The Rush of Gaming the Casino
First there’s his acknowledgments page, which is among the freshest I’ve seen since the one in Thom Jones’s 1995 story collection, “Cold Snap.” In that book Mr. Jones thanked two major drug companies — Wyeth/Ayerst Laboratories and Stuart Pharmaceuticals — for “further expanding that narrow channel of joy by manufacturing Effexor and Elavil; drugs so good they feel illegal.” In “Repeat Until Rich,” Mr. Axelrad thanks a different set of enablers, including the Internal Revenue Service, as well as “Chase MasterCard, American Express, Discover Financial Services and everyone else who believed.”
Then there’s Mr. Axelrad’s “Note on Veracity,” in which he admits necessarily changing some names and other details in “Repeat Until Rich.” He also admits that he’s broke, having squandered his blackjack winnings playing, like the hipster doofus he sometimes seems to be, online poker.
He warns potential readers: “Now and again it gets florid (the prose).”
He adds, “I am, for what it’s worth, just your standard Semitic American living on the precipice in Brooklyn these days, drinking bourbon and watching the sky fall, and trying to take care of my plants. My only hope here is to cheer you.”
God knows he does that. The first two-thirds of “Repeat Until Rich” read like a rocket, a literate and swaggering heist caper of the sort that Jonathan Lethem and Quentin Tarantino might fry up together from an old Elmore Leonard recipe. The book’s last third — the part in which Mr. Axelrad loses it all and enters Gamblers Anonymous — falls hideously back to earth. Mr. Axelrad is less suited, temperamentally, to meditating on gloom, failure and crippling inertia than he is to describing what it feels like to run amok as the bandit king of Las Vegas. So let’s focus on that glittering bit for a moment.
Mr. Axelrad become a professional blackjack player in 2000, a few years after getting a philosophy degree from Columbia. He’d toiled for a while on the bottom rungs of Wall Street, but was bored. I’ll let him describe his mental state:
“I’d been napping for close to a year. I’d found a job because you had to find a job; it was the rage, people worked. In the corporate world, pay is ‘compensation.’ That’s their bare-bones way of expressing it. Something is being made up for, amends are being made: reparations. If you’d expected of life some vital engagement that shook your soul, broke your mind, drew blood from your eyeballs, breath from your throat, shattered front teeth, minced your fingers and your toes, and left your heart squeezed dry as a juiced lime, you might have been at risk of disappointment, might have turned into one of those effete, wan-faced chumps reading Camus on the subway if you weren’t compensated sufficiently.”
(Note to self: Quit being one of those effete, wan-faced chumps who reads Camus on the subway.)
Through a guy he meets at a party, Mr. Axelrad learns about, and eventually hooks up with, a gambling team he calls Mossad. Mossad accepts money from investors and hits casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere, winning money (sometimes a lot of money) counting cards. From this point, “Repeat Until Rich” becomes an excellent primer on what card counting is and how it works in practice.
The first thing Mr. Axelrad reminds us is that card counting isn’t a crime. You can’t be arrested, he writes, for “thinking while you gamble.” But casinos will throw you out, and eventually ban you, if you are conspicuously successful at it. Heavy casino surveillance is called heat. Before long, Mr. Axelrad becomes one of the hottest players around. He’s thrown out of casinos everywhere.
The reason card counting works is that cards aren’t like dice — that is, they aren’t a constant. A deck changes with each card that is dealt. If you know which cards have been dealt from a shoe (the box holding a group of decks), you can gain a small advantage.
“While the game on average is biased toward the house, as you’d expect,” Mr. Axelrad writes, “there are moments it’s inverted: the house edge disappears, and the player is briefly the favorite.”
The counter’s job is to spot those moments. He sits at the table, betting small amounts. When the card count is right, he calls in another member of his team to commence the serious wagering.
There have been a lot of books written about card counting, most notably, in recent years, Ben Mezrich’s “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions,” which was the basis for the movie “21.” That book’s veracity has been disputed by some of the people it purports to be about.
As if in response to criticisms of Mr. Mezrich’s book, Mr. Axelrad (who, unlike Mr. Mezrich, actually played on the blackjack team he writes about) pre-emptively announces: “Where I changed names, I changed other details too — cities of residence, prior occupations, physical descriptions (sexying everybody up, as a rule, with an eye toward a Hollywood version someday: longer legs, bigger pecs; I went ahead and added a half inch to my own height while I was at it).” But he adds: “The incidents are true.”
Mr. Axelrad’s book stands out from earlier ones because he’s a real writer — a muscular, cynical and observant one. His descriptions lodge in your mind. An old casino has “an ill odor, something like an elementary school cafeteria where the children all smoke.” He notes the “annihilatory daylight” in Nevada and thinks that it makes sense that atomic bombs were tested there, “because the nuclear explosions blend in with a typical morning.”
Many moments in “Repeat Until Rich” click past like a film montage set to a Nancy Sinatra song (or, better, a Nancy Sinatra song covered by Lil Wayne): Mr. Axelrad winning $78,860 at a single session ; playing in wigs and color contact lenses ; stuffing his pants so tightly with cash he can barely walk; staying in luxury hotel rooms with his girlfriend of the moment, both of them “reeking of vodka and pheromones.” He ultimately writes: “It occurred to me there might be a link between money and the breadth of raw experience a man could get.”
It all comes to an end, of course, an end that began, in some ways, on 9/11. It became harder to travel the country with sacks of cash. Suddenly Mr. Axelrad no longer seemed like “the baddest, most wanted, most feared.” He observes, “That was a ludicrous fantasy for a law-abiding blackjack professional in the age of Al Qaeda — my dreams were September 10 dreams.”
Casino security gets better. Mossad drifts apart. Mr. Axelrad commences his lonely and debilitating obsession with online poker. “You’re the last living cowboy,” one of his (very young) girlfriends coos to him before his crash. Nah, he’s not that. But he’s a nervy guy in Brooklyn who suddenly has a different kind of promising, if punishing, career in front of him.