Sucker Bet (Tony Valentine Series #3)

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A hardened ex-cop, Tony Valentine now nabs hustlers who rob casinos, and the Micanopy Indian Reservation Casino in South Florida desperately needs his expertise. A blackjack dealer has rigged a game, dealt a player eighty-four winning hands in a row, and then disappeared.

But the missing dealer is part of an even bigger, far deadlier scheme. Valentine’s trail leads him to Rico Blanco, a ruthless gangster who once worked for John Gotti; his shady, elusive partner-in-crime, Victor...

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Sucker Bet (Tony Valentine Series #3)

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A hardened ex-cop, Tony Valentine now nabs hustlers who rob casinos, and the Micanopy Indian Reservation Casino in South Florida desperately needs his expertise. A blackjack dealer has rigged a game, dealt a player eighty-four winning hands in a row, and then disappeared.

But the missing dealer is part of an even bigger, far deadlier scheme. Valentine’s trail leads him to Rico Blanco, a ruthless gangster who once worked for John Gotti; his shady, elusive partner-in-crime, Victor Marks; and a bombshell named Candy Hart, a hooker with dreams of love—a combination tailor-made to double-cross. It appears they have a con going down involving a cocky, filthy-rich Brit and his millions of dollars. Valentine’s challenge: to figure out how all the pieces of the seamy puzzle fit together . . . before his luck runs out and his life goes bust.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Ingenious entertainment.”
The New York Times Book Review

St. Petersburg Times

“[Swain is] an entertaining writer whose breezy style and flair for wise-guy dialogue make the story zoom by.”
The Boston Globe

Chicago Tribune

James Swain is the best new writer I have come across in a long, long time. Sucker Bet is wonderful. It snaps with the gritty feel of the truth. Swain has carefully added all of the ingredients: tragedy, humor, action, and most of all, a cast of characters that would make Elmore Leonard’s mouth water.”

“Realistic, crisp dialogue spoken by three-dimensional characters . . . Swain moves Sucker Bet from the condos and hotels of Miami Beach to the suburbs of West Broward and the Everglades with a keen eye to the area.”
Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Sucker Bet is sheer magic. Fast and full or surprises, and rich with fascinating insider knowledge of casinos and gambling and world-class con men and bad guys of every denomination. James Swain is the real thing, a writer of pure, athletic prose, capable of bringing alive characters as original and three-dimensional as our best novelists. . . . Sign me up as a charter member of the Swain fan club.”—JAMES W. HALL
Author of Blackwater Sound

“Swain has come up with a doozy. . . . The gambling details are a treat [and] the banter is worthy of a place at Elmore Leonard’s table. . . . Swain’s ship just JUNE have come in.”

