There's a 'Sucker' born every minute

It is often said that first impressions last a lifetime. At first glance, magician and author James Swain seems like your average honest, well-to-do fellow. Yet, if you give him a deck of cards and play a few hands with him, you will quickly realize that amidst the friendly persona is a pair of dexterous hands, a quick eye and a masterful mind.

Courtesy of Random House

The list of tricks up Swain’s sleeve seems endless: sleight of hand, steering, Kentucky setups, preferential shuffling. As a child, he was fascinated with the world of magic and began practicing tricks, specifically in the area of sleight of hand. Later on, Swain wrote three books on card trickery and created a set of instructional sleight of hand videos that are now a must-see for casino security teams.

Yet, in addition to his repute as a sleight of hand artist, Swain became fascinated with the world of gambling and casino crimes. This fascination began in 1987, when Swain saw a man succeed in scamming a blackjack game at The Golden Nugget casino in Las Vegas. Later, when Swain was discussing the minor scam with the Nugget’s resident magician, Mike Skinner, Skinner proceeded to recount an incident in which the casino had lost $175,000 to a group of scammers. Upon hearing this story, Swain began researching the shady world of casino crimes.

“”These crimes are very, very interesting to me because they’re invisible,”” Swain said.

Through his contacts in the magic world, Swain met and befriended ex-hustlers, gamblers, cops and casino security officers in an effort to understand this realm of cheating. He gradually accumulated a collection of scams, and in 1997, his wife suggested that he put these stories to print.

“”It’s because of something a cheater said to me,”” Swain said. “”We went into the MGM Grand, and he said, ‘They have a thousand cameras. They have 30 full-time surveillance people. They have a multi-million dollar way of trying to catch cheaters. And they’re afraid of one thing — the mind. Because the mind constantly outwits them. ‘And I said, ‘This would be great fodder for books.'””

This fodder led to the creation of the character Tony Valentine, a retired Atlantic City cop who has keen instincts, a sharp eye and a “”grift-sense,”” or the ability to spot a scam. Based on an ex-hustler whom Swain had met, Valentine’s character chases after casino scammers and finds the flaws that allowed the casino to be scammed.

“”Grift Sense”” and “”Funny Money,”” were Swain’s widely acclaimed first two novels. His third book, “”Sucker Bet,”” was released this year, which puts Valentine into yet another situation of scamming and intrigue. This time, two con men succeed in rigging a blackjack game at an Indian reservation casino as well as a game show, and Valentine is hired to solve the scam. His search to unravel the scheme leads him to a ruthless gangster, his partner-in-crime and a prostitute. Their plans involve conning Nigel Moon, a very wealthy retired musician.

All of the scams Swain describes have actually been used before by ex-hustlers. Through his contact with ex-con men, he was able to learn these scams and incorporate them in his works. Swain provides insight into the relationships between cross-roaders, or people who specialize in scamming casinos, and grift-catchers, who specialize in stopping them.

Swain’s prose, quirky but believable characters, intricate plots and dark humor allow his novels to stand out against other series in the mystery genre. He convincingly creates worlds of intrigue and illusions, where no one is who he appears to be. Moreover, his insider knowledge of gambling and casino cheating lend a very realistic quality to the books. Even a person who has no experience in gambling can easily understand his plots.

“”My books are steeped in truth,”” Swain said. “”I realized a lot of books that I read where there was gambling and cheating in it was not really what was going on. I actually simplified my style so that people who didn’t gamble could understand the books.””

Since his youth, Swain had always wanted to be a writer, in addition to his aspirations to become a magician. Raised in a home where cheating was not tolerated, he realized that he could help people by exposing hustlers’ methods. With his books, Swain is not working to promote cheating in any form, but rather to “”show that the risk outweighs the reward.””

According to Swain, gambling has become a sort of epidemic. There are now 38 states with legalized casinos and over 300 Indian reservation casinos, as well as casinos on cruise ships and in hotels. Cheating is just as rampant as the growth of gambling itself. Although Swain does occasionally gamble, he does not approve of the casinos’ ability to exploit its gamers.

“”Gambling is something that preys on human weakness,”” Swain said. “”I’m really against it.””

Swain also agrees that technology has significantly impacted the world of gambling. He disapproves of online gambling, since many sites do not actually pay out winnings and since hackers can always scam legitimate sites. Swain also mentions that improved technology has aided casinos in their surveillance systems.

“”[Technology’s] changed the ability to track people, and the casinos are now much, much more sophisticated,”” Swain said. “”Actually, the technology that is being used [in casinos] is now being used by the government to track terrorists. I like to point out to people that if the government had been using the technology that the casinos had at our borders, 9/11 would not have happened.””

Swain is currently working on his fourth Tony Valentine book, “”Candy Store,”” which will be published in 2004. The novel will be set in 1978-1982, and the story will involve a major scam and a serial killer that preys on prostitutes.

“”Writing about Tony Valentine as a cop is proving to be an extremely enjoyable experience,”” Swain said.