Booksellers Will Find Sucker Bet a Sure Bet

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Press kits accompanying advance copies of novels sent to bookstores, reviewers, and journalists generally contain fairly predictable (if interesting) material on an author's background, along with suggested questions for interviewers.

The material so packaged with James Swain's Sucker Bet (Ballantine) has all of that -- and a few well-out-of-the-ordinary extras.

Sucker Bet (the third entry in Florida author Swain's attention-gathering series involving hero Tony Valentine, an investigator who specializes in thwarting casino cheats) also comes with a sheet listing 10 Things Never to Do in a Casino: "1. Never wear red articles of clothing. (Surveillance cameras can see right through them!) … 3. Never touch your bet after the game has started. (The casino will think you're past-posting, and usually pull you into a back room.)"

Swain, born in 1956 on Long Island, New York, comes by such information honestly. He's researched casino cheating and gamblers' scams intensively since 1987, after witnessing a successful blackjack hustle in Las Vegas.

Before that, Swain, an occasional (non-cheating) gambler, worked as a professional magician, specializing in card-handling. "Not to brag," said Swain, interviewed during his current book tour, "but in the world of magic, I'm pretty well-known for my sleight-of-hand."

Now Swain is becoming increasingly well-known in crime-fiction circles. But it took him awhile to see the potential in his casino-scam research.

Swain's road to his current position as an up-and-coming genre prospect has been filled with detours as interesting as his press kit.

He began writing short stories in high school, he said, encouraged by a "terrific" teacher named Kitty Lindsey, who, with her husband, had written many teleplays for such early TV shows as Playhouse 90. Swain recalled, "She gave us probably the best advice that you could give a beginning writer. She would say (of our stories' characters), 'Who are these people? And why should we care about them?'"

Writing supplanted an even earlier passion of young Swain for doing magic. "I saw a man do a sleight-of-hand magic act when I was a kid," he remembered, "and he just floored me; and I got very interested in it. When I turned 12, my folks said, 'Okay, if you really want to learn how to do this, go do it.' And I took lessons. And at the time, there were men in New York who would come to the magic shops, who did phenomenal sleight of hand. They weren't magicians. I was told, well, these guys actually did this in games, okay? So I had very early exposure to cheats. And many of them were nice men; they taught me really terrific sleight-of-hand. And then I kind of put it out of my mind."

Swain, "bound and determined ... to become a writer," went to college at New York University, where he studied with Ralph Ellison and Anatole Broyard.

"Broyard was a great writing teacher," Swain said. "Broyard taught me how to write a sentence, and Broyard taught me how to read a book."

After college, Swain wrote for Times Mirror magazines, then went into ad sales. "The magic helped me with that," he said. "It was a great ice-breaker. You know, you take a client to lunch, and -- make something on the table disappear...."

Eventually, Swain worked as a professional magician, even as he continued to write. "I was trying to publish novels," he said. He finished several book-length thrillers, but none sold.

"And one day my wife said, 'Why don't you write about those casino scams that you keep talking about? Everybody loves them, when you do. And you obviously know a lot of 'em.' … So I said, 'Okay, I will. Good idea.' And this character of Tony Valentine got created."

Valentine, a retired cop who works for casinos as a private consultant, proved an immediate winner with critics. The New York Times Book Review called his debut outing, Grift Sense, "a flashy, funny novel about a cool scam." Kirkus, in a starred review, said, "Swain beats the odds on his very first spin of the wheel." The second Valentine caper, Funny Money, had the L.A. Times' reviewer Dick Lochte saying, "I can't think of a novel I've enjoyed more this year."

In nominating Sucker Bet for the 2003 May/June Book Sense 76, Megan Scott O'Bryan of Scott's Bookstore in Mt. Vernon, Washington, wrote, "When he's hired by a casino in Florida with a problem at its blackjack tables, Tony finds the case exploding around him, dealers end up dead, gators (live) are stuffed in his car, and a ukulele-playing primate with a really bad temper keeps Tony on his toes."

For Sucker Bet, his first Valentine book for Ballantine, Swain is doing an extensive tour. At some stores, he's appearing with fellow-Florida resident Michael Connelly (Lost Light, Little, Brown); the two are mutual admirers.

And those who attend James Swain's book events are in for an added treat. The prestidigitator-author arrives with a deck of cards, ready to demonstrate the scams he writes about -- including the new book's con of choice, a house dealer's hustle called "the Big Rock / Little Rock."

"The actual manipulation is very slight," Swain revealed. "It's just a matter of turning over one card instead of another.... But if a dealer starts to do that whenever he wants to beat you, you have no chance; it just will kill you." --Tom Nolan