The New York Times
For all the cons, scams and grifts that Swain works into his plot (he even explains how to rig a party game by applying a math principle of progressive calculation), he never neglects character. Both con artists and victims are a colorful lot, and none are more endearing than Mr. Beauregard, a chimpanzee who can look into your eyes and play your favorite song on his ukulele. Even Valentine can't explain that one. — Marilyn Stasio
The Los Angeles Times
How long will Swain keep up this triumphant march? No matter. Sucker Bet will keep the suckers up long enough to see how it turns out this time. — Eugen Weber
The Boston Globe
It's all great fun because Swain, an expert on card trickery and casino cheating, is an entertaining writer whose breezy style and flair for wise-guy dialogue make the story zoom by. At the same time, his Valentine is an agreeable, ultimately admirable character, a tough widower who's struggling to remember he needs to live for more than the job. ''Losing his wife had hardened his heart; he knew that for a fact,'' Swain writes of Valentine. ''But had it also hardened his soul?'' As Valentine is tested by confrontations with ever-increasing stakes, we find that, against long odds, it has not. — Jim Fusilli
Library Journal
Swain's third Tony Valentine novel (after Grift Sense and Funny Money) finds Tony at loose ends. A widower, retired from the Atlantic City police force and living in Florida, he has become bored with his work as a gambling casino consultant, disenchanted with the younger woman he has been dating, and disappointed in his son, who has opened a bar-and-betting parlor. It is Mabel, his next-door neighbor and the one stable influence in his life, who persuades him to accept an assignment to look into a blackjack scam at the Micanopy Indian reservation casino, located in the Everglades. However, before he can investigate, the dealer in question disappears, and Tony finds himself on the trail of a con-man/murderer as dangerous as any 'gator. The author is a gambling expert, considered one of the best card handlers in the world, and his knowledge of games and scams is evident in his novels. Detective and mystery enthusiasts who enjoy Elmore Leonard will certainly find Sucker Bet to their liking.-Thomas L. Kilpatrick, formerly with Southern Illinois Univ., Carbondale Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Tony Valentine, that specialist in catching the con men who swindle casinos, has a problem. Kat Berman, the wrestler he hooked up with in Funny Money (2002), has been seeing her ex-husband on the sly, and Tony’s left at loose ends. He doesn’t want to deal with Jacques Dugay, whose South African casino keeps coming up with new ways to lose money, or with Bill Higgins, his friend who heads the Nevada Gaming Control Board, or with Harry Smooth Stone, security chief for the Micanopy Reservation in Broward County, who wants to get the goods on a card mechanic named Jack Lightfoot. When his neighbor and sometime business manager Mabel Struck insists that he choose one, Tony opts for South Florida. It’s a great choice, not because the job will be easy—Lightfoot is already dead when he arrives, and Harry knows too much about it for comfort—but because it aligns him even more firmly than his two earlier cases with Carl Hiaasen & Co. If Swain doesn’t have the whiplash control of his carnival that Hiaasen shows at his best, he’s certainly got enough zany headcases to go around, from Nigel Moon, the aging rocker who’s the target of an unusually intricate scam, to murderous hoodlum Rico Blanco, who’s out to touch bookie Bobby Jewel for a monster score, to Mr. Beauregard, the monkey who plays the ukelele, to the nameless alligator Tony finds in the backseat of his car. As much fun as a magic show, even though there’s a tiny letdown each time the magician shows how he pulled it off. Agent: Chris Calhoun/Sterling Lord Literistic
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345463234
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/1/2004
  • Series: Tony Valentine Series, #3
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 817,885
  • Product dimensions: 4.15 (w) x 6.85 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

James Swain

James Swain is a gambling expert and the author of Grift Sense, Funny Money, and Loaded Dice. Swain is considered one of the best card handlers in the world. He lives in Odessa, Florida, where he is currently working on his fifth novel featuring Tony Valentine. Visit his Web site at

