sit with purists, this is the niche Mezrich has created for himself. Somewhere between fiction and nonfiction lies his own hybrid genre, the Ben Mezrich Business that Spacey and Hollywood are so excited to be in. “You know, what happened to James Frey was a travesty,” he says. “He pissed off Oprah, he lied to her, and that was wrong. But he didn’t defend himself at all. To then say that whole book is not nonfiction is just bullshit. Bringing Down the House is a 99.9 percent true story. Ugly Americans is a 99 percent true story—there’s a couple of scenes in there that are graphic representations of what goes on in the expat community. How is that any different from [Bill Clinton’s book] telling you what goes on in the White House?”

Ben Mezrich doesn’t worry about many things, but he does worry about this: What if nonfiction—his nonfiction—is castrated as a result of how cautious the publishing industry has become?

After BDH, Mezrich left Free Press to sign a richer deal with HarperCollins. He thinks the new disclaimer on his past three books, which includes a more exhaustive explanation of his methods, goes too far, that it’s “absurd” and unnecessary and was only pumped up because “a bunch of lawyers were nervous” after the Frey flap. If it were up to him, he’d push his writing further. Instead, each of the books that followed his breakthrough reads a bit safer than the one before. Rigged, in particular, is less aggressive when attempting to deliver the dramatic punch that made BDH so mesmerizing.

“When I wrote fiction, the structure was what I learned, and I became very adept at it,” Mezrich says. “When I turned to nonfiction, I wrote it under that structure. That’s why these books work, for me anyway, because I wrote them as narrative thrillers. When I hand in that first draft [now], the editors are much more heavy-handed. The end result is absolutely affected. My first draft of Rigged and the final draft are very different, as opposed to Bringing Down the House, where the first draft and the final draft are the same. Rigged is much more careful and cautious—but no more true.”

But there may be more to the sagging energy of his recent books than overzealous editing. When you’re pushing all your material through the same strainer, it can get clogged, leaving whatever comes out on the other side a bit thinner. At times, Mezrich’s subjects since BDH have felt a little forced. The main character in Busting Vegas finds a different way to beat blackjack. The hero in Rigged, David Russo, is actually Mezrich’s friend John D’Agostino. “It will be very hard to write a book that works as well as Bringing Down the House,” Mezrich admits. “Ugly Americans and Rigged, I like them a lot—there’s a lot of people who like them enormously—but I’m not trying to match Bringing Down the House.”

He is, however, trying to sustain his career and, more than that, his new life. He’s reached the point he’d always aspired to—he’s the one in 10,000 that his father thought was so unlikely. “You see him in circumstances when we go to Vegas,” Kevin Spacey says, “or we’ve brought him to a couple of events and parties, and he’s like the kid who can’t believe he got in. He’d normally be the guy behind the rope saying, ‘But I’m not on the list.'” That’s why Mezrich keeps churning out books that
play off the same theme. If BDH got him into the party, maybe a few more like it will let him stay awhile longer. Otherwise, it’s back to being Holden Scott…and he was never invited in the first place.

If what Mezrich says about competing with the Red Sox is true, then today they’re kicking his ass. He’s at Barnes & Noble in the Pru for a Q & A about Rigged. Mezrich and his audience are in the back, near the café. The air smells like chocolate chip cookies, which is the best thing that can be said about how things are going. A few blocks away, the Sox’s World Series championship parade is rolling by. Consequently, the turnout isn’t quite what he’d hoped.

Mezrich could have called off the appearance, but to do so would have meant disappointing the loyal fans who showed up. And they are loyal. A bit crazy, too. Among the smattering of devotees here is a woman whom Mezrich, only half-jokingly, calls his stalker. (D’Agostino thinks she may have an anatomically correct doll at home with Mezrich’s picture on it.) She’s hunched protectively over a copy of Rigged in the kind of prison posture cons use to keep people away from their food. Mezrich says she’s a holdover from the Holden Scott days.
The scene is less glamorous than the publicity tour for 21, but no less essential to the Ben Mezrich brand. And if enduring an event like today’s is part of the marketing process, that’s a tradeoff he’s all too happy to make. “I’m writing about these kids who make it to that next level, the new American Dream,” he says. “That’s what I’m trying to live as well—the new American Dream.”

The fans are eager to hear the famous author’s thoughts. While a line for coffee forms just a few feet away, Mezrich stands directly in front of his readers. He could reach out and touch them if he wanted. He uses a microphone anyway.