Nerds with cards

Mensa is overhauling its brainiac image -- with a guide to gambling.

Published October 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"You don't have to be a genius to win at the casino," we are immediately assured in the new "American Mensa Guide to Casino Gambling: Winning Ways." But, author Andrew Brisman adds, you must apply your intelligence to triumph in the gambling house.

No kidding?

But far be it for Mensa International -- the international society whose members must score in the top 2 percent of the population on a standardized intelligence test -- to dwell on the obvious. The book goes on to detail complex strategies for winning at blackjack, craps and baccarat.

If gambling is not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the Mensa society, you're not alone. Allan Feldman, president of the Leveraged Marketing Corporation of America, Mensa's licensing agent, acknowledges that the book -- one of what will be a series -- is part of an effort to overhaul what he calls Mensa's "rather intimidating" image.

Slated for November publication by Sterling Publishing, "Winning Ways" is the first in a series envisioned by the organization as a thinking person's answer to the popular "Dummies" guides. But don't be intimidated. "Applying intelligence," Brisman consoles, "doesn't mean you have to invest in a slide rule or concoct computer algorithms." After a quick math primer (which is preceded by several paragraphs comforting the reader that this does not require "tortures involving razor blades and bamboo shoots"), the rest of the book gets down to brass tacks, in chapters such as "How to Feel Like a Genius in Any Casino" and "The Eternal Questions."

Gambling books weren't exactly on the agenda at Mensa's inception. Lancelot Ware and Roland Berrill, both Englishmen, founded the organization in 1946 and began the project of culling the world's brightest. Mens, Latin for "mind," was a title already taken by a then-notorious skin magazine; the two ultimately settled upon Mensa, which means "table." In the 53 years since, the organization has grown to include chapters in more than 100 countries and every continent except Antarctica.

Nevertheless, Mensa has apparently failed to achieve the stature and renown to which it aspires. Members have, as one confided to the Washington Post, grown wary of the flip attitudes taken toward them by journalists. Christopher Hitchens, for example, has called the organization a "dating service for dorks." Branded one too many times as brainy losers, the geniuses are fighting back.

"We're trying to make Mensa more approachable," Feldman says, "more relevant to non-geniuses."

Mensa International Chairman Dave Remine calls the new tactics "humanizing": From taking out advertisements in niche magazines and on hip Web sites such as to highlighting their more prominent members (including actress Geena Davis and Playboy Playmate Julie Peterson), the organization has launched a major publicity campaign. A brochure for the American Mensa society proudly states that its members "do an awful lot together ... dance, play music, climb mountains, run marathons, cry on each others [sic] shoulders, laugh."

The world can expect more books from this busy group, such as next fall's "Guide to Chess." In the meantime, there are blackjack hands to be won.

"Once you know the facts," the new book proclaims, "you can revel in the knowledge that you are light years ahead of the typically flummoxed, frustrated, and frivolous casino crowd."

And frivolity is a charge that none of Mensa's members could abide.

By Leah Hoffmann

Leah Hoffmann is a senior at Columbia University and has written for Lingua Franca.

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