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Read an Excerpt

The Turn of a Card

The mark’s name was Nigel Moon.   Jack Lightfoot recognized Moon the moment he stepped into the Micanopy Indian reservation casino. Back in the eighties, Moon had played drums for an English rock band called One-Eyed Pig, his ransacking of hotel rooms as well-publicized as his manic solos. Unlike the other band members, who’d fried their brains on drugs and booze, Moon had opened a chain of popular hamburger joints that now stretched across two continents. As Moon crossed the casino, Jack eyed the delicious redhead on his arm. She was a plant, or what his partner Rico called a raggle. “The raggle will convince Moon to come to your casino,” Rico had explained the day before, “and try his luck at blackjack. She’ll bring him to your table. The rest is up to you.” She looked familiar. Jack frequented Fort Lauderdale’s many adult clubs and often picked up free magazines filled with ads of local prostitutes. The raggle was a hooker named Candy Hart. Her ad said she was on call twenty-four hours a day, Visa and MasterCard accepted. “Good evening,” Jack said as they sat down at his empty table. Moon reeked of beer. He was pushing fifty, unshaven, his gray hair pulled back in a pigtail like a matador’s coleta. He removed a monster wad from his pocket and dropped it on the table. All hundreds. “Table limit is ten dollars,” Jack informed him. Moon made a face. Candy touched Moon’s arm. “You can’t bet more than ten dollars a hand,” she said sweetly. “All of the table games have limits.” Moon drew back in his chair. “Ten bloody dollars? What kind of toilet have you brought me to, my dear? I can get a game of dominos with a bunch of old Jews on Miami Beach with higher stakes than that.” Candy dug her fingernails into Moon’s arm. “You promised me, remember?” “I did?” “In the car.” Moon smiled wickedly. “Oh, yes. A moment of weakness, I suppose.” “Shhhh,” she said, glancing Jack’s way. Moon patted her hand reassuringly. “A promise is a promise.” Moon slid five hundred dollars Jack’s way. Jack cut up his chips. During a stretch in prison, Jack heard One-Eyed Pig’s music blasting through the cell block at all hours, and he knew many of the lyrics by heart. Jack slid the chips across the table. Moon put ten dollars into each of the seven betting circles on the felt. Jack played a two-deck game, handheld. He shuffled the cards and offered them to be cut. “Count them,” Moon said. “Excuse me?” Jack said. “I want you to count the cards,” Moon demanded. Jack brought the pit boss over, and Moon repeated himself again. “Okay,” the pit boss said. Jack started to count the cards onto the table. “Faceup,” Moon barked. “Excuse me?” Jack said. “You heard me.” Jack looked to the pit boss for help. “Okay,” the pit boss said. Jack turned the two decks faceup. Then he counted them on the table. “What are you doing?” Candy asked. “Making sure they’re all there,” Moon said, watching intently. “I ran up against a dealer in Puerto Rico playing with a short deck and lost my bloody shirt.” Jack finished counting. One hundred and four cards. Satisfied, Moon leaned back into his chair. “A short dick?” Candy said, giggling. “Short deck. It’s where the dealer purposely removes a number of high-valued cards. It gives the house an unbeatable edge.” “And you figured that out,” she said. “Yes, my dear, I figured it out.” Jack saw Candy’s hand slip beneath the table and into Moon’s lap. Moon’s face lit up like a lantern. “You’re so smart,” she cooed. Jack reshuffled the cards. For Moon to have figured out that a dealer was playing with a short deck meant that Moon was an experienced card-counter. Card-counters were instinctively observant, and Jack realized that he was going to have to be especially careful tonight, or risk blowing their scam before it ever got off the ground. He slid the two decks in front of Moon, who cut them with a plastic cut card. “Good luck,” Jack said. Then he started to deal.

Jack Lightfoot was not your typical card mechanic. Born on the Navajo Indian reservation in New Mexico, he’d been in trouble almost from the time he’d started walking. At seventeen, he’d gone to federal prison for a string of convenience store robberies and spent the next six years doing hard time. The prison was filled with gangs. Jack had gravitated to a Mexican gang and hung out in their cell block. The Mexicans were heavy gamblers and often played cards all day long. They liked different games—seven-card stud, Omaha, razzle-dazzle, Texas hold ’em. Each game had its subtleties, but the game Jack fell in love with was blackjack. And whenever it was Jack’s turn to deal, blackjack was the game he chose. Dealing blackjack gave Jack an edge over the other players. He’d worked it out and figured it was slightly less than 2 percent. It was offset by the fact that if he lost a round, he had to pay off the other players, and that could be devastating to his bankroll. But if he won, the other players had to pay him. Blackjack was the game with the greatest risk but also the greatest reward. One night, Jack had lain on his cot, thinking. He’d seen a lot of cheating among the Mexicans. They marked cards with shoe polish or palmed out a pair before a hand began. It occurred to him that if he was going to cheat, wouldn’t blackjack be the game to do it in? He thought about it for months. The Mexicans were suspicious guys, and manipulating the cards was out of the question. But instead of manipulating the cards, why not manipulate the other players into making bad decisions? Guys did it in poker all the time. It was called bluffing. Why not blackjack? One night, one of the Mexicans gave Jack a magic mushroom. Jack ate it, then went to bed. When he woke up a few hours later, he was screaming, his body temperature a hundred and six. While Jack was strapped to a bed in the prison infirmary for two days, his brain turned itself inside out. When he finally came out of it, a single thought filled his head. With the turn of a single card, he could change the odds at blackjack. With the turn of a single card, he could force other players into making bad decisions. With the turn of a single card, he could master a game that had no masters. One card, that was all it took. And all Jack had to do was turn it over. He howled so hard, they kept him strapped to the bed for an extra day.

