LAS VEGAS. Sunday. Quiet in the City of Lost Wages. This is reflected in the $80 a night rate for one of the 5,000 rooms at the MGM Grand. It will rise to $129 in the three nights I am here but it's still a bargain given the size and quality of the room.

My mission? See whether America's fastest growing major city might also become the capital of American Geezer-hood. A recent study of migration patterns showed that Nevada is being flooded with geezers---it led all states for in-migration of people 65 and older.

My first lesson is that Las Vegas can twist your head. It is the only city where the little metal curbside boxes that dispense free advertising publications don't push real estate. In Vegas, the product is sex.

Should I make a collection of these advertising flyers? Hey, it's research. Then I imagine myself, burdened with the nine lurid offerings at one box collection, explaining to passersby, "It's not what you think. I work for a newspaper. They pay me to do this."


I retreat to my hotel room. I need to prepare myself for the gaming tables. This is not easy because there is a dangerous connection between MIT, its students, and gaming. One of my early roommates there was on dean's list one semester. A semester later poor B.G. had flunked out. He went back to Alabama. The cause: full immersion in fantasy baseball. The South American contingent at MIT was known for its high stakes poker games. Others lost days to complicated games of Diplomacy.

In fact, the definitive book on blackjack has its foundation at MIT. Edward O. Thorp's "Beat the Dealer" (Vintage, $11), first published in 1962, is based on a computer analysis of the game. If you've ever read a book on "Basic Strategy" for Blackjack--- and they are sold at bookstands in every casino--- Thorp's work is central. The same book also originated many of the card counting systems in use today.

Ed Thorp was way ahead of the curve. There was only one mainframe computer at MIT in 1962. It was virtually new. The entire MIT course catalog for 1961-62 contained only six courses with the word "computer" or "computation" in the title. Slide rules were big. Thorp recognized that Blackjack is a matter of cosmic importance. Significantly, he now runs a hedge fund in Newport Beach, Calif.

Why the deep academic concern for Blackjack? Simple. Blackjack is different from most games on the casino floor. While the results in craps or roulette are true random chance, Blackjack is a game of "continuous probability"--- every card played has an effect on future play. Knowledge of the cards that have been played, regardless of how many decks are being used, can shift the odds of play from the dealer to the player. Play a perfect game, increase your bets when the cards are running right, and you'll beat the house.

The best recent book on the subject--- great summer reading--- is Ben Mezrich's "Bringing Down The House" (Free Press, $14). It's the story of six MIT students who conspired to use a card counting system and won millions in Las Vegas. It will make a great movie. Think Matt Damon in "Good Will Hunting", "Rounders," and "Ocean's Eleven." Another great read is "24/7" (Diane Publishing, $24), Andres Martinez' entertaining account of "Living It Up and Doubling Down in the New Las Vegas."

A newbie at Blackjack, I decide I'll see if I can hold my own using basic strategy. At Bellagio, arguably the grandest resort on the Strip, I start at a $10 table. It takes a few hands for me to realize the dealer is about 7 months pregnant.

I start feeling guilty. She's standing. I'm sitting.

Up $20, I leave.

I'll punish my rudeness by playing at a $25 minimum table.

Something amazing happens. I play Basic Strategy reasonably well. The dealer busts when it is likely. I get a run of high cards against her run of low cards, giving me some winning double downs. Two Blackjacks come my way. A mound of $25 chips grows.

She deals at blinding speed. Her play is beyond automatic. I have trouble keeping track of my hand, let alone hers. Counting, by any system, is out of the question.

Even so, a run of good cards is a run of good cards. In less than half an hour I'm tired. Worse, the dealer's shift is over. I become superstitious, thinking she will take my luck with her.

I stare at the mound of chips. I don't know how much I've won. The first hint it's a nice sum comes when I "color up." There's a $500 chip. I'm up that much from a $200 stake.

Returning to the MGM Grand, I wonder about playing a $100 table. Might be better than caffeine. But Prudent Man goes to a $25 table and starts over. Play becomes a long tug of war until a run of low odds cards takes me down.

I quit while I'm ahead. I want to enjoy the odd buzz of winning $400 at cards.

And what has this got to do with our economic future? Lots: Las Vegas is to LA as LA was to Detroit.

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Sunday, June 16, 2002: Tech Alive and Well at MIT