REPEAT UNTIL RICH:A Professional Card Counter's Chronicle of the Blackjack Wars, by Josh Axelrad. Penguin Press, 262 pp., $25.95.
Here's a memoir about blackjack card counting by an author who says that "math has never been a strong suit" and "I didn't know how to write a book." The math, it turns out, isn't hard, as Josh Axelrad reveals in "Repeat Until Rich: A Professional Card Counter's Chronicle of the Blackjack Wars." And the writing's not at all bad.
In 1999, at age 23, Axelrad finds himself adrift in an ill-defined job at Swiss Bank Corp. By chance, he meets Garry Knowles, who played with the MIT blackjack team and now offers the author a quick tutorial on how counting cards and collaborative play can give you an edge against the house.
Counting dates mainly from Edward O. Thorp's 1962 book, "Beat the Dealer." A math genius at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Thorp took his theories on probability to Las Vegas and won. Team play in blackjack got started in the late 1970s, which is when the MIT group emerged.
After many hours practicing and studying Thorp's book, Axelrad joins a team run by a retired Wall Street millionaire ("identities are veiled").
He wisely chooses to focus not on hands of blackjack but on his own evolution, from sweaty newbie to swaggering cowboy, and on the various sorts of "heat," or security pressure, casinos apply to thwart card counters. It's more cat and mouse than the "wars" of the subtitle, and often funny as Axelrad mixes with a gambling cast of "fraternity and jock types. Lost souls. Investment-banking scum. Money sluts."
He catches fire at the tables, winning $18,000 in 10 minutes, about $700,000 for himself and his team during five years. In 2001 his income is more than $120,000. Then the 9/11 attacks put a crimp in a "business model dependent on carrying large amounts of cash through airport security constantly," he writes.
Axelrad's annual income declines, as does his interest in the game. His thoughts turn to writing about the experience, almost in spite of himself: "The only impediments I was aware of were lack of talent, absence of experience, stunted vocabulary, short attention span." The other impediment that arises after he quits blackjack is his addiction to online poker, which eventually costs him more than $50,000.
I wish Axelrad didn't protest about his lack of writing ability. The self-deprecation made me reconsider passages I'd marked as noteworthy. In one, he dreams of a $200,000 payday so he can "buy a hot-air balloon and paint genitals on it, then float around Salt Lake City perturbing the Mormons." It's funny, until you think about it too hard.
Yet he also can just nail an image, like this detail about a pit boss: "He was a stocky and gentle-faced man with a mouth about the size of a Skittle." When he isn't trying too hard, he's a natural storyteller, and he lived through a story worth telling.