Nigel Moon’s stack of chips soon resembled a small castle. A crowd of gaping tourists had assembled behind the table to watch the carnage. The Brit cast a disparaging look over his shoulder, like he was pissed off by all the attention. “You’ve got groupies,” Candy said. Moon’s eyes danced behind his sour expression. He sipped his martini, trying to act nonchalant. Candy stared at him dreamily. “Congratulations, sir,” Jack said, his lines committed to memory. “You just broke the house record.” Moon fished the olive out of his martini glass. “And what record is that, my good man?” “No one has ever won eighty-four hands before,” Jack informed him. The Brit sat up stiffly, basking in the moment. “Is that how many I’ve won?” “Eighty-four, yes, sir.” “And no one’s ever done that before.” “Not in a row, no, sir.” “So I’m the champ?” “Yes, sir, you’re the champ.” Moon snapped his fingers, and a cocktail waitress came scurrying over. “Drinks for everyone,” he said benevolently. The crowd gave him a round of applause. Candy brought her mouth up to Moon’s ear and whispered something dirty. Moon’s eyes danced with possibilities. Jack gathered up the cards. He’d dealt winning hands to players before, and the transformation was always fun to watch. Weak men turned brave, the shy outspoken. It changed them, and it changed how others saw them. And all because of the turn of a single card. “A question,” Moon said. Jack waited expectantly. “Is there a limit on tipping?” “Sir?” “I know there’s a limit on betting,” Moon said. “Is there a limit on tipping?” “Not that I’m aware of,” Jack said. Moon shoved half his winnings Jack’s way. Standing, he leaned over the table and breathed his martini onto Jack’s face. “Do something wicked tonight. On me.” “Yes, sir,” Jack replied. *  *  * Jack’s shift ended at midnight. He changed out of his dealer’s clothes into jeans and a sports shirt and drifted outside through the back door. Standing in the parking lot were his other dealer buddies. They were planning an excursion to the Cheetah in Fort Lauderdale to gape at naked college girls. Jack told them he had plans and begged off. His buddies got into their cars and left. Jack lit a cigarette. A full moon had cast a creamy patina across the macadam. The casino backed onto a lake, and across its surface floated a dozen pairs of greenish eyes. The Micanopy reservation was in the Everglades, and alligators were always hanging around, eyeing you like a meal. He smoked his cigarette down to a stub while thinking about the raggle. She had melted when Moon had started winning, and Jack had watched her leave the casino draped to his side. Was she falling for him? He sure hoped not. A black limo pulled into the lot. Behind the wheel sat Rico’s driver, a spooky Cuban guy named Splinters. The limo pulled up and the back door popped open. Rico Blanco sat in back, jabbering on his cell phone. Jack got in. “South Beach,” Rico told his driver. The limo glided out of the lot. Rico was a New Yorker and liked to boast that he was the only member of John Gotti’s crime family currently not in jail. Tonight he wore a designer tux with a red bow tie and looked like a million bucks. Rico put his hand over the phone’s mouthpiece. “I hear you were a star tonight.” “Who told you that?” “Candy,” Rico said. “She called me a little while ago.” “It went great.” “Let me ask you something. You think she’s in love with him?” Jack nodded. “Damn hookers,” Rico said. “They smell money, their brains melt. Every time I use one, know what I tell them?” Jack had no idea what Rico told them. But Rico had a line for everybody, and if you hung around him long enough, you got to hear it. Jack opened the minibar and helped himself to a beer. “No, what do you tell them?” “I tell them, honey, you know it’s time to quit the business when you start coming with the customers. Think any of them listen?” “No,” Jack said. “Fucking-a they don’t,” Rico said. Taking his hand away from the mouthpiece, he said, “Yeah, Victor, I’m still here. No, Victor, I’m not driving while I’m talking on the phone; I’ve got someone to drive for me.” Rico looked at Jack and rolled his eyes. Victor was the senior partner in the operation and often treated Rico like a kid. “Yeah, Victor. I’ll see you tomorrow. Nine sharp. Brunch at the Breakers. Bye.” He killed the power. “So where were we?” “Hookers,” Jack said. “Speaking of which, I’ve got some girls lined up you’re going to love.” “They like Indians?” “They like who I tell them to like,” Rico said. He took a Heineken out of a holder and clinked it against Jack’s bottle. “To the best blackjack cheat in the world.” Only one road led back to civilization, and it was long and very dark. The limo jumped into the air as it hit a bump in the road, then bounced hard on the macadam. “What the hell you doing?” Rico yelled. “Sorry,” Splinters said, not sounding sorry at all. Jack looked at his shirt. Beer had jumped out of the bottle and soaked it. He swore under his breath. Rico laughed like it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. “Jack’s all wet,” Rico said with mock indignation. “Apologize.” “Sorry,” Splinters said. Jack swallowed hard. “No problem.” “You got a towel up there?” Rico said. “I got some on me, too, for Christ’s sake.” A handkerchief flew into the backseat. Rico plucked it out of the air and balled it up. He pressed it against the wet spot on his knee, then leaned forward and pressed the handkerchief against Jack’s shirt. Jack pulled back, and Rico’s eyes grew wide. Then his hand turned into a rock-hard fist. “You fucking bastard!” Rico roared.

At seven the next morning, Chief Running Bear, leader of the Micanopy nation, sat in his double-wide trailer a hundred yards behind the casino, staring at a pair of identical TV sets. Two hours earlier, a phone call had awoken him from a deep sleep, and now he rubbed his eyes tiredly while staring at the dueling images. On one TV, a casino surveillance film showed an employee named Jack Lightfoot dealing blackjack. A player at Lightfoot’s table had won eighty-four hands in a row, a feat that Running Bear knew was statistically impossible. The player had never touched the cards, ruling out sleight of hand. There was only one logical explanation: Lightfoot had rigged the game. On the other TV, a second surveillance film showed Lightfoot standing in the casino parking lot, smoking a cigarette. Before running the tapes, Running Bear had gone through Lightfoot’s personnel file. He was a Navajo and had come to work for the Micanopys with a glowing reference from Bill Higgins, another Navajo, who happened to run the Nevada Gaming Control Board. Indians did not lie to other Indians, and Running Bear could remember Higgins’s words as if it were yesterday. “Jack won’t let you down,” Higgins had said. Running Bear shook his head. Jack Lightfoot had let him down. He was a cheat, and a damn good one. Bill Higgins had once bragged to Running Bear that he knew every goddamned cheater in the country. So why hadn’t he known about this one? On the second TV a stretch limo appeared. Running Bear leaned forward to stare. The passenger door opened. Sitting in back was an Italian with wavy hair and a mustache. Running Bear found most white men identical, their faces as bland as pudding. Italians were particularly annoying. The men all wore mustaches, or snot-catchers as Indians called them. This one looked like a gangster. Running Bear stopped the tapes. Sipping his coffee, he listened to the air conditioner outside his window. His casino had been ripped off by a dealer recommended by the most respected gaming official in the country. And that dealer was working with a mobster. It doesn’t get any worse than this, he thought. The door opened. The casino’s head of security, Harry Smooth Stone, stepped in. He was out of breath. “More problems,” Smooth Stone said. Running Bear pushed himself out of his chair. Thirty years wrestling alligators had put arthritis in every joint in his body, and he grimaced as his bones sang their painful song. Had he disgraced a dead ancestor recently and not realized it? There had to be some reason for this sudden spate of bad luck. They drove Smooth Stone’s Jeep across the casino parking lot. Jumping a concrete median, they went down a narrow dirt road through thick mangroves that led into the heart of the Everglades. For centuries, the Micanopys had lived in harmony with the alligators, panthers, and bears that called this land home, and had been rewarded in ways that few humans could appreciate. Ten minutes later, Smooth Stone pulled into a clearing and parked beside a large pool of water. Running Bear knew the spot well; in the spring, alligators came here to mate and, later, raise their young. A half-dozen tribe members with fishing poles stood by the water’s edge, looking scared. Running Bear got out of the Jeep. The men stepped aside, revealing a body lying facedown in the water. It was a man, and he’d been shot once in the head. His left forearm had been chewed off, as had both his feet. Someone had hooked him by the collar. Running Bear said, “Flip him over.” The men obeyed. The dead man was covered with mud, and one of the men filled a bucket out of the lake and dumped it on his face. Running Bear knelt down, just to be sure.

Back in his trailer, Running Bear thumbed through the stack of business cards he kept in his desk. He had decided to dump Jack Lightfoot’s body in nearby Broward County—the men in the limo had been white, so let white men deal with the crime—and Smooth Stone was on the phone making arrangements. “Done,” his head of security said, hanging up. Running Bear found the card he was looking for and handed it to Smooth Stone. “Call this guy and hire him. Tell him everything, except our finding the body.” Smooth Stone stared at the card in his hand. Grift Sense International Gaming Consultant Tony Valentine, President (727) 591-5115 “He catches people who cheat casinos,” Running Bear explained. “You think he can help us?” Running Bear heard the suspicion in Smooth Stone’s voice. Bringing in an outsider was a risk, but it was a chance he had to take. Jack Lightfoot had cheated them. If word got out that his dealers were crooked, their business would dry up overnight. The casino was the reservation’s main revenue source: It paid for health care, education, and a three-thousand-dollar monthly stipend to every adult. If it fell, so did his people. “I heard him lecture at a gambling seminar,” Running Bear said. “Any good?” Running Bear nodded. He’d learned more about cheating listening to Tony Valentine for a few hours than he’d learned running a casino for ten years. “The best,” he said.

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Table of Contents

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Interviews & Essays

Interview with James Swain, author of Sucker Bet (on-sale: April 15, 2003):
Question:Your hero, Tony Valentine, lives and works in Florida, as you do. He's an expert in the gambling world, as you are. He's also an ex-cop, which you're not. In what other ways is Tony most like and unlike James Swain?
James Swain:
I’m often asked if Valentine is my alter ego, which he is not! Valentine doesn’t gamble (I do), doesn’t drink (I enjoy an occasional beer), and thinks hustlers are slime (I have several good friends who are hustlers). The one thing I share with my main character is a passion for understanding how people are cheated, and exposing it.
Q:Where did this passion come from?
I was raised in a household where lying and cheating were not tolerated. Having the amount of knowledge I do about this subject, I realized I’d be doing people a favor by exposing hustlers’ methods.
Q:One thing about Tony that's a welcome change from a lot of male detective heroes is that he's believably his age. Not just mentally, but physically. Tony is capable of heroics, but his body pays a price. How were you able to get inside not only the head but the body of an older character so convincingly?
When I first started writing these books, Valentine was a minor character whom I based upon several older gentlemen I knew (including my father). He had his own voice, and I simply wrote down his feelings and thoughts. It was my wife’s idea that he should be my main character.
Q:So she gets 50% of your earnings?
No, she gets 100%!
The real motivation behind Valentinecomes from a comment my father made a few years ago. I asked my dad how he liked being retired, and he said, “I don’t count anymore.” In a way, Valentine is always trying to prove that he still does count, even though he often pays a price.
Q:Are the various scams in your books actual scams that people have used? How do you find out about them? And have you ever gotten into trouble for publicly exposing them, either from cops or criminals?
The scams in my books are real, and used by hustlers and cross roaders throughout the world. I became interested in the world of cheaters in 1987, when I saw a man switch a hand at blackjack at the Golden Nugget casino in Las Vegas. After that, I started collecting scams, and through my contacts in the magic world, meeting hustlers in the hopes that they would educate me.
So far, no one has taken exception to my exposing their methods. Magicians like to say that the best way to hide something is to put it into print. I think this also applies to cheating.
Q:What's a crossroader, and how does a crossroader differ from a hustler?
A crossroader is a person who specializes in ripping off casinos. The expression comes from the Old West practice of cheating at saloons that were located at the crossroads of one-horse towns.

Q:What does it take to be a successful con man, besides good luck? Who is the most successful con man you've personally known?
I think I could write a book answering your question. But here’s a short version.
Luck rarely comes into a play with a con. Being a con man requires a thorough understanding of human nature and human greed. W. C. Fields’s expression “You can’t cheat an honest man” is at the core of any good con. And a con man must be willing to spend long hours (sometimes weeks or even months) to execute a successful con. Planning is everything.
The most successful con man I’ve ever met must remain anonymous. He got out of the rackets and now runs a successful business.
Q:Has organized crime been eradicated from the world of casino gambling in the United States, as the casinos like to claim?
Yes. The mob no longer has any ties to casino gambling in this country.
Q:How can someone like me, with no expertise in gambling, much less cons, be sure that I'm not getting ripped off in a casino? Or should I resign myself to losing a set amount and just have a good time?
Never go into a casino expecting to lose! Or accept that you might be cheated. Here’s how to protect yourself on both fronts.
First, gamble in a casino where there is state regulation. Nevada, New Jersey, and other states with legal casinos provide excellent safeguards for players, and make sure the games are legitimate. Try to avoid casinos that are not regulated by states, such as cruises to nowhere, and out-of-the-way Indian casinos.
Second, learn the games before you go. You can win—especially at blackjack and craps—but you need to have a thorough understanding of the rules and percentages before you play.
Q:When you walk into a casino, what games do you play? Do you usually exit a winner? Have you been banned from any casinos?
My favorite game is blackjack (I haven’t had a losing session in many years). I was banned from a casino in Puerto Rico when I asked the dealer to count the cards in a blackjack shoe. The casino was cheating (the shoe was short), and I was shown the door.
Q:Tony has some strong criticisms to make about the Micanopy Indian Reservation Casino in Sucker Bet—and about reservation casinos in general. Do you agree with him? Are reservation casinos generally more susceptible to cheating by outsiders, or to inside scams, than, say, casinos in Las Vegas or Atlantic City?
JS:There are over three hundred Indian reservation casinos in the United States, and their regulation leaves something to be desired. While the big Indian Casinos, such as Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, do give players a fair shake, many of the smaller ones do not. Most of the cheating at these smaller casinos involves the house ripping off the players. This rarely happens in Las Vegas or Atlantic City.
Q:At one point, Tony mentions a New Jersey Gaming Commission report from some years ago that presented evidence of rigged or crooked high-profile sporting events, including an NFL playoff game and a semifinal match at Wimbledon. Does this report actually exist?
This report does not exist. However, both of those fixes did happen. Sports rigging is as common as poker cheating.
Q:How do you rig something like a playoff game, where millions of people are watching?
There are, unfortunately, a lot of ways to rig a football game. First, you need a player who is susceptible to being bribed. If the player is a kicker, then you pay him to miss a field goal (or two). If the player is a receiver, you pay him to drop a few passes. This is why the NFL prohibits its players from associating with gamblers. It’s a good rule.
Q:It struck me as I was reading Sucker Bet that good writing can be a lot like running a scam. Of course, writers aren't usually trying to rip off their readers like con artists do, but don't they use similar techniques to hook their “prey” and reel them in? Did your knowledge of scams, and especially scams involving card handling, teach you any tricks as a writer?
JS:My knowledge of scams has certainly helped me understand human nature and the criminal mind. It has also helped me tremendously when it comes to plotting my books. Good scams are entertaining to the people that are being ripped off. The same is true of a good book.
Q:I believe you originally became interested in card handling as a boy fascinated with magic tricks. How did a boyhood interest in magic lead you into the world of gambling and con artists?
The world of card magic and gambling are parallel; many of the top hustlers are also terrific card magicians. Over the years, I brushed elbows with many hustlers and incorporated their techniques into my own performances.
Q:Recently in the news was a story about a computer programmer who used his cyber skills to score a $3 million payoff in the Breeders' Cup. How has the advent of online gambling impacted the world of scammers . . . and casual gamblers?
In my opinion, online gambling is the worst idea in recent memory. Online Web sites routinely scam their customers by not paying off winnings. And hackers routinely scam legitimate sites. But the biggest problem is the number of kids who are becoming addicted to gambling through these sites. This is one area of gambling that I am adamantly opposed to.
Q:The epigraph of the novel, “It's morally wrong to allow suckers to keep their money,” brings to mind W. C. Fields's famous admonition to “never give a sucker an even break.” On the surface these statements make us smile, but don't they reflect a serious moral philosophy . . . albeit one most “straight” citizens probably wouldn't agree with? I mean, it seems as though a lot of con artists really do believe they are ethically entitled to whatever they can get away with.
You are one hundred percent correct. Con artists and hustlers do believe they are entitled to whatever they can steal. They also believe that everyone cheats in one way or another. And, if you’re one of those rare individuals who doesn’t cheat, then you’re a sucker, and deserve whatever happens to you.
Q:One of my favorite characters in Sucker Bet isn't even human—at least, I don't think he's human. I certainly hope he's not! I'm talking about the amazing Mr. Beauregard, the circus sideshow chimpanzee. Please don't tell me that you based this evolutionary marvel on an actual chimp . . . or I'll know you're trying to con me!
JS:Many years ago, when I was doing magic professionally, I shared a stage with Mr. Jiggs, the world’s smartest chimpanzee. Mr. Jiggs was astonishing; he wore a tuxedo (and roller skates), played several musical instruments, and did sign language with his owner. When I started writing Sucker Bet, I knew he would be a character.
Q:Everywhere you look in Sucker Bet, there are scams and lies unfolding, whether in the casinos or in the lives and relationships of the characters. No one is exactly what they pretend to be, whether they are aware of it or not. Tony is more aware than most when it comes to both self-deceptions and the deceptions of others. This gives him an advantage when it comes to catching bad guys, but it seems to cost him something as well, especially in his personal life.
JS:If I were asked to explain the “theme” of my books, I would probably use this question! Perhaps it has to do with my background as a magician, but I see most people and situations as illusions, with nothing being as it appears to be. It is Valentine’s great gift that he can see through these illusions. But this gift also enacts a terrible price, and puts him out of sync with the rest of the world.
Q:Any movie possibilities for Tony? I know he's not Italian, but for some reason Brian Dennehy springs to mind in the role . . .
Grift Sense was optioned by Hyperion Studios last May, and it appears that Tony Valentine will become the basis for a TV series. A number of terrific actors have been mentioned to play the lead, including Mr. Dennehy.
Q:What's next for Tony Valentine . . . and James Swain?
I am currently working on the fourth Tony Valentine book, Candy Store. The story takes place between 1978-1982, when legalized gambling first came to Atlantic City. The story revolves around a serial killer who preys on prostitutes in the casinos, as well as a major scam. It will be published in 2004.
Q:Fascinating—isn't that the same time frame as Louis Malle's great movie, Atlantic City? And I assume this means we'll be seeing a younger Tony, who is still a police officer . . . .
JS:Yes to both questions. Candy Store is filled with scams (all of them true), yet is very much a crime book. Writing about Tony Valentine as a cop is proving to be an extremely enjoyable experience.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2012

    Gambling exposed

    Great incite into the world of gambling and all its corruption- good characters and plot twists- will read more in this series

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2004

    not easy to accomplish

    It is hard to believe how unremitingly bad this book is. The author gets it all wrong from the start with cartoonish characters, a thin plot and one silly situation after another. Every minor detail is wrong from the college basketball game having four quarters to the incorrect discussion of blackjack - hard to believe with the ease of researching over the webt. This thrown together book must not have had an editor. The injected quirkiness always rings falsely and makes it clear the author is attempting to rip-off Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiiasen to pick up their fans. A suggest Mr Swain try writing with his own voice as that could not possibly be worse than what he did here.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    sure bet

    On the Micanopy Indian Reservation in the Florida Everglades, Nigel Moon, a former drummer for an English rock band, won eighty-four hands of blackjack in a row. The dealer, Jack Lightfoot, did it on purpose at the instructions of his partner Rico Blanco who intends to run a scam using Moon¿s money. The chief of the tribe Running Bear is watching the security tapes but can¿t see how this scam went down so in desperation he calls in a consultant. Tony Valentine, founder and president of Grift Sense, finds the cheaters who try to rip off the casinos. He has a lot of experience doing that because he used to work as a police officer in Atlantic City when gambling was first legalized there. When he arrives on the reservation he figures out how the scam was run but a quick job soon gets very complicated as he becomes involved in tribunal justice and stopping Rico¿s scam. Along the way, he wrestles alligators, gets shot at and is almost killed by an out-of-control Rico, owing his life to a super intelligent monkey. If this book sounds a bit crazy, that is because it is a typical James Swain gritty yet humorous wild tale that also educates the readers in the ways a con artist can rip off a casino. The protagonist is a sixty-something year old honorable man who always stays true to his principles and values even if it makes him seem rigid to all the lesser mortals. SUCKER BET is a sure bet. Harriet Klausner

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    Posted January 4, 2011

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    Posted November 24, 2008

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    Posted May 14, 2010

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    Posted July 25, 2